Backyard barbecuing and grilling is a great American tradition that started with the colonization of the Spanish conquerors of the Caribbean, who were fascinated by the native’s slow cooking of meat over a flame. Eventually, this cooking style came to the American South in the 19th century.
The problem is that charcoal grills are more complicated to set up, use, and clean up compared with gas, pellet, or electric grills.
But while there are different types of grills, the traditional BBQ pitmasters still prefer using charcoal grills that provide that unmatched taste to the meat and food.
If you want to join the army of charcoal grill users, here are some tips which can help you get started and avoid some common rookie mistakes.
Choose the type of charcoal
The first step is to choose the right type of charcoal for your grill. There are several types of charcoal for grilling and barbecuing, including:
Charcoal briquettes – these are inexpensive and readily available in most supermarkets and convenience stores. The briquettes are made of sawdust and other wood which has been compressed. They provide a consistent and long-lasting burn and will cost you about $10 per 16 lbs. which is quite affordable. The downside is that the charcoal briquettes can produce a lot of ash and that they are not as great for producing the delicious charred flavor of traditional barbecued food.
Lump or hardwood charcoal – this type is made of pure wood and is the most suitable choice for the rich, charred flavor that pitmasters are striving for. This type of charcoal burns faster than the briquettes, but at the same time, produces less ash. It is slightly more expensive than the briquettes, and you can expect to pay about $14 for a 15-pound bag.
You can also use a mixture of the two types and get the best of both – the speed and long-burning of the briquettes and the authentic charred flavor of the lump or hardwood charcoal.
Remember to store your charcoal in a dry, sheltered place, like a shed, garage, or other, and if possible, keep it in a lidded container to keep it away from any moisture.
Find out what’s the difference between briquettes and lump charcoal
Measure the coals
While you don’t need to measure the fuel when you are using gas or electric grills, and all you need to do is adjust the temperature settings, with charcoal grills, you will need to learn how to measure the amount of charcoal you will need to set up the grill and then to cook your food through.
In order to avoid the need to stop the cooking to refill the grill, it is a good idea to fill it with enough charcoal that you will need prior to the barbecuing session.
It is essential to keep in mind that cooking different meats and foods require different temperatures, and thus you need to adjust the amount of charcoal you will be using.
Steaks require high temperatures of 450-550 degrees Fahrenheit, boneless chicken parts, fish, and veggies are cooked at medium temperatures of 350-450 degrees Fahrenheit. A whole chicken, a large roast, or pork ribs are best prepared at low temperatures of 250-350 degrees Fahrenheit.
A rule of thumb is that you will need about 100 briquettes or 6 quarts of charcoal for a hot grill, 3-4.5 quarts for a medium-hot grill, and 1.5-2 quarts for a low grill.
How to light the charcoal grill
Here are the most common methods for lighting the charcoal grill:
This is the most common method used for lighting up a charcoal grill. You need to pour the required amount of charcoal into the grill and shape it into a mound and spritz it with the lighter fluid as evenly as possible. Wait for about 20 seconds for the liquid to be absorbed, and throw a lit match in the bowl. Once the coals become white-hot and ashy, you can move them around across the base of the grill to create your cooking zones and then start cooking.
A chimney starter is an easy way to light up a charcoal grill and is also an excellent tool that you can use to measure the coal and briquettes you will be using.
To start the grill with the help of a chimney starter, drop some crumpled newspaper to its bottom, and fill it with the charcoal you will need for the cooking. Light up the newspaper from the bottom and allow the heat to rise, and light the coals. They should become white-hot in about 20 minutes. Then you can pour them into the kettle of the grill and begin cooking.
Electric charcoal starter
Electric charcoal starters are convenient and easy to use. Form the charcoal into a mound in the grill’s kettle and touch the coal with the electric starter. This should light the coal, and it will soon be ready for being spread and used.
Strike-able fire starter
These Strike-able charcoal fire starters work like matches. You only need to strike the fire starter to ignite it and then let it burn down along with the charcoal. Once the coals become white-hot, you can redistribute them as you like.
It is essential to open the vents of the grill before you light the coals. Always keep the bottom vent open and clean. This will ensure that oxygen gets in and that the fire keeps burning.
To tell when the coal is ready for use, you should monitor its color. The goal is for the coal to become white-hot with glowing red.
You can also try detecting when the coal is hot enough by hovering the palm of your hand at about 4 inches above the coal. The desired hotness is reached when you can no longer hover your hand for more than 2-3 seconds.
How to prep the grill grates
The cooking grate of your charcoal grill needs regular maintenance, which includes cleaning and seasoning.
You can perform this task while your coals are lighting up.
Clean the grate by brushing and scraping any debris. Use a paper towel to spread vegetable or canola oil on the grate, which will help prevent the food from cooking.
Then you can go ahead and arrange the burning coals, place the grate back on and close the lid for several minutes.
How to arrange the coals
Arranging the coal is essential for achieving the results you want from the grilling and barbecuing.
In most cases, you will need to set up a two-zone fire with direct and indirect cooking, or in other words, for hot and fast searing and for low and slow cooking.
To do so, push the coal to one side of the grill. This will become your hot zone with direct fire. The one without the coals will be the zone where you will cook via indirect heat.
You can also set up a three-zone cooking zone fire, a bull’s eye, or a ring of fire.
The ring of fire is achieved by pushing the coals to the sides of the grill so that a ring is formed. The outside is the direct heat zone, and the center is the indirect heat cooking zone.
The bulls’ eye fire is the opposite of the ring, where the coals are pushed to the center, and an empty ring is formed on the outer side of the grill.
The food which should be grilled on indirect heat includes large and tough meat cuts, roasts, whole chickens, rib racks, and other foods which take 20 minutes or more to be cooked.
