The Beginner’s Guide to Charcoal Grilling

The Beginner’s Guide to Charcoal Grilling

In the age of Instapots, fast induction cooktops, and quick-start gas grills, charcoal grilling might seem like a dinosaur of cooking methods. The number of flashy gas grills for sale at your local home improvement store might lead you to believe that traditional charcoal grills have fallen out of fashion. However, plenty of backyard pit masters still favor coals for their weekend gatherings and even everyday cooking.

A charcoal grill obviously isn’t about convenience. It’s about being outside and spending some time making some truly exceptional food. The flavor charcoal can give your meals cannot be matched by any other cooking method. If you’re ready to impress friends and family with delectable meals, read up on our guide to charcoal grilling.

Selecting a Grill

As all good mechanics know, you’ve got to have the right tool for the right job. The style of charcoal grill you choose should match your style of cooking. Are you looking to cook a few burgers and brats over high heat quickly, or are you looking slow-smoke a pork shoulder? Your grill should alsobe large enough for the number of people for whom you’re cooking.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you will need to move your grill. If you’re shopping for a permanent fixture for your backyard kitchen, you have the luxury of not worrying about space or weight. However, if you want to take your grill camping or tailgating with you, you need to keep it small and portable.

Kettle grills are the most popular style of a barbecue grill. Most people know this as a Weber Charcoal Grill, the company that makes this round, black backyard grill. They come in several sizes, from the standard backyard model to enormous models with a rack big enough to cook for parties. Kettle grills have excellent heat distribution and offer good control of the temperature with adjustable vents on the top and bottom. If you’re just getting starting grilling, a high-quality kettle grill is an excellent choice because of their versatility and value.

Braziers are smaller, portable models. They tend to be square or rectangular and are built for tabletop use. They are very inexpensive, but unfortunately, they tend to offer the cook very little control over how hot the flame will be. The air vents are often fixed in place, if they have them at all. They’re best for direct, high-heat applications.

Hibachi Grills are cast iron grills with no lid. They are only used for very high temperature cooking over direct heat. They come in any size imaginable from tiny tabletop models to enormous buffet contraptions.

Ceramic Grills are also very popular. These egg-shaped grills have thick walls that retain heat very well. That makes controlling the exact cooking temperature easier for the chef. With great control comes great options, and ceramic grills stand out in their ability to do everything from high-heat searing to slow-smoking.

While you can do some smoking with a kettle or ceramic grill, Smoker Grills made especially for smoking will work better. A smoker requires keeping the heat low for hours and hours at a time, which is sometimes easier said than done with a small grill. Smokers come in various shapes and sizes to suit the cook, from the small bullet or barrel-shaped smokers to huge offset or cabinet smokers for those looking to do a lot of barbecuing.

The Coals

Once you’ve picked the best charcoal grill for you, it’s time to decide on exactly what you want to put in it. The two main types of coals are briquettes and hardwood, also known as lump charcoal.

Briquettes are by far the most common choice available. There are many specialty types, some contain chemicals to make them easy to light with a match, and some contain hardwood chunks to conveniently give your cooking a smoky flavor. Briquettes heat and burn evenly and consistently, making your cooking predictable. This is a big advantage if you are working on a low-heat recipe or smoking meats.

Hardwood coals are wood in a more raw form. There are no chemicals involved, and the wood is less processed. Pieces are uneven and of different sizes, which means they won’t heat as evenly or as consistently. Hardwood burns hotter and faster than briquettes, so it’s suitable for very high-heat applications. However, it requires a little more work to keep your fire right where you want it.

If you are looking to add a little flavor to your steaks or chops, you can simply add some wood chips or wood chunks in amongst the coals. You can buy many quality kinds of wood in the grilling section of your favorite stores. Mesquite, hickory, and cherry are all popular for smoking, and all imbue the meat with their distinctive flavors.

To use wood chips, they should be soaked in water before being added to the fire. The goal is to smolder and smoke, not to ignite and burn the wood. Wood chunks, on the other hand, are usually large enough that they need not be soaked.

Properly smoking meatslike brisket, ribs, or pulled pork is a time-consuming endeavor. These items are cooked over eight or more hours at very low heataround 250 ℉. If you invest the time needed for this method, you will be rewarded with mouth-watering goodness.

Whatever fuel you use in your grill, it’s essential to store it in a dry place where it won’t get damp. The paper bags that coals come in shouldn’t be left outside in the rain. Even a heavy dew can break down and damage the coals. It pays to keep your fuel in a shed or garage to make sure you’ll get a quick light and even heating.

Must-Have Accessories

Chimney Starter

The easiest way to get the fire started is with a chimney starter. These simple devices hold about 100 briquettes in their upper chamber. The pitmaster then wads up some newspaper in the lower chamber and lights it. The fire heats the tightly packed coals above quickly. Within about ten minutes, you’ve got yourself a raging inferno.

