Before there were Wifi-enabled electric smokers kamado eggs, or wood pellet grills with automated pellet feeders, built-in fan and thermal monitor, there was the simple charcoal BBQ grill.
Cherished by dads across this great country, this simple piece of cookware has been an honored American tradition for generations. Along with the BBQ recipes and family secret sauces, cooking with charcoal has many nuances that take time to master.
Or...you could just skip years of trial and error and just check out our helpful tips below. Curated from the best grilling experts we could find, these charcoal grilling tips will put you well on your way to competition-level grilling!
The tips below are broken into 3 sections for convenience:
- How Much Charcoal Is Enough?
- How To Cook On A Charcoal Grill
- How To Control Temperature On Your Charcoal Grill
Essential Tips For Using A Charcoal Grill
Cooking on a conventional charcoal grill, even a lightweight, portable one, isn’t as easy as using your oven. No thermostat, no incremental temperature adjustment, no automated charcoal feeder or built in fans to manage air flow. Just you, mother nature, and some charcoal.
There’s something highly visceral about grilling with charcoal, almost neolithic. Of course, the romance of cooking over an open fire in the great outdoors can quickly be ruined by a burnt and charred cut of New York sirloin you paid a fortune for. That’s why you’ll be so glad you found this helpful page full of useful tips!
Let’s get started!
1. How Much Charcoal Is Enough?
As a general rule of thumb, more fuel means more heat. The heat is what cooks your food, not the flames, so the type of meat and it’s thickness will determine the amount of fuel you’ll need.
Here are a few handy pointers to keep in mind:
- 25 - 30 briquettes or charcoal pieces should be suitable for most small portable grills.
- Average size charcoal grills with approximately 400- 550 sq feet of cooking surface will need roughly 40 briquettes or charcoal pieces.
- Large charcoal grills in excess of 600 sq ft of cooking surface will typically require a full bag or more of briquettes.
- Load your charcoal or briquettes in a pyramid formation to create zone cooking. Pack your charcoal or briquettes tightly so they generate more heat together.
- Thick cuts of steak need high temperatures and the maximum fuel.
- Searing meat requires high temperatures and more fuel over a short period of time.
- Smoking meat requires lower temperatures over long periods of time. You’ll likely need to refill on charcoal if you’re smoking a 5 pound brisket over 5 hours, for example. One bag will typically last you an hour on high heat, but at a medium level a full bag should burn 30 - 45 minutes longer.
- Grilling vegetables can be done on medium to low temperatures. With your charcoal arranged in a pyramid, you can use the outer zone of your grill surface for vegetables, and the inner zone for cooking and searing meat.
2. How To Cook On A Charcoal Grill
Step 1. Always start with a clean grill. Remove any remaining ash or debris from the fire pit with a soft brush and handheld vacuum cleaner. Check your grates for loose wire bristles that may have been stuck. Lastly, inspect the intake vents on the bottom of your charcoal grill for obstructions and remove with the vacuum.
Step 2. Add your fuel. Remove the top grate and heat shield (if applicable). Add your charcoal or briquettes to the fire pit. Gather them into a pyramid that spreads out from the center. This will allow you to create heat zones on your cooking surface. The center can be used for high heat, while the external area can be used to cook food such as vegetables over milder temperatures.
Step 3. Use a Chimney Starter. One of the easiest ways to light your charcoal grill is the use of a chimney starter. These simple devices provide shelter from gusts of wind, allowing the coals to ignite without wasting fuel lighter.
How To Use A Chimney Stack
A chimney stack is a widely available grilling utensil with very competitive pricing. They’re also really use to use.
- Just add some shredded newspaper for kindling.
- Rest the newspaper on top of the charcoal and place the chimney stack over it.
- Spray some lighter fluid, and use a match to light the newspaper.
Trapped inside, the newspaper continues to burn with a constant supply of oxygen, heating the charcoal directly beneath. Since it’s shielded on all sides, gusts of wind won’t put out the flames.
3. How To Control Temperature On Your Charcoal Grill
One of the biggest challenges any charcoal grilling chef faces is the ongoing battle to maintain a consistent temperature. Different recipes call for varying temperatures and cooking times. Wind gusts can cause your fire to die prematurely, or flare up suddenly and singe your eyebrows!
Wood and charcoal actually share a lot of similarities. Both are fossil fuels and emit carbon when ignited as a byproduct. To control the temperature with charcoal, the amount and distribution are key.
Recipes that call for a rise or drop in temperature during the final stages of cooking can be challenging to master on a charcoal grill, but not impossible. Planning ahead of time will go a long way to making your grilled recipes more satisfying.
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Pack your charcoals together to create intense direct heat.
- Add coals regularly to keep your grill burning consistently hot.
- Use zone cooking to provide different temperature zones on your grill. This is especially helpful for BBQ recipes that require roasting followed by searing, for example, or flash-cooking finished off with a slow roast.
- Leave the top and bottom vents open to get the hottest temperature and encourage air flow
- Empty the ash frequently to avoid leaving a bad taste on your food or contaminating it with ash debris.
- Hardwood charcoal adds flavor and burns hotter than charcoal.
- Let the charcoal or briquettes burn until they appear white-gray in color. This should take about 10 minutes on average (25-30 minutes to reach medium heat)
Charcoal grilling can be an art with practice. Master these essentials and you’ll avoid serving undercooked or burnt, overcooked food more often. Keep the right grilling utensils on hand to make your job easier and safer.
Remember, when cooking with fire, always be mindful of your environment at all times to avoid accidents. Provide sufficient clearance away from flammable objects and surfaces.
Lastly, have fun making memories on your grill that will hopefully last a lifetime!