The indirect fire zone can also be used to keep the food warm.
The foods which should be grilled on direct fire are small and tender pieces of meat, steaks, burgers, deboned chicken pieces, sausages, shellfish, fish fillets, sliced veggies, and other foods which cook quickly and which you want to sear like a steak.
Ring of fire
The ring of fire is often used for low and slow barbecuing and smoking.
Related: How to Start a Charcoal Grill Without Lighter Fluid?
How to control the temperature
Setting and maintaining the temperature of the charcoal grill is key for the best results. Unfortunately, it is not as straightforward and easy as setting the temperature of other types of grills.
With charcoal grills, the adjustment and maintenance of the desired temperature depending on several factors. One is how much coal you are using and how high the coal pile is. Another is the coal and direct and indirect fire zone setup. The third is the control of the flow of oxygen through the vents. Fire needs oxygen to burn, which is why charcoal grills have at least one vent on the bottom of the bowl and one on the lid.
Both vents should be open at all times. The key is how much you should open them.
If you want the hottest grill temperatures, you should open all vents all the way.
For medium temperatures of 350 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, you should open the vent on the lid halfway.
For the lowest grill temperatures of 250 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, open the top air vent ¼ of the way.
In almost all cases, you should keep the vent on the bottom open all the way. Always check whether it is clear from obstructions by debris or ash.
If you close the air vents completely, the oxygen flow will stop, and your fire will go out.
Charcoal grilling basic tips
Newbies to charcoal grilling often fall for some rookie mistakes. Here are some tips on how to avoid these common mistakes and to improve your grilling performance and results:
- Avoid the urge to keep flipping the food. If possible, try flipping the food you are cooking only once, just like you would prepare a pan-seared steak. Try to cook the meat, fish, or other food halfway and then flip it to the other side to complete the cooking. This will ensure that you end up with the perfect cook and the most beautiful grill marks on your food.
- Do not press the proteins down. By pressing those beautiful steaks or the juicy burgers down to the grate, you will squeeze out most or all of those delicious juices from them. Plus, this can cause dangerous flare-ups.
- Check the vents. Remember to check the vents for any blockages and open them when lighting the coal. Then, as mentioned before, you can use the vents as part of the temperature control process.
- Try to control the heat. In order to keep the grill hot and the temperature consistent, it is best to leave the lid on. Then you can use the vents to control the heat.
- Try out different recipes, different coal arrangements, and experiment with recipes that are not so traditional, like preparing desserts on a charcoal grill.
How to clean the grill
Keeping the grill clean is essential for its future performance, the taste and safety of the food you prepare, and for the longevity of your grill, and will prevent dangerous flare-ups. You can even invest in a grill cover to protect the grill from the weather elements, dust, and dirt when it is not in use.
Here are the steps for keeping the charcoal grill clean:
- Take the time to clean the grill after each cook, preferably when the grate is still hot. You can use a grill brush to remove larger debris. Doing this when the grate is still hot is easier than waiting for it to cool down.
- If the grate still is grimy, you can soak it in some hot soapy water. Then use a dish scrubber to clean off the remaining dirt.
- Clean out the ash after cooking, but wait until the grill has cooled down completely. Remove the grate and empty out the leftover coals and ash into a metal container.
- Clean the inner part of the grill if it is starting to look grimy. You can use steel wool or a wire brush to remove any debris stuck on the bowl. You can use soapy water to wash the inside of the grill as well, but remember to rinse it off after the cleaning.
- Use a soft towel and some warm water, and dish soap to wipe the exterior of your grill.
What about tools and accessories?
You will need some tools for learning how to use your charcoal grill and others that you can add on once you have gained more experience and confidence as a grill master.
Set of tongs and spatula: you will most definitely need a set of comfortable and safe tongs and a spatula which you can use to flip the burgers, grill, and turn the sausages, corn, or anything else. Choose grill tools that have long enough handles to keep your hands safe during use.
Grill brush: with a good quality grill brush, you will be able to clean the grate of the grill faster and more efficiently after each grilling session and before every next one. By removing the burnt-on grime, you will help prevent flare-ups and will ensure that your food tastes well.
Meat thermometer: you will need a reliable meat temperature if you want to make sure that the meat is cooked to the recommended safe temperatures and the doneness you prefer.
Chimney starter: chimney starters make lighting up the coals easier and can also be used as measurement units for the amount of coal you will be using.
Electric fire starter: this is a gadget for avid grillers, which is fun to use and makes lighting the coal easier and faster than ever.
Grilling plank pack: these packs with all-natural wood grilling planks come in 6 and more different flavors and are a great way to add that special smoky taste to your meat, fish, and veggies. The flavors include alder, hickory, maple, cherry, red oak, western cedar, and others. They are perfect for experimenting with the different barbecuing styles and tastes.
Hardwood charcoal: the first essential ingredient to that exceptional barbecue taste is the charcoal used. This is an all-natural hardwood lump charcoal with zero additives included. It is available made from apple, hickory, and mesquite.
Grill light: a grill light is a must for those of you who like to grill after the sun goes down. A good grill light is inexpensive, cordless, and easy to mount on the grill and will enable you to see the grilling area for perfect results and safe grilling.
Grilling basket: this is a superb addition to any grill gear kit. It is a heavy-duty stainless steel basket that you can use to grill veggies, fish, and others for safe containing and cooking of the food without it falling through the grates. It can be used for easy removal of large volumes of small pieces of food and for serving them.
Basting pot and mop brush for grilling: with this basting pot and mop brush, you can apply the thin mop sauce on the meat before and during the cook. Mop sauce is best applied with a special absorbent mop and is suitable both for grilling and for low and slow barbecuing.
Read our comprehensive article about all essential grill and smoker accessories