How to Use a Charcoal Grill

Grilling with Charcoal

Charcoal grilling is a great way to enjoy hangouts in the park, at the beach, or in your backyard. Not only is charcoal grilling convenient and inexpensive, but it also enhances the flavor, texture, and aroma of all kinds of meat and veggies. There’s no better way to get the most out of grilling season than a charcoal cookout!

If you’re new to charcoal grilling and want to learn how to use a charcoal grill, this guide is for you. We’ll go over the best way to prepare your charcoal grill, how to choose your charcoal, and the different methods for lighting the grill. Plus, we’ll cover some of our favorite tips for charcoal grilling in both freestanding and built-in grills. That food’s not going to cook itself, so let’s get started!

First, let’s talk about preparing your charcoal grill for cooking.

Charcoal Grilling Preparation

Prepping a charcoal grill takes a bit more work than a gas grill, but the process isn’t difficult. It just comes down to following the right steps. Here are the four things you’ll want to do when preparing your charcoal grill for your next barbecue:

  • Empty any old ash from the grill.
  • Clean all the grill grates, removing as much grit and grime as possible.
  • Preheat the grill grates.
  • Oil down the grill grates with a brush while they are still hot.

Because charcoal grilling can be a little messy, these steps are vital to finishing with clean, well-cooked food at the end of your grilling session. Nobody wants any ash on their otherwise perfectly grilled steak.

Now that the grill is clean and ready for cooking, let’s dive a little deeper into how to use a charcoal grill.

Choosing the Right Charcoal

The first step to charcoal grilling is choosing quality charcoal. Food tastes better when cooked over charcoal because charcoal imbues the food with flavor—which makes choosing the right charcoal all the more essential.

Make sure your charcoal has a “restaurant quality” or “for grilling” label. Restaurant-quality charcoal will cook your food evenly without getting a bunch of ash on your meat and veggies.

You may use lump charcoal or briquