Cooking on a charcoal grill can be slightly more complicated than using a gas or electric grill, especially if you're new to the game. But we've got you covered! Here are our eight top tips to help you master the art of charcoal grilling.
Use a Chimney Starter
Chimney starters are a must for charcoal grilling. They will light up to 100 charcoal briquets and get them red hot within 20 minutes, using nothing but a match and a single sheet of newspaper. No more lighter fluid! That means no more exploding lighter fluid or food that tastes like kerosene.
The best chimney starters are the 6-quart models, and you can find them at hardware stores and home stores everywhere.
Use the Right Amount of Charcoal
Once you've gotten your hands on a chimney starter and you're comfortable using it, everything else seems to fall into place. Especially the question of how much charcoal to use. Your target grill temperatures can be easily reckoned in terms of how full your chimney is.
For high-heat grilling, (450 to 550 F, which is ideal for grilling steaks and thin cuts of meat), you want a full chimney. For medium heat (350 to 450 F, perfect for chicken pieces, veggies and seafood), 1/2 to 3/4 chimney. And for low heat (250 to 350 F, for grilling pork ribs, whole poultry, larger roasts and smoking), 1/4 chimney.
Oil and Preheat the Cooking Grate
Oiling the cooking grate ensures that your food doesn't stick to the grill. Preheating is just as important. Trying to cook a steak on a cold grill will cause it to spend too long on the grill and overcook. You also won't get those lovely grill marks. For safety, oil the grate before you set it over the hot coals. Here's more about taking care of your charcoal grill.
Learn How to Vent
Unlike with a gas grill (or your kitchen range), you can't adjust the temperature with a knob or dial on a charcoal grill. But you can control how hot the coals on your grill burn by controlling the flow of oxygen, and you do that by opening and closing the vents.
Opening the vents allows more oxygen, which produces a hotter grill. Trimming the vents slows the oxygen, which cools the grill. But don't close them all the way or your fire will suffocate. And make sure your grill isn't full of ash, which can obstruct the vents.
Know the Difference Between Direct vs Indirect Heat
Another way of controlling how quickly your food cooks is by understanding the difference between direct and indirect heat. A certain amount of coals will produce a certain temperature, but your food will cook faster if it is situated directly above those coals as opposed to away from them. This fact leads us to our next tip...
Build a Two-Zone Fire
Once you've mastered this technique, you're well on your way to mastering charcoal grilling. It's simply a matter of loading the charcoal onto one side of the grill and leaving the other side empty.
It'll still be hot on that side, but it will enable you to move items from the hot, direct-heat side, to the cooler, indirect-heat side. The cooler zone will help prevent overcooking and scorching and will allow you, for example, to grill vegetables and steaks at the same time.
Deal With Flare-ups
A two-zone fire will also help you deal with flare-ups caused by fat from a steak or burger dripping onto the coals. Instead of controling flare-ups using a spray bottle, which can blow ash onto your food, simply move the dripping item over to the indirect zone. With no coals directly underneath, the dripping fat won't flare up.
Enhance Flavor with Wood
The last step on your way to becoming a master of charcoal grilling is incorporating wood. Whether you're doing a full smoke or a true low-temperature barbecue, or you simply want to add some smoke flavor to your grilled items, wood is the key.
Hickory, mesquite, and fruitwoods like apple and cherry, are grillmaster favorites. For smoking and barbecuing, use chunks of dried wood. But for grilling, you can simply add some wood chips on top of your hot coals. Be sure to soak the wood chips first.