Do you want to know what really grinds my gears? People just automatically assume you understand stuff.
Bear with me.
After not seeing my granddaughter for a couple of weeks, she suggested we did some Facetime. Apparently, this had nothing to do with a spa-like facial session and was something to do with speaking with video.
I had no idea where to start—do I need a video camera? Is it expensive? What program do I use? Do I require an email address? What the heck is my email address?
The same goes for grilling.
Look at the majority of books or online articles—and the vast majority suppose you already know all the basics.
It’s fantastic learning how to perfect your bespoke brisket rub and read about novel grilling ideas. But if you haven’t managed to get a fire started—you’re just going to end up presenting your family with spicy, yet gastroenteritis-causing, raw chicken.
So, it’s time to fix that!
Here’s how to use a charcoal grill for the complete novice—yet make your neighbors think you’re a seasoned pro.
How to Grill with Charcoal
- Select only specific charcoal for BBQ.
- Use a chimney starter to light the grill.
- Measure your charcoal.
- Utilize your air vents.
- Create a cool zone.
- Clean your charcoal grate after every use.
Charcoal Grilling 101
Below, I’ve laid out, in chronological order, the process of charcoal grilling. Depending on your particular model, you may need to adjust some techniques slightly—but the essential process is much the same.
Where there are sometimes alternative methods—I’ve tried to give you a choice—but naturally, with my own honest opinion of their efficacy.
And, I’m working on the assumption that you’ve actually managed to put your grill together by using the manufacturer’s instructions. If you failed at that stage, then I’d politely recommend you pursue a different hobby.
Measuring Your Coals
Failure to use the correct volume of coals is probably the biggest mistake made by newbie, and many self-proclaimed ‘pro,’ outdoor chefs.
This crucial first step affects your entire cookout success.
Throw on too many coals—and you’ll have a temperature that will turn steel into molten metal, obliterate your prized steak, and keep burning for the next three weeks.
Too little charcoal—and your food may not cook thoroughly—you’ll only have enough time to prepare enough burgers for yourself. Thus leading to disappointed guests, or having to struggle and add more coal during grilling.
It’s true, some charcoal grates have hinged flaps that you can open during the cooking process to put in more fuel. But, in my opinion, that’s a little like adding a pint of gasoline to your car’s fuel tank every few miles—just so that you can make it to the grocery store.
Admittedly, those energy-expenditure savvy (or, as some would call them, lazy) propane-powered grillers don’t have this issue. And, while they are in the majority (64 percent of American BBQers own a gas grill), they lack the satisfaction of a real man’s fire.
So, here’s the key.
Some meats demand more heat than others—and hence, a larger volume of coals.
Steaks necessitate a seriously hot grill, around 450 to 525-degrees Fahrenheit. Chicken portions, fish, hot dogs and veggies need a medium heat, about 350 to 450 Fahrenheit. While the slower-cooking pork ribs and whole chickens require a lower temperature, about 250 to 350-degrees Fahrenheit.
Therefore, in quantity terms—use about six quarts of coals (around 100 briquettes) for a hot grill, 3-4.5 quarts of charcoal for medium heat, and 1.5-2 quarts for a low grill.
Naturally, the chances are you will be cooking more than one type of meaty fayre. That being the case, start with the foods that demand higher heat. And, as the coals begin to cool, move onto those portions that require lower temperatures. Always use a meat thermometer to ensure your guests don’t drop down dead with food poisoning.
How to Light a Charcoal BBQ
Lighting a BBQ probably strikes more fear into the grilling novice than any other grilling skill.
It’s possibly because everyone is afraid of failure—and if you’re a guy, it means you feel like half a man, impotent, worthless, and unable to provide food for your tribe.
Or maybe you’re just a bit annoyed because you’re hungry and want to eat.
But, once you know how to light a BBQ—the process is straightforward and not emasculating.
There are three main methods:
I want to get this lighting procedure out of the way first—as I really don’t like it.
