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Isn't it about time to take the mystery out of mesquite?

Isn't it about time to take the mystery out of mesquite? What is it about mesquite charcoal that makes so many home and restaurant chefs swear by it? It is better for barbecuing than those old familiar briquets?

Long made and used in the Southwest and Mexico, mesquite charcoal today enjoys a trend of popularity. Many chefs claim that its enticing aroma adds a fidtinct flavor to foods, and that its crackling heat cooks faster than briquets.

But does it really improve the way foods taste? Does it burn hotter than briquests? Can you get by with less? And how does it compare dollar for dollar? We went after the answers in a series of tests.

What is mequite charcoal?

How is it different from briquets?

It's wood from a Southwestern tree converted under specially controlled conditions to charcoal--impractical to do yourself. Don't confuse mesquite charcoal with mesquite wood or with briquets that have mesquite added; each kind of fuel burns differently.

Mesquite charcoal chunks vary in size, from big peices to tiny shards--but as a rule, theyhre lighter weight (by volume) than briquests. As they burn, the fire tends to be hotter where large lumps jut upward; for more event heat, break up big pieces with a hammer or your hands. Also, smaller pieces fall through the firegrate; to prevent this waste, use a wire screen cut to fit the grate like the one pictured above left.

By contrast, charcoal briquets are uniformly shaped squares, usually about 2 inches, compressed from a mixture of wood charcoals, coal, starch to bind, and often a substance to encourage burning. Because of their regular size, they burn more evenly and are easier to arrange for even heat.

Mesquite charcoal typically comes in 6-3/4-, 8-, 15-, 20-, and 40-pound bags and costs rougly 50 to 67 cents a pound. Briquets are sold in 5-, 10-, and 20-pound bags, about 30 to 42 cents a pound.

Does mesquite charcoal burn hotter?

Can you use less?

To compare the heat of the two fuels, we burned more than 1/4 ton of mesquite charcoal and charcoal briquets side by side in identical 22-inch kettle barbecues. We measured heat production and patterns with grill thermometers (see chart at top). We ignited each batch with electric fire starters; they don't affect flavor of food.

Both fuels take about 30 minutes to be ready for cooking. We found that while mesquite charcoal puts out more heat over a slightly longer stretch of time, briquets burn at a more constant rate, especially when you use small amounts. (Some bags of briquets are labeled longburning, and for the most part we found the claim true.)

Pound for pound, mesquite charcoal gets about 100[deg.] to 150[deg.] hotter than briquets for about the first 15 minutes of cooking. Then the difference becomes less dramatic, 50[deg.] to 75[deg.]. Temperatures vary with wind, weather, brands.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that equal volumes of mesquite and briquets produce very similar amounts of heat--and cost virtually the same. But to get an even heat pattern with mesquite charcoal, you need to start with about 5 pounds.

To use the fuels interchangeably, you can simply measure by volume with a paper shopping bag as shown.

Remember that 5 pounds of briquets equals about 5 quarts; 5 pounds of mesquite charcoal yields about 7-1/4 quarts. If you use 5 pounds of mesquite or 8 pounds of briquets, you get a fire that produces about 575[deg.] grill temperature 4 to 5 inches above the coals. This is enough to cook foods that take 30 minutes or less to finish--most steaks, hamburgers, fish--without adding more fuel.

For foods that need more time--leg of lamb, turkey, rolled roasts--add new charcoal to the fire when you spread it out to begin cooking; to maintain the heat indefinitely, add fuel every half-hour. For example, to sustain a 5-pound mesquite charcoal or 8-pound briquet fire, you'll need to add 2-1/2 to 3 cups of fuel at a time.

How can you control heat?

Professional cooks uniformly praise mesquite charcoal's high heat, which allows them to brown foods quickly yet keep them rare and moist. However, you can do the same with either fuel if you start with a hot fire.

Bear in mind that heat depends primarily on two things: the amount of fuel you ise, and the distance between it and the grill. If you have a barbecue with a stationary grill and fire grate, mound the coals higher for more heat, spread them out for less. If it's adjustable, raise or lower grill or grate. Or use the air dampers; open them to produce a hotter fire, close them to cool things down.

Another way to control heat is to mound the charcoals to one side of the grate, then move foods from the hot to the cool sides as needed.

What about flavor?

In blind tastings, we gathered professional barbecue chefs, Sunset home economists, and other guests to sample foods cooked over mesquite charcoal and briquets. Tasters showed considerable awareness of flavor differences, although the differences were more subtle than expected.

The bottom line: if you like foods to retain their identity and to be relatively unaffected by the flavor of grilling, you'll prefer briquets. If you like faintly smoky overtones, then buy mesquite charcoal. Our panel found that delicately flavored fish and poultry took mesquite charcoal's influence more than beef, pork, and veal. For even heat, a nice crackle, and a little extra flavor, try a blend: 2 parts briquets to 1 part mesquite charcoal.

For a look at other fuels and techniques, see "Smoke-barbecuing secrets" on page 72 of the August 1983 Sunset.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Aug 1, 1985
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