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For newbies or pros, cooking with charcoal can be a gas

Like most people, Carlotta Pini began her grilling days with propane.

It was the easiest way to get started. But as soon as she got a taste and feel for using charcoal, there was no going back.

Pini, the Rindge Town Administrator, also competes in amateur barbecuing and smoking competitions with her husband, but has some tips for a beginner who wants to use charcoal.

Some people may be intimidated by charcoal, but Pini says not to be.

“Cooking on charcoal isn’t that hard and it doesn’t take that much more time,” she says.

Pini has a system when cooking for her family in the summer months. The first step is to get the charcoal going. She uses a chimney — a metal tube with a handle — which she places on the bottom rack of her grill. Filling the chimney with charcoal and using twists of newspaper at the bottom is how she gets it lit. Pini advises people not to use lighter fluid, which can affect the taste.

While the charcoal is heating up, Pini will prepare her meat and vegetables.

Within 10 to 15 minutes, the charcoal should be glowing and ready to dump on to the bottom rack of the grill. Depending on what is on the menu and how many people will be eating, Pini will add some extra charcoal to make sure there is enough to get through the cooking process.

“It’s not an exact science. You kind of have to develop a feel for it,” Pini says.

Making sure the vents are open, to ensure a steady flow of air is crucial. But different meats require different amounts of air flow. Leave the vents wide open for a steak, but only part way for chicken. Again, it is all about developing a feel for it.

“The key is to have the top vents open and have the smoke moving,” says Pini. “You can really use your grill like an oven or use it like a stove top.”

Since every meat and vegetable require a different amount of time, Pini suggests cooking things in stages. Put the longer timed items, like some meats, on first and then add things like vegetables.

You can also strategically place food on the grill, depending on how much heat it needs from the charcoal.

While it may take some time to develop a knack for using a charcoal grill, Pini urges people to stick with it.

“If something doesn’t work out, you adjust for the next time,” she says. “Grilling should be fun. It should be, for a couple or family, to spend time together outside in the summer time.”

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