That’s not to say that lighter fluid use is wrong—and if it rocks your boat then fine, but just consider the downsides:
- Unreliable—half the time it’s ineffective, burning out before the coals have become heated.
- Dangerous—spraying what is, in effect, gasoline around a fire is a bad idea, especially if there are kids nearby—the spray can become akin to a flamethrower.
- Taints food—lighter fluid makes your steak taste as if you’ve prepared it with a petroleum rub.
Anyways, here’s the method:
- Make a coal pyramid in the center of the charcoal box.
- Pour the lighter fluid generously over the coals—avoiding any spills on your clothes, ground, or sides of the grill. If you do drip any on your outdoor attire—change into a new outfit before lighting (the BBQ, not yourself).
- Make sure you allow the fuel to soak in for five minutes―otherwise, it will burn off rapidly, and you will need to add more.
- Add a little more lighter fluid to ‘start-off’ the fire.
- At arm’s length, ignite the charcoal at the foot of the pyramid in three of four places—using either a long-nosed lighter or match.
- Allow it to burn for 15-25 minutes or until the majority of the coals have an outer white coat and are red in the center.
- When the charcoal has reached the correct temperature—begin cooking.
My favorite way to start a grill. Personally, I consider it one for the serious BBQ-enthusiast.
It’s safer than the lighter fluid method, doesn’t taint food, and still retains that caveman instinct to create fire.
Ok, admittedly, the preppers may not like it, and they’d probably rather rub a couple of sticks together. But since they take their inspiration from Bear Grylls and drink their own urine—I wouldn’t consider them as having an ideal palate anyways.
A chimney starter is an amazing tool—not only getting those coals ready for cooking—but also measuring their volume. Basically, it’s a metal canister (like a small bin) with base holes for ventilation that rapidly gets your charcoal to the required temperature.
Here’s the technique:
- Place the chimney starter into the lump charcoal box (not the rack where the meat sits!).
- Loosely crumple up around 7-8 balls of newspaper (or wax paper if you have some) and place in the bottom of the canister.
- Load the bin with coals—typically, they have a six-quart capacity, so that you can adjust depending on your needs.
- Light the newspaper with a long match.
- Leave (usually around 25 minutes) until all the coals are glowing red.
- Pour them into the charcoal bowl—carefully, make sure you use heat resistant gloves.
- Using grill tools—spread the coals evenly across the BBQ. Leaving one-third free from charcoal allows you to create a ‘cool’ zone.
- Replace the grill rack, and you’re ready to cook.
It’s simple, convenient, doesn’t impair the flavor of your meat and you don’t need matches.
Ok, some traditionalists will consider it as cheating—but it is effortless and with virtually no downsides.
Well, there’s one—you need power.
In simple terms, an electric starter is nothing more than a deconstructed kettle. It’s as if someone has stripped away all the parts, and left nothing behind apart from the power cord and the heating element.
You insert it into the coals, plug in, and wait. That’s it.
So while ideal for your yard cookouts—it’s utterly useless if you’re halfway up a mountain. Unless you’ve managed to convince your partner to haul a diesel generator up there with your.
Here’s the way it works:
- Form the coals into a pyramid.
- Insert the heating element into the middle of this pile.
- Plug in the electric starter and turn on. If you’re using an extension cord—check that it can cope with the hefty load that the element requires.
- Sit down, crack open a cold one, and wait for about 10 minutes.
- After this time, the center of the pyramid will be coated in white ash.
- Carefully remove the electric starter. DO NOT touch it—it’s incredibly hot.
- Place on a heatproof surface, not your plastic picnic tables.
- Leave the coals for a further 15 minutes until they’re all heated through.
- Cook food.
Controlling the Temperature
That’s all the hard stuff out of the way—simple, right?
Now, it’s time to add a little finesse to your charcoal grill skills—by keeping the heat at the optimum cooking temperature.
