If You Love Charcoal Grilling, You’ll Love Konro Grills

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a sideview of a konro grill
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

When it comes to grilling, there are often two camps: the propane promoters and the charcoal-inclined. But, to steal the words of Yoda in Return of the Jedi, “There is…another.” 

Enter the Konro grill, a Japanese earthenware offering that uses binchotan (Japanese hardwood charcoal) to cook foods with infrared heat (how cool is that?). 

Aaron Koseba, former head chef of the Michelin-starred restaurant SingleThread in Healdsburg, California, used Konro grills extensively throughout his career. “From Charlie Trotters, where we used one alongside a powerful wood-burning grill, to smaller kitchens with limited space and cooking infrastructure, these grills have given me a creative avenue while cooking with fire,” he says. But Konro grills aren’t just the purview of chefs and professional cooks; you too can use a Konro grill to play with fire (safely!) and, in the process, cook up some tasty results. 

So, What Exactly Is a Konro Grill?

Often narrow and rectangular, Japanese Konro grills (a.k.a Hibachi grills, Yakitori grills, or Shichirin grills) originated during the Edo period. Lore has it the name “Shichirin,” which means “seven wheels,” referred to the amount of money (i.e., rin) needed to purchase coal to fuel a grill. 

What makes Konro grills special is that they are made of diatomaceous earth, which is the fossilized remains of ancient algae and plankton. This porous ceramic material evenly distributes heat and insulates incredibly well—paired with binchotan charcoal (which I’ll get into shortly), a Konro grill can cook at high heat (up to 1600°F!) for hours. A carved diatomite Konro will cost big bucks (they’re made by literally carving out the shape of the grill from the material), while a Nerimono-style grill is cheaper and is made from a diatomite paste that’s packed together and baked. Both versions feature vents on the sides of the grill that help increase or decrease the heat (open to increase airflow and heat, close to cut-off airflow and decrease heat), and a rectangular, crosshatch grate is placed on top for cooking food.

konro grill on grass
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

What’s So Special About Binchotan Charcoal?

Binchotan is charcoal traditionally made from Japanese white Ubame oak, and it burns clean, hot, and slow. Koseba explains, “Burning virtually smokeless, binchotan charcoal can impart an intense char without obscuring an ingredient’s delicate flavor with smoke.” It actually cooks via infrared heat, which the Institute of Culinary Education says “ensures food is heated via radiation and not convection, and thus provides far more even, consistent heat across the entire grill.” They add that “the second, and arguably more publicized, aspect of infrared grilling is its efficiency and the temperature of the heat source,” meaning, foods cook fast, so you can get a nice char on the outside of a piece of meat while retaining a tender interior.

This is why Konro grills are often also referred to as Yakitori grills since they excel at cooking small pieces of food threaded onto skewers, i.e., yakitori. Koseba notes, “Traditionally the narrow rectangular shape of the grill was used for skewers. Short or long, the compact area of intense heat allows for a skewer to be cooked evenly from end to end. This is a very desirable feature for cooking over a direct heat source.” 

a closeup of the binchotan in the konro grill as it heats up and turns white
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

Because binchotan consists of whole hardwood pieces, it’s more expensive than lump charcoal; the high-end stuff can run upwards of $300 for a 26.5-pound case. That said, you can find compacted Sumi binchotan briquettes (versus literal small logs of wood) for around $50 for a 23-pound case. While they won’t burn quite as clean (or as long) as the logs, they still burn hot. 

How to Use a Konro Grill

skewers on Konro grill
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

First, go outside. While chefs have access to huge hoods and vents that allow them to use these grills inside, at home it’s safest to set up your grill in the backyard. Next, get the binchotan hot by placing some crumpled newspaper into the bottom of a chimney starter, piling logs on top, and lighting the bottom—the same process as starting a standard charcoal grill. Wait until the binchotan is completely white and hot, about 10 to 15 minutes, before you get started grilling. You can also use a small fan (or, in my case, a wayward magazine) to fan the charcoal and help get it going.

“Once you have the charcoal lit, use tongs to build the burning charcoal in a log cabin fashion inside the grill,” Koseba says. “This will allow for good airflow between the burning pieces.” If you have a larger Konro grill and only want to cook on half of it, pile the logs about two to three pieces thick on the end you’re using. To control the heat, open or close the vents on the sides of the grill—opening them will increase airflow and thus the heat. You’ll know your grill is ready when you actually see the air wavering atop the grate, just like it does on asphalt on a hot day. You can either thread small pieces of meat and vegetables on skewers Yakitori-style or place ingredients directly on the grill grate. Koseba notes that “you can achieve a charbroiled flavor by allowing the fat of a protein to drip onto the coals.”

Cleaning a Konro Grill 

To clean up, let the coals burn out and cool completely in the grill before sweeping them out; you can also use tongs to remove them and place them into a covered, fireproof container. When I cook with my Konro grill at home, I usually remove the hot binchotan with a solid pair of grill tongs and put it in my little Weber Smokey Joe charcoal grill, then place the lid on top (I make sure the vents on the lid and the bottom are shut), which eventually snuffs out the coals. NEVER throw water on the coals in the Konro; this sudden change in heat can actually crack and ruin your grill, which would be terribly sad since they are often pricey.  

FAQs

What is so special about a Konro grill?

Konro grills are made of a ceramic derived from diatomaceous earth, which is porous and retains heat really well. Combined with hardwood binchotan charcoal, they burn hot, clean, and for a longer time. They also use infrared heat to cook food, which ensures a cleaner flavor. 

Can a Konro grill be used indoors? 

No, you should not use a Konro grill indoors since there is a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.


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