Grilling in the Embers: Rediscovering the Art of Caveman-Style Barbecue
This is it—the original grilling method—pioneered nearly 2 million years ago by a human ancestor called Homo erectus. While modern grilling often involves sophisticated equipment and techniques, there’s a primal, simplistic approach that brings us closer to our culinary roots: grilling directly on the embers of glowing coals. This ancient cooking method, often referred to by Steven as “caveman grilling,” offers a unique and flavorful experience that’s worth rediscovering. No grates, no fancy gadgetry—just the simple intersection of food and fire.
It’s as basic as it gets, yet cooking directly in the embers, yields results that are anything but ordinary. It’s similar to direct grilling, but caveman grilling gives you a crustier exterior and more complex flavors—smokiness underscored by the bitterness of char.
It’s a satisfying, even theatrical way to cook, and a great way for you to expand your culinary repertoire as the seasons change. Here’s what you need to know to get started:
Tips for Caveman-Style Barbecue
Choose the right coals: For the best results, build your fire with lump charcoal or wood, not briquettes. The latter are often infused with petroleum products, and put out a lot of ash when burned, some of which winds up on your food. You can build the fire in your charcoal- or wood-burning grill, in a fireplace, a fire pit, or where allowed, in the great outdoors. Let the fire burn down to glowing embers, then spread into an even layer with a grill hoe, garden hoe, or other long-handled implement. (A stick will work if you’re cooking in the wild.)
Select the food: Proteins like thick T-bones or Porterhouse steaks, chicken breasts, lamb chops, and even eggs in the shell are good candidates, as are vegetables like eggplant, bell peppers, whole onions, tomatoes, squash, potatoes, cabbage, yams, and zucchini can be cooked this way. (Note: If a vegetable has thin skin, such as asparagus or snap peas, wrap it in foil before nesting it in the coals.) Fruits, such as oranges and apples, also work well. Feel free to experiment! Use long-handled tongs to turn the food. Total cooking times will depend on the food’s density.
To finish: Once the food is cooked to your liking, remove it from the embers and shake off any charcoal. Brush off any loose ash with a stiff-bristled brush—though we’re pretty sure our caveman ancestors didn’t bother. Scrape off any really burnt skin; don’t try to get it all. A little adds flavor. Then serve with your favorite condiments or sauces. Sometimes, salt and pepper or a simple vinaigrette are all that’s needed.
Cavemanning is a culinary adventure that transcends time and technology, reminding us that the most satisfying flavors can be found in the simplest of methods.
Here are some of our favorite caveman-style recipes.
Lobsters are grilled caveman style — directly on the embers. What I love about this method is that it is so elemental. The shells will char and you get this amazing smoky flavor.
Recipe for T-Bone Steak cooked caveman style (cooked directly on the embers), accompanied with Smashed Potatoes.
This Ember-Roasted salsa has a natural wood-smoked flavor from vegetables that are grilled directly on charcoal. Get that smoky flavor without using a smoker! Serve with grilled tortillas.
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