How to Use a Charcoal Grill [Coal Setups, Cooking Temperatures & BBQ Tips]

Charcoal grilling is the purest form of outdoor cooking and can be mastered by anyone. From coal lighting tips to temperature control, discover how to use a charcoal grill today.

how to use a charcoal grill

There is nothing quite like the satisfaction you get from cooking over fire with a charcoal grill. Whether it’s the crackling and popping of the coals or the primitive urge to wield some control over fire, you can’t truly call yourself a pit master until you have perfected the art of grilling with charcoal.

If you’ve got a new charcoal grill and a hunk of meat ready to go, this guide is for you. Discover how to set up your new grill for efficient backyard cooking, how to nail airflow and temperature, and – most importantly – how to master grilling over flames. Here’s how to use a charcoal grill.

charcoal grill cooking seared meat steaks

Benefits of a Charcoal Grill

Though cooking on gas may be easier for the novice griller, we shouldn’t ignore the many benefits that come with learning how to use a charcoal grill:

  1. Taste: For a truly authentic smokey barbecue taste, you need to cook your meats over a charcoal grill. Searing meats on a hot charcoal flame produces flavors you can’t get with gas; as the juices drip down onto the hot coals, they produce their own unique smoke that infuses back into the meat.
  2. Cost: Charcoal grills are simple to make and simple to run, meaning they cost considerably less than gas grills. 
  3. Transportable: Charcoal grills are much more transportable than gas or electric grills due to their simple construction. This makes them easy to take on the road for camping or a trip to the beach (Please bear in mind to always check the regulations on open flames and BBQs wherever you visit)
  4. Temperature Control: Not only do charcoal grills get considerably hotter than gas grills, but the temperature is also more easily controllable, meaning it can also maintain a better lower temperature making it ideal for smoking as well as grilling.

Seasoning a Charcoal Grill

Whether you find yourself in possession of a brand new charcoal grill or manage to grab yourself a second-hand bargain, it’s important to season your grill to create the best non-stick cooking surface and protect the metal from wear and tear.

How To Season a Charcoal Grill

  1.  Use a damp sponge or cloth with hot water (you can add a dash of washing up liquid if required) to wipe down the inside of the grill, grates, grilling chamber, and lid.
  2. Once dry, coat the clean surfaces with a light layer of oil – it needs to be an oil with a high smoke point.
  3. Get a full chimney of coals started. When they have a good coating of white ash, pour them into the bottom of the grill with all vents open to provide maximum airflow and create the highest heat possible.
  4. Close the lid and allow the grill to get to a heat around 300-400°F (150-230°C) for 1-2 hours until the oil has burnt off and created a dark protective layer.

The seasoning on a grill can wear off after a while, so it’s worth repeating the process a few times a year (depending on how regularly you grill) as maintenance.

Coal Setup

Knowing how best to set up your coals for your charcoal grill is one of the fundamentals any wannabe grill master needs to learn. The proper coal setup can give you great control over your cooking temperatures and create the perfect environment for smoking. 

How Much Charcoal Should You Use?

How much charcoal you need depends on what you are cooking, how hot you want the grill to get, and how long you are cooking. One of the easiest ways to estimate how many coals to use is based on how hot you want the grill to get. 

A standard charcoal chimney holds 100 briquettes, so based on that, the advice is:

  • High Heat (450°F to 550°F/230°C to 290°C) use 1 full chimney 
  • Medium Heat (350°F to 450°F/180°C to 230°C) use ½ chimney 
  • Low Heat (250°F to 350°F/120°C to 180°C) use ¼  full chimney 

The length of time you get out of the coals and the maximum temperature they will reach depends on how thinly you spread your coals (the larger area and thinner the spread, the less heat).

Coal Set-Up for Grilling

When setting up coals for a grill, you can use them to produce either direct heat or indirect heat. Direct heat means the food is cooking directly over the hot coals and is getting the full impact of the heat they are giving off. Indirect heat is where food is cooking adjacent to the coals and is cooked slowly thanks to the heat the coals are giving off moving around the food.

