Cooking Without Power, Using a Charcoal Grill

This post is part of the Home Ec 101 series on emergency preparedness.

Heather says:

Keep a charcoal grill for emergencies, sounds simple enough, but what if you’ve never used one?

A charcoal grill is for outdoor use only.

Got that? Outdoor only. Every time there is a hurricane or ice storm someone hurts themselves or their families by trying to grill in the house. No, inside the garage is not outdoors enough. Without proper ventilation there is a very real possibility of the build up of carbon monoxide. Even during a small scale black out emergency responders are already taxed beyond their normal load. Do not add to their burden.

Lighting a charcoal grill

Off-season a chimney starter can be bought on clearance for only a few dollars, at the start of the season, it may go as high as twenty.

A homemade chimney starter can be made from a #10 can (that’s the large, metal! one coffee or bulk food comes in). Remove the lid from both ends of the can. Use a church key style can opener to punch holes near the bottom of the can. There needs to be several around the bottom to allow adequate airflow.

Place the chimney starter in the bottom of the grill, add loosely crumpled paper (not glossy), cotton dryer lint -make sure it was from a load of towels as polyester fibers won’t improve your meal-, cardboard egg cartons, or cardboard to the bottom and loosely fill the can with charcoal briquettes. Use a long kitchen match or a lighter to light the flammable material through the holes in the bottom of the can.

Now your job is to wait until the initial smokiness passes. When the briquettes first get started they are smokier than when they’ve settled in for the burn. When you pass your hand over the top of the chimney, heat should be radiating. It’s time to dump the chimney and spread the charcoal, depending on your cooking method. Please use tongs or gloves, that can will be hot!

If the food you are grilling requires direct heat – hamburgers, thin steaks, boneless chicken breasts or thighs, or some vegetables, spread the coals evenly over the bottom of the grill. If you’re looking to cook larger cuts of meat or bake bread (yes, this can be done on a grill) you need indirect heat. Push the coals to one side of the grill before cooking.

Wait until all of the coals are uniformly gray or ashy before adding food to the grate. Clean the grate while it’s heating and you’re ready to get started.

Cooking on a charcoal grill.

Don’t worry, you’re not limited to using only foods that sit nicely on a grill. You can use pots and pans on a grill, just as if they were on the stove. Remember though, thin pans are quite difficult to use as hot spots will increase the risk of scorching. Consider investing in a cast iron skillet or dutch oven.  Cast iron pots and pans need to be seasoned before use, but an oven can be used for this purpose, if you have a smooth top range that would be scratched by the cookware and have invested in a quality set of stainless steel cookware. Don’t use your favorite pan for practice.

Try simple foods at first, scrambled eggs, bacon, or grilled sandwiches. As long as there is no emergency, try challenging yourself to see what can be cooked on a grill. Cooking under stress isn’t exactly fun, so try to develop the skills when a mistake just means ordering a pizza.

Don’t forget items like hobo packets – foil packets of onion, ground beef, potatoes and a vegetable can also be made on a grill.

In a true emergency it’s best to try to only use the grill once a day to conserve fuel. Cook as much food as possible in one go and heat water over the remaining coals to use in clean up or for sponge bathing.

Oh and a final tip for the caffeine deprived. Heat water to boiling, remove from the heat, add the coffee grounds to the water and then pour through a filter. You’re welcome.


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  2. Jenny in CG on July 21, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    another great way to cook in an emergency: Hobo stoves and buddy burners.
    We made these in Scouts and in our Emergency Preparedness Class for our homeschool.
    This also needs to be used out doors.

    You need:

    One large can (like for coffee or 106 oz. or #10 can), clean and empty, label removed
    1 tuna fish can, clean and empty, label removed
    card board
    left-over candles or paraffin
    bottle/can opener (what some people call a "church key")
    tin snips (scissors for cutting metal)
    3-4 inches of wire, optional
    an awl or a nail and a hammer, optional

    #1 The Hobo Stove
    Turn the big can over so the opening is on the bottom.
    Using the bottle opener's pointy end, make a series of holes around the *wall part of the can (not the flat end but the side) at the top. These will be vents around your cook surface.
    Now, using the tin snips, cut a door out. This should be about 4"x4", one edge will be on the open edge of the can (now the bottom) so you only have to cut 3 sides. This door is so you can access and control your heat source. Keep the door; you will need it. [optional step- poke holes in the top of the door and the top edge of the door opening. Using the wire, make a hinge for your little door.]
    Now, your hobo stove is ready to cook.