Coal Volume and Location
I’ve already mentioned that the more coal you have, the hotter your charcoal grill. Furthermore, it’s wise to create a coal-free zone—somewhere for you to keep the food warm while preventing any further cooking.
However, if space allows—you can take this technique to the max.
Admittedly, if you have a small kettle BBQ, this can be tough. It’s harder to arrange the charcoal to your specific needs. However, if you own a square or rectangular tray-type grill—you can seriously control your cooking temperature.
Consider creating an incline in your coals—sloping from a high level on the left side and gradually descending down to the right, with less charcoal at every step. Not only does this give you both a cooking and warming area—but it also allows you to grill numerous different meats concurrently.
So, charcoal grilled steaks on the left, fish in the middle and pork ribs on the right.
And, if you’re the social media type, now is the time for an Instagram photo—cooking numerous foodstuffs at the same time shows a true master at work.
(Make sure you get someone else to take the photo—don’t do a selfie with your $1000 iPhone over hot coals).
How Do You Use Vents on a Charcoal Grill?
Vents are perhaps the most under-utilized features of a charcoal grill.
I’m guessing you already know fire requires oxygen—so control the O2, and you can manage your heat.
Even the most basic charcoal grill comes with two vents—one on the lid and one on the base. The idea is that these BBQs ‘suck’ in air through the lower vent, circulate around the cooking grate, then emit the smoke and hot air through the upper vent. Hence, they should always be open to some extent.
So, for intense heat—ensure the uppermost air holes are fully open, half-closed for medium temperatures and three-quarters shut for low heat. The bottom vent should remain completely open.
Which brings me to a charcoal grill frequently asked question—do you leave the lid open or closed when heating charcoal?
Closed. Always closed.
The boffins behind charcoal grill designs have created shapes and forms that promote the movement of these convection currents—delivering even and fast cooking. Leaving the lid open destroys all their hard work and can lead to undercooked meat.
Whatever your personal grilling ideas and opinions—your lid should only be open when:
- Adding food.
- Removing food.
- Checking the cooking status of food.
- Turning over food.
- Moving food to the cool area.
- Taking a photo for Snapchat.
Some of the more advanced models incorporate side vents—again, open if you need higher temperatures. Just bear in mind that the more air that enters your BBQ, the hotter the coal becomes, but also the faster it burns.
And one more thing.
Never, ever close all the vents—your fire will go out.
Charcoal Grill Maintenance
Keeping your charcoal grill in top form means better results and ensures old and stale char grilling flavors don’t leach into your fresh meat.
After Every Time You Use Your Charcoal Grill
- Make sure after every cookout you clean the cooking grate. It’s easier to remove grease and food while still warm—but I do mean warm—not red hot.
- Don’t be lazy—stick to rule #1. I know it’s tempting to think oh, I’ll clean it just before I need it again—but that’s the time you should be concentrating on prepping your meat, not worrying about dried-on fat.
- Once the rack is clean, rub down with a paper towel and oil—this helps to prevent any oxidization (rust).
- Now is the time to check your lump charcoal reserves—to ensure you’re not shooting down to the store five minutes before your guests arrive at your next cookout.
After Every Two Weeks in Charcoal Grill Season
- Remove the charcoal grate and completely empty the box, bowl or ash holder—whatever your particular unit has.
- Clean the charcoal receptacle—my favorite way is with plain old soapy water.
- Check that no ash or debris is blocking the vents or has blown up onto the charcoal grate.
- Use a damp cloth to remove any carbon from the interior of the grill lid.
Charcoal Grill 101 Conclusion
Charcoal grills aren’t complicated to use—once you know the techniques!
You now have all the information at your disposal to deliver the ultimate cookout—from being a firestarter, controlling the temperatures for your particular foods, through to maintaining your grill.
Remember the key acronym COAL:
- C – Cut out the lighter fluid, use a Chimney starter.
- O – Open up the vents.
- A – Allow enough time for the charcoal to heat up.
- L – Leave the Lid closed.
A little practice, and you’ll look like a seasoned professional grill-meister!