You canmake do without a chimney starter. Most backyard chefs reach for the trusty old bottle of lighter fluid, which is fine if you don’t mind your burgers and steaks having that special essence of gasoline. If you’re in a pinch without your chimney starter, some types of briquettes are presoaked in lighter fluid to make them easy to light with a match.

Meat Thermometer

Even the best chefs in the world use meat thermometers, so there’s no excuse for not having one when cooking meats. Cooking is more scientific and formula-based than many people give it credit. A thermometer keeps you from over- or undercooking food and makes your kitchen a safer place. It also reduces stress on the cook by removing questions. If the recipe says “cook until the internal temperature is 145 degrees,” everyone can get it right every time with a thermometer. It’s just too easy to undercook or overcook food on a grill, especially in the evenings, with dim lighting and 500-degree coals in your face.


Barbecue tongs are handy to have around any kitchen anyway. The longer the tongs, the better, especially if you’re favoring direct and high-heat applications. Tongs are so incredibly useful you might want to consider getting two sets, one for raw meats and one for the cooked products and veggies, to avoid cross-contamination.

Grill Cleaning Accessories

You’re going to want something to help you clean the grate on your grill. If you’re doing everything just right, you’re going to have some delicious meals and a messy grill. And no, that messy nastiness doesn’t add flavor to the next meal. You should always clean your grill before each use.

There is some debate about whether or not you should use a wire brush. Nothing cleans as quickly or as well as a stiff wire brush, but sometimes the bristles can break and fall off. You don’t want any chance of those wire bristles getting into the food. Another option you can try is a cleaning stone or Scotch-Brite scouring pads. No matter what you clean it with, wipe the grate down with a paper towel doused in cooking oil when you’re done to help remove leftover debris.

How to Use a Charcoal Grill

Prep the Grill

Every cookout should start with some basic cleaning. Since grills take a long time to cool down, they are usually “put to bed” dirty. Start cleaning up by emptying any old ash and cleaning the grates. Depending on how dirty the grate is, you can do anything from a quick wipe with a brush or grill stone to a full spring cleaning with oven cleaner.

Once the grill is clean, it’s time to preheat. Light your coals by putting them in the chimney starter and igniting a piece of newspaper below them. You don’t have to fill the entire starter, but more is usually better. When the coals have ignited and are beginning to cover with ash, you can dump them out onto the grill. If you aren’t using a chimney starter, you can arrange the coals on the rack and then drizzle lighter fluid over them. Ignite the lighter fluid and place the cooking grate on the grill.

With the grate over the hot coals, take a kitchen or paper towel soaked in cooking oil in your tongs and wipe the grate. The oil might make slight flare-ups, so watch your knuckles. If your grill has a lid, close it for a few minutes to let it build up heat. You’re ready to cook!

Cooking Techniques

You have a lot more control over the temperature of your charcoal fire and how hot the food gets than you might realize. The main way you can control your cooking is by how you arrange your coals.

Direct Heat

The simplest way to cook over coals is to use direct heat. Direct heat is going to be pretty hot, especially if you’ve dumped an entire load of charcoal onto the grill. Not many things cook well on high heat. Hearty meats and things that you’re looking to sear quickly should go here, like pork chops and thick steaks. If the meat needs to be cooked thoroughly like chicken does, the outside is going to be burnt before the inside gets cooked.

For direct grilling, preheat to between 450℉ to 550℉. You can use a grill thermometer to determine when it is at the right temperature. If you can only hold your hand over the grate for two to four seconds, the grill is hot enough.

The distance of the grate from the coals is also responsible for controlling the temperature. The closer your food is to the heat source, the more direct the heat is. The charcoals are usually mounded up under the cooking grate, creating different areas of temperature in different spots on the grate. If you are looking for a crusty sear or char, you can start very close to the flame and then move farther away to finish cooking the food.

Indirect Heat

Alternatively, you could use the heat from a pile of coals to heat the entire grill like an oven, and cook your food away from the coals. The easiest way to make indirect grilling happen in a standard kettle grill is to set up a two-zone cooking system. Simply, pile all of your hot coals on one side of the grill and leave the other side empty. Then, when you place food on the grate, you have a hot, direct heat side and a cooler, indirect heat side.

With a two-zone fire, you start on the direct heat side to sear in the juices and then move food to the indirect side to allow it to cook to its target internal temperature. You can also prepare various sides like veggies or saucesover the indirect side of the grill, where you can easily control their progress. Very delicate items can get wrapped in tin foil to protect them further.


