This form of grilling is as old as humankind itself.
Back before man invented grill grates or gridirons or even sharpened sticks for making shish kebabs, people cooked foods in the fire. Literally in the fire. Precisely, right in the coals. They laid root vegetables or meat directly on the embers and let the radiant heat of the coals do the cooking. When the food was ready, the ashes were brushed off. Barbecue was born.
I like to call this primitive kind of grilling “caveman style.”
Although I’m willing to grill just about anything in the embers, the most likely candidates are steak (my favorite), large in-the-shell shrimp, and root vegetables—potatoes, yams, beets, turnips—and at least one fruit, the breadfruit, which is the traditional accompaniment to jerk in Jamaica. But any vegetable with a protective skin or husk can be charred in the embers, including whole onions, eggplant (cooked in this fashion, they make killer baba ganoush), corn, and chile and bell peppers.
When you grill vegetables or fruit in the embers, you sacrifice the skin; the blackened exterior is easy to remove with a paring knife, heatproof gloves, or a stiff-bristled brush.
The charring imparts an incomparable smoke essence to the interior. Ember-charred sweet potatoes, for example, have a depth and complexity you’d have never dreamed possible.
One of the virtues of grilling in the embers, especially for fledgling cooks, is that the food not only can, but should be burnt. Vegetables should be cooked until the outside is as black as coal. When you pull a potato or pepper out of the fire, it may still be hot enough to set a paper towel or plate on fire. Use tongs to transfer hot food to an aluminum foil tray or heatproof platter and let them cool slightly. Brush off any excess ash with a stiff-bristled brush.
Of course, to practice this style of grilling, you need a charcoal grill or a campfire. When using the former, I prefer natural lump charcoal.
You can also cook in the embers of a wood fire. The backyard-bound grill jockey can buy hardwood chunks (no pressure-treated lumber, please) locally or online and use a chimney starter to light them, the same way you would charcoal. Better still, if you’re in the outdoors and it’s allowed by local ordinances, build a campfire, letting the blazing logs die down to glowing embers. (Please extinguish it responsibly.)
Your fireplace hearth is also a splendid place to roast on the embers. It will give you a whole new appreciation for charred foods.
Here are four recipes to get you started.