Direct Heat

This is a good setup for when you need high heat to quickly cook thin cuts of meat. You might consider it the typical quick weekend barbecue grilling setup – cook a few burgers, sausages, kebab skewers, and so on.

The coals are spread out in an even and single layer across the grill base (If you don’t need the whole of the grill area, it’s handy to be able to keep a small area free from coals as a void space to give you a cool-down zone for foods). Once the coals are spread out, you want to close the lid and give it a few minutes to heat up; you want to start cooking when it’s at a good high temperature.

2-Zone Grilling   

Two Zone grilling is (in most grill experts’ opinions) the best way to set up your grill. With this method, you spread your coals out evenly over just one side of the grill, creating an area of direct heat immediately above them and indirect heat on the grate above the empty area of the grill.

Setting your grill up this way gives you better control over the cooking of food and also means you can easily cook a wider variety of things.

3-Zone Split

This is a grill setup that is supposed to be better for roasting meats. It works similar to Two-zone grilling in that it creates areas of direct and indirect heat, but instead of having half the charcoal on one side of the grill, you create two equal piles on either end of the grill, leaving a void in the middle. Also, having the coals on both sides gives a more even heat which means you don’t need to turn your roasting meat – since you don’t have to turn it, you don’t need to open the lid and so don’t lose heat, meaning it also cooks faster!

Coal Setup for Smoking 

The coal setup for smoking is a little more involved as we aren’t just relying on charcoal, we’re also adding in water pans and wood chips.

The basic setup is similar to two-zone grilling, with the coals sitting on one side, giving us a direct heat and an indirect heat zone. A water pan can be added to the empty side of the grill, and then the cooking grate can be set in place. Once the grill has reached the required temperature for smoking, you can add the wood chips over the top of the charcoal.

There are also a few other interesting charcoal setups for smoking:

Minion Method

The minion method involves setting out your unlit charcoal in your grill, making a space or well in the center, and opening both top and bottom air vents. You then light a set of starter coals and add them to the well you made. As the starter coals burn out, they will light the other coals around them, supplying you with a prolonged and steady temperature.

Snake Method

The snake method works by running a long ring or chain of coals around the edge of your grill and only lighting the last few on the chain. Then, as with the minion method, once the starter coals burn out, they light the ones next to them, continuing along the chain to give a prolonged and steady heat.

How To Light a Charcoal Grill

charcoal chimney starter

If you are just getting started with learning how to properly use a charcoal grill, one of the most daunting things can be working out how to light it properly and make it so that the coals get up to a decent cooking temperature. Once you’ve mastered the technique, it’ll become second nature; let’s take a look at some of the most common questions people have about lighting a charcoal grill:

Lump Charcoal vs. Briquettes

Your choice of fuel for your charcoal grill is entirely down to personal preference, and opinions are pretty divided between grilling pros.

Lump charcoal is made by slowly burning wood until all the natural chemicals, moisture, and sap are removed – the end result is a lump of what is essentially just carbon. It burns hotter than briquettes, lights faster, burns faster and leaves less mess which are all bonuses, but because it burns hotter and faster, you need to be on top of your temperature control game. It’s also more expensive than briquettes.

Charcoal Briquettes are made from sawdust and wood scraps that are processed in the same way as lump charcoal. Additives are then added to help the carbon stick together and create even-sized briquette blocks; as a result, they will produce much more ash than lump charcoal. Briquettes will burn longer than lump charcoal, but they won’t get as hot; they can also be made with additives such as lighter fuel to help them light quicker – while that can be helpful, it can also create a chemical smell when burning and some people will say that they notice a chemical taste to food that has been cooked over briquettes.

Charcoal briquettes are a great choice to start with when learning how to cook on a charcoal grill as they will give you a longer cooking time with a steady temperature; plus they are cheaper to buy than lump charcoal.