Smoking is a very specialized cooking process that involves using very low heat for long periods of time. Ribs, pulled pork, and brisket are the most commonly smoked items. Indirect heat is used, and there is a lotof time for the meats to absorb the smokey goodness flavor. Smoking is done between 225℉ and 250℉, and consistent heat control is necessary. Hang a probe-style meat thermometer through vents of the grill for accurate temperature measurement and keep an eye on it throughout the day.

The best way to set up a kettle or ceramic grill to smoke is to pile on a lot of coals, but only light a few to begin. Along with the coals, use soaked wood chips or large wood chunks to imbue flavor. You can place all of the coals in a mound and then put the few lit ones on top, letting them burn down. Another technique is called the charcoal snake in which a circle of coals mixed with wood chips is laid out around the perimeter of your grill. Light one end and then let the fire work slowly around. Use the center of grill for indirect heat.

Since your food will be cooking for so long, you run the risk of it drying out. One solution is to create steam by putting water into a simple tin-foil tray. This water pan stabilizes temperatures and adds moisture to the environment to keep things from getting dry. Nothing is worse than dry barbecue!

If you notice the temperature dropping, you will need to add coals. If you caught itsoon enough, you can add some unlit coals, and the existing fire will gradually light them for you. This technique takes time, so if you missed your chance and the temp has already dropped below 225℉, you’ll need to add lit coals to it. Avoid lifting the lid any more than necessary, because it will make it more difficult to control the heat.

Controlling Grill Temperature

Besides the layout of your coals, you have a few other methods at your disposal for controlling temperature. By controlling the amount of oxygen that reaches the fire, you can make it burn hotter or cooler. Use the vents at the top and bottom of your grill to bring in or reduce the amount of oxygen inside your grill. Too much oxygen makes coals burn hot and fast, while less oxygen makes them burn longer and cooler. If things are cooking faster than you’d like them to, close the vents a little. Be careful not to close them completely, since this will cause the fire to suffocate.

If you need more heat, you’ll have to add more coals. This takes some planning since it takes up to 15 minutes for coals to heat up to a suitable cooking temperature.

Top Grilling Tips

Make the Chimney Starter Burn Longer

If you are struggling to keep the newspaper lit in your chimney starter long enough to ignite the coals, drizzle the newspaper with a little cooking oil before you light it. This will make the newspaper burn a little longer, like a candle wick.

Season Your Food Before Grilling

Marinades are a great way to season your meats prior to grilling. Marinades begin the cooking process early and reduce your work during the actual cookout. Remember, different meats need to marinate for different amounts of time. Red meats may be able to marinate overnight, while things like chicken and fish will probably only need a few hours.

Another great way to season your food is with a dry rub, or mixture of spices, that you coat the meat in before putting it on the grill. If you choose to use a marinade or rub, it will likely char and burn on direct high heat and if it contains sugar, it’s guaranteed to burn! Cook these items on indirect heat and consider glazing with sugary coatings near the end of the cooking process.

Flare Ups

Flare-ups happen when some oil or fat drips off the food and catches on fire when it hits the coals. Don’t spray a flare-up with water or you might wind up spraying ash on the food. Instead, use your tongs to move the food to the indirect side of the grate until the flare-up dies down.


One great way to mix up your cooking repertoire is to make kabobs. Skewers are a great way to combine veggies and meats. You can put everything from beef and chicken to shrimp and scallops on skewers. You can get bamboo wood skewers at pretty much any market. Soaking wood skewers in water before loading them up will keep them from burning on the grill.

Carryover Cooking

Many grilling recipes tell you to rest the meat on a cutting board for a few minutes after cooking. You can cover it in foil if it’s cool or bugs are out. Whatever you do, don’t skip this step. Resting the meat is part of the cooking process. During the rest, carryover heat from the outside of the meat is still working its way in. Rested meat will be juicier and closer to its ideal temperature.

Time to Go Home

Have a plan to put out the fire before you even light it. Keep a bucket of water or a hose nearby should anything go wrong. After you’re done cooking, suffocate the fire by closing all vents on the grill. If you need to speed the process up a bit, you can spray some water over the coals.

Partially-Burned Coals

According to Kingsford Charcoal, you can reuse partially burned coals. Simply, leave them in the grill and make sure they stay dry until your next cookout.

Dispose of Charcoal Responsibly

Commercial briquettes sometimes contain chemicals to make them burn better. You can’t compost with them, and you shouldn’t dispose of them on the ground.It’s best to let them cool completely and then place them in the trash.


Food cooked over charcoal just tastes better. From the first moment the coals begin smoking, your mouth starts watering and stomach starts growling. Yes, it’s a little more trouble than lighting a gas grill. No, it’s not the fastest way to cook. However, it’s cooking with love, and the results are totally worth it.