How to Use a Charcoal Grill

Master This Skill and Become a Cookout Pro

Barbecue grill fire
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If you're learning to use a charcoal grill, you might be new to grilling or you may be transitioning over from a gas grill.

Either way, learning to use a charcoal grill is like learning to drive a stick—once you do, you can drive any type of car. And if you know how to use a charcoal grill, cooking on a gas grill will be a breeze. Here's a guide to get you started.

Measuring the Coals

The first step to learning to use a charcoal grill is to learn about charcoal.

With a gas grill, the fuel is propane gas. Because it's either on or off, there's no need to measure it. Like an ordinary kitchen range, you simply adjust the size and intensity of the flame on each burner by turning a knob.

With a charcoal grill, however, the fuel is—well–charcoal, so you need to fill the grill with the proper amount of briquettes before you start cooking. Some grill grates feature hinged sides that you can open during cooking to add more charcoal. But this is only really practical if you're slow-cooking or smoking a large piece of meat. 

Keep in mind that more fuel produces more heat and some foods require higher temperatures than others. Steaks and other thin cuts of meat need a very hot grill, like 450 to 550 F. Chicken pieces, vegetables, and fish require a medium temperature, around 350 to 450 F. Pork ribs, whole chicken, and larger roasts need low heat, somewhere between 250 to 350 F.

To convert these temperatures into charcoal quantities, a hot grill needs about 6 quarts of charcoal (about 100 briquettes); a medium grill between 3 and 4.5 quarts of charcoal; and a low grill 1.5 to 2 quarts.

Lighting the Coals

It happens that there's a tool that will not only measure out your charcoal, but also help you light it using no lighter fuel whatsoever, and get them glowing hot within 20 minutes.

It's called a chimney starter and it's something no charcoal griller should do without. You simply stuff a sheet of newspaper into the bottom of the canister, load the chimney with the desired amount of charcoal, light the newspaper with a match, and place the chimney on the rack inside the grill (where the coals go, not atop the cooking grate). When coals glow red hot, carefully pour them into the bowl of your grill.

Conveniently, a standard chimney starter has a 6-quart capacity. So to measure charcoal, all you have to do is fill the canister quarter full, half full, three-quarters full or all the way depending on how hot you want the grill.

Preparing the Cooking Grate

While the coals are lighting, you can clean and oil the cooking grate. Cleaning is mainly a matter of scraping and brushing off any cooked-on debris. To oil the grate, brush it with a paper towel moistened with cooking oil. This helps prevent your food from sticking.

The next step is preheating the grate. Once you add your charcoal and arrange it (see below), install the grate, cover with the lid and wait three to four minutes. 

Building a Fire

While it's probably obvious that more charcoal will produce more heat, there's another dimension to it as well. More coals will produce a larger pile and a larger pile means that those coals will be closer to the food. 

If you're cooking all one type of food, you might want to distribute those coals evenly across the bowl of your grill. However, you can gain more precise temperature control by building a two-zone fire—loading the charcoal to one side of the grill bowl while leaving the other side empty.

This creates a hot zone and a cool zone, which is helpful for cooking two different types of food, like steaks and vegetables, for instance. 

It also lets you move items around as they near doneness to prevent overcooking. A cool zone also helps control flare-ups, which are generally caused by fat dripping onto the coals. You can move the dripping item to the cool zone as the flare-up subsides. In short, building a two-zone fire is almost always the way to go.

Controlling the Temperature

The amount of fuel and how high you pile it are not the only ways of obtaining fine control of the temperature in your charcoal grill. In addition to fuel, a fire also needs oxygen. Thus another way of controlling temperature is by controlling the flow of oxygen via opening and closing the vents.

Regardless of the type of grill, most charcoal grills will feature at least one vent on the underside of the bowl along with one on the lid. Which means you should almost always grill with the lid on.

Grills are designed to pull cool air in through the air vents on the bottom, circulate it around the cooking surface, and then expel smoke and hot air through the upper vents. 

Both upper and lower vents should always be open. For the hottest fire possible, open them all the way. Closing the top vent halfway will produce a medium grill or 350 to 450 F. For low temperature (250 to 350 F), the top vent should be open a quarter of the way. In most cases, the bottom vent should stay all the way open. Don't close the vents completely or your fire will go out; also make sure the bottom vent is not obstructed by ash or other debris.

The way the air circulates produces a convection effect, which promotes fast and even cooking and the shape of the lid is designed to facilitate that airflow. Removing it stops the flow altogether and takes away one of the key ways that you can control the temperature.