How to Use A Charcoal Chimney

Using a charcoal chimney is one of the best ways to get your coals started for your grill; it helps them heat to an even level and gets hot much more quickly than if you started them in the grill itself.

To use a charcoal chimney, you want to fill it with lump charcoal or briquettes fully. Some people will tell you to stack them neatly or in a certain way, and others will say to just chuck them in – it is another case of personal preference and is worth trying out a few different ways to see what you prefer. 

Next, you will add kindling to the base of the chimney – crumpled up newspaper or a paper bag is ideal for this, but you can also get purpose-made chimney starters. 

Place your kindling on your grill grate, set it alight, and place your chimney directly over it. 

As the kindling burns, the shape of the chimney draws the heat and flames upwards (thanks to the chimney effect). The flames will start to light the coals at the bottom, the heat from these coals will light the ones above and next to them, and the process continues up the entire stack. 

You will need to wait about 15-20 mins for all the coals to have caught alight, you’ll be able to see them glowing through the chimney vents, and flames should lick over the top layer. The coals are ready to pour into your grill once they have a good coating of grey-white ash. 

Why You Shouldn’t Use Lighter Fluid

If you don’t feel like your coals are getting hot quickly enough, it can be tempting to squirt on some lighter fuel to help get them going, but it’s not a good idea. 

Not only can lighter fuel leave an unpleasant taste on your food, but it also contains a lot of chemicals that you don’t really want to be breathing in or releasing into the environment. Also, if not used correctly, it can cause a big fire risk and result in nasty burns.

Grill Vent Temperature Control 

weber charcoal grill

The vents on your charcoal grill (also sometimes called dampers) are your secret weapon when it comes to temperature control. 

When we cook with charcoal, the more air that gets to it, the hotter it will burn; that’s why we blow on embers when trying to start a campfire by hand and fan or stoke it – it’s all to introduce more oxygen into the mix. 

When you first light your charcoal in your chimney, it has excellent airflow and access to oxygen, so when you tip your lit coals into the grill, you want to make sure they still have a good flow of air. In addition, it’s essential to make sure all of your vents are fully open when starting your grill to provide sufficient oxygen to keep the coals burning nice and hot; once they get up to an adequate temperature, we can then adjust it using the vents.

The vents on the bottom of your grill are called dampers, and they are what provide the airflow to your coals. The vents on the top are called exhaust dampers and help divert the smoke away in the same way a chimney does in a house by sucking air through the grill from the bottom vents.

Which Damper to Use? 

Deciding on which damper to use to control the temperature is up to you; the options are to leave the exhaust damper (lid vent) open fully and control the flow of air with the intake damper at the bottom or do it the opposite way around and leave the bottom vent open and control the temperature using the exhaust damper. 

It’s worth experimenting with both options to see which you find easiest – the best way to measure what works best is by monitoring the temperature with a digital thermometer and see how easily you can get a grill up to optimum temperature and then drop it down or raise it just by adjusting the vents.

How to Put Out a Charcoal Grill

The safest way to put out a charcoal grill is to starve it of oxygen. By closing the lid and closing the air vents, you starve the charcoal of oxygen, meaning it can no longer burn – once it’s used up the oxygen that remains in the closed-up grill it will extinguish itself.

You need to wait at least 4-8 hours for all the embers to die out and the grill to completely cool down.

Why Not Just Use Water?

While water will no doubt put out lit coals, there are a number of reasons why it’s not a good idea.

The main reason is that it poses a major burn hazard in the cloud of steam it lets off. Steam can be just as damaging to your skin/eyes/throat as flame and can result in nasty burns.

You could also damage your grill if you extinguish hot coals with cold water. When hot meets cold, it creates a thermal shock; this could cause cracks or fractures in your grill structure.

Lastly, pouring water onto ash and cooking fats creates a big sludgy mess in the bottom of your grill that can be a nightmare to clean up.

Can You Reuse Charcoal?