    #2 Buddie Burners – this is your fuel
    Make long strips of cardboard that are as wide as your tuna can is tall.
    Roll the strips up like a cinnamon roll and put it in the tuna can. You want this fairly full but not packed tight.
    Melt the wax and pour over cardboard. Let cool.

    Store your hobo stove with the Buddie burners inside and matches or a lighter in a cool, dry place. It hardly takes any room and would be great in an emergency kit.

    To use:
    Light the buddie burner. When it is going well, slide it through the door of your hobo stove. Set the door part-way covering the opening to control the flame [if you wired your door, use a stick to prop it open part way, adjusting as you need]. {larger opening = more air = hotter flame; open less = less air = lower flame}
    You can cook right on the surface of your hobo stove (bacon, fried eggs, grilled sandwiches, freedom toast, toad-in-the-hole, hamburger patties, etc.) as long as they aren't soupy. You can also use a pan on the surface for cooking more volume or wetter stuff (scrambled eggs, chili, water for sterilizing or for washing, whatever).

    The materials for this can be found free, made and stored for an emergency. I have never accidentally used up my bubbie burners but I have used all my charcoal without realizing it and found myself without it during a black out.

    Hope a few people try this.

  3. Sunny on July 21, 2010 at 12:24 am

    Don 't heat your hot water for coffee while grilling meat, we did that during the hurricanes in 2004 and had turkey flavored coffee . . .

  4. P J @ home decor on July 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    We have a charcoal grill and a propane gas grill. We use them year round. When hurricane Ike hit us a couple of years ago and we lost power for about a week, they sure came in handy. We always keep an extra propane bottle filled and charcoal on hand.

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  6. CJ McD on July 19, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    We've used our camp stoves a few times when power's gone out. And the grill too. Our gas grill has a side burner- essential for brewing that morning coffee while the nieighbors hover for our first cup while we commiserate about our situations.

    • HeatherSolos on July 20, 2010 at 1:35 am

      My gas grill has a pot that can be a steamer or fryer, too. I really haven't used that feature. That said, I need to lay in some propane for the fall.

  7. Tinkerschnitzel on July 19, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    The grill is our favorite cooking utensil. 🙂 Oh, and I own a French press for just such emergencies.

    • HeatherSolos on July 20, 2010 at 1:28 am

      I've been meaning to buy a French press for months. I pick them up and put them down. I don't know why I don't just suck it up and take it to the register. I also love cold brewed coffee, so my waffling is just ridiculous.

  8. tastelikecrazy on July 19, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    I want a house so I can have a grill; I miss grilling. 🙁

    • HeatherSolos on July 20, 2010 at 1:32 am

      I'm not saying to break your apartment codes, but I'd have at least a small grill somewhere on the premises for emergency use. Provided you use reasonable precautions, don't use it in public walkways or set fire to the lawn, a landlord would understand if you were without power for an extended period of time. Unless of course the complex has permanent grills on the premises.

      • Kenneth Andrews on July 20, 2010 at 9:21 pm

        Definitely be careful though, our apartment complex got extremely STRICT a year ago and now if they find a grill they remove it, charge you for removal, and charge a fee for breaking the lease. Made me sad as I am a big time griller!

        • Heather on July 20, 2010 at 9:36 pm

          Right, don’t leave it on your patio, store it (completely, completely completely) cool in one of those plastic bins. Or as an option, I’ve seen single use grills at my grocery store lately that might be useful for an emergency.
          By no means am I suggesting she blatantly defy her landlord and thumb her nose at him. I just mean have one accessible for emergency use only.

          • Sunshine on May 3, 2011 at 7:49 am

            Now we know who the sniebsle one is here. Great post!

  9. Jen on July 19, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    I just got my first charcoal grill ever and this one not only has the benefit of charcoal, but it lights as a gas grill would with just a push of a button from a little propane tank…best of both worlds. 🙂

    • HeatherSolos on July 20, 2010 at 1:29 am

      That's really, cool, just to be on the safe side, since Murphy and I are such good buddies, I'd still have a back up means of lighting the grill.

  10. Kimba on July 19, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Love this! I've been wanting to buy a charcoal grill for a while now but I never thought of using my cast iron skillet on it. Brilliant!

    • HeatherSolos on July 20, 2010 at 1:27 am

      Oh yeah, and if you have an old baking sheet, perhaps one a bit too warped for cookies, it makes a great flat top.

  11. @AlliWorthington on July 19, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Great idea. I'm printing this now!

    • HeatherSolos on July 19, 2010 at 3:13 pm

      Yeah, it might be a little hard to access with the power already out.

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