How To Grill With Binchotan (Japanese Charcoal)
Chef Sam Lawrence, chef de cuisine of Estela, demonstrates the uses and benefits of cooking with binchotan charcoal. “The reason why I started using binchotan is because it’s a small kitchen, a tiny space, we wanted to try to develop the flavor you’d get if you’re cooking outside and grilling and grilling on a larger scale, which is not possible in New York City.”
What is White Charcoal? What makes this charcoal so sought after?
‘Binchotan’ means charcoal in Japanese. There is a wide variety of binchotan that is used in various settings. White binchotan specifically refers to an artisanal type of Japanese charcoal popularly used for high end grilling and culinary uses. It is frequently advertised by Japanese restaurants that they use white binchotan, because of the level of quality associated with this grilling material. “It’s able to conduct such a heat and be consistent in a really small space, particularly with the ceramic grill, it holds heat so well that for us, cooking for long services and being able to conduct heat quickly this is a really worthwhile and consistent process for us,” shares Chef Lawrence.
Characteristics of White Charcoal
- Smokeless and scentless
- 100% natural hardwood – No chemical additives like lighter fluid
- Expertly and patiently crafted over ten days of tending to the charcoal by constantly cooling, heating, and refining. This long process carbonizes the structure of the wood, and leaves countless microscopic cavities that contribute to the many uses of this special charcoal.
- Multiple usages – grilling, filtering water, increase quality of rice, fertilizer
Preparing White Charcoal
As tested by the Charcoal Standard Specification Test by the Agricultural Ministry of Japan, although white charcoal takes more time to ignite, its thermal conductivity is far superior to ordinary black charcoal. Chef Lawrence explains, “for example we cook turbot on the grill, we want to crisp that skin in a quick and efficient way and to be smokey but still have the fish be just, just cooked — this kind of precise cooking you’re not able to do if the charcoal isn’t as hot.”
- Place charcoal over direct flame using a charcoal starter pan or charcoal chimney.
- Periodically fan to feed oxygen to the charcoal and heat hotter.
- Keep over direct flame until the charcoal glows bright red.
- Use metal tongs to place charcoal into the konro grill.
How to Grill Maitake Mushrooms
“It’s such a meaty product, when you grill it it honestly feels like a piece of meat. You can get a smokey intense flavor grilling on this [konro and charcoal]… The great thing about this grill is that you can keep one side cooler and the other quite hot. We can rotate cooking the meat and vegetables. It ends up being a delicate way of cooking, while still getting some crisp and charred bits on the outside”
- Season the mushrooms.
- Place on the konro grill.
- Use a pastry brush to lightly oil the mushroom.
- Use a spray bottle to steam the mushroom with salted water while on the grill to keep it moist.
- Fan the grill to feed oxygen to the charcoal. This will make the charcoal glow red and raise the heat.
Grilling Iberico Pork
Chef Lawrence utilizes the benefits of cooking with the white charcoal and lacquers layers of ingredients to create complex flavor profiles.
“We get some char on the outside of the meat first, then move it to the cooler side of the grill. We actually lacquer it using a different mixture of soy sauce, pork fat, fish sauce, garlic oil, and different kinds of technique to try to build a layer of flavor on the outside of the meat. It also helps from keeping the meat from getting dry. It makes it quite rich on the outside layer as well as inside the meat.”
- Place the pork on the hottest area of the konro grill. (Area where the charcoal is glowing red).
- Char the outside of the meat then move the pork to a cooler part of the konro.
- Use a pastry brush to layer on different sauces and ingredients while cooking on the grill to create a lot of crust.
Temperature Control and Smoking Ingredients
How do you utilize this small grill to the fullest extent?
“There’s not a lot of options to get smoke on things in [small] kitchens like this. You can get a consistent smokey profile. You can control the heat for long periods of time. If I were to let the charcoal burn a bit further then break the coals down, I would get a more consistent but warm heat. We would cook things differently on that. As we go through service, we generally have one side that is much more intense. Then the middle part of the grill that is burned down so it is warm, and we could cook middle heat kind of things like vegetables. Then the inner part of konro where there isn’t any charcoal. It would be the resting area or just to warm things through. It’s quite vertisitle to have different kinds of heat over a longer period of time to use and cook differently. It just takes some more thought to do it that way.”
How does white charcoal compare to normal charcoal?
Chef Lawrence demonstrated for us the various ways he is able to utilize the many characteristics of cooking with binchotan. He explains, “If you want to keep an ingredient almost raw but also want to add a smoky profile and just warm it we press the binchotan directly to the ingredient, in this case it’s a raw shrimp. We press a raw shrimp, in this case a red shrimp from Spain that we press the binchotan to and won’t cook at all so the inside has a decadent, creamy texture, but the outside of it is warm and smokey.
So we get the flavor of grilled shrimp with the texture of raw shrimp.” This is due to the Far Infrared Ray (FIR) waves and dry consistent heat emitted from the white binchotan. This wave of energy is absorbed by the surface of the food and prevents the core from heating too abruptly. The only moisture produced while cooking with white binchotan is created when the fat of ingredients fall on the charcoal. The smoke permeates around the ingredients and can create a beautiful smoky flavor.
Thank you chef Sam Lawrence on showing us the various ways you use binchotan.