If you find charcoal in your grill that isn’t fully used up (it has some structure to it and is still dark instead of white and ashy), you can most definitely use it again! The main precaution to take with reusing coals is that you need to make sure the grill is 100% cooled down; even if you are sure it is cool, its best to use metal tongs to pick out any salvageable charcoal and store it in a fire-proof container until you are ready to use it again.

Cleanup

No one likes tidying up and cleaning once they’ve finished eating, but it is a necessary chore for both indoor and outdoor cooking. Cleaning your charcoal grill regularly is important for a number of reasons:

  1. Prevents Flare-Ups: Grease on the grill won’t always burn off. Sometimes it can congeal in places you don’t notice, and if it isn’t removed before you next use the grill, it can cause dangerous flare-ups.
  2. Prevents Mold and Pests: If you put your grill away for a few weeks due to bad weather without giving it a proper clean, it can become a breeding ground for mold or, worse still, attract some furry friends looking for food scraps. Animals such as mice and rats spread feces and urine wherever they walk – no one wants a burger with a side of mouse poop.
  3. Allows You to Check for Maintenance Issues: If your grill is nice and clean, it’s a lot easier to identify any wear and tear issues, like rust or cracking/fractures in grill parts.
  4. Maintains Food & Flavor Quality: If you don’t clean your grill down after each use, you could end up cooking bits of old and burnt food into your raw meat.

Ideally, you should be doing a simple grill clean and emptying any charcoal ash after each use. Ash that is left in a grill can draw in moisture and form an almost cement-like substance that is really difficult to remove.

How to Clean a Charcoal Grill

  1. The first step of a simple grill clean (once the grill has cooled down) is to remove the leftover ash into a fireproof bucket.
  2. Next, you want to clean off any food debris or grease from the grill grates.
  3. Go over the grates with a wire grill brush to knock off anything that might be stuck; make sure to remove any debris you brush off from the bottom of the grill.
  4. If there are patches of grease, mop them up with a paper towel, and if there is any sticky residue (maybe from a glaze or sauce), you might need to scrub it with some soapy water to loosen it.
  5. If you use soapy water, rinse thoroughly afterward and allow the grill to air dry fully before closing the lid.
  6. You’ll then want to do a more thorough deep clean every few months (depending on how often you use the grill).
  7. To do a deep clean, you will need to scrub everything down with warm soapy water; it’s easiest if you take out any removable sections and do them separately to ensure you’ve got every area clean.
  8. Rinse the grill parts with clean, warm water and wipe it dry with paper towels (we don’t want to use a fabric towel or cloth as it could leave fluff behind that could be a fire hazard or stick to food).
  9. Once everything is dry, check for any signs of rust or damage before putting back together.
  10. After a deep clean, it’s a good idea to re-season your grill.

The Best Food for Charcoal Grilling

Anything tastes good when cooked on a grill, but some foods can deal better with the intense heat and hit that extra level of tastiness when cooked over an authentically smokey charcoal grill.

Meats

Grilling over charcoal is a great way to cook, but some meats are better suited to the higher heat and smokey infusion than others. Here are just a few types of meat that are ideal for cooking on a charcoal grill:

  • Pork Chops
  • Prime Rib Steak
  • Turkey
  • Burgers
  • Babyback Ribs
  • Marinated Chicken Wings & Thighs
  • Fish & Shellfish

Veg, Cheese & More

Why stop at just meat? Have you tried any of these other foods or dishes on the grill?

  • Chicken and Seafood Paella – Paella should have a smokey taste; traditionally, the dish was made outside in a large pan over a fire.
  • Cheese – Cheese such as halloumi and kefalotyri has a higher melting point than other cheeses, making them perfect for cooking on the grill.
  • Fruits – Pineapple is delicious when cooked on a charcoal grill – the sweetness of the juice mixed with the smokey flavors and the caramelized charring are unbeatable.
  • Vegetables – Corn on the cob is another summer BBQ staple that tastes so much better when cooked on charcoal. Asparagus develops a sweet, nutty flavor when grilled, as does sweet potato.
  • Sweet Treats – You can’t forget toasted marshmallows and s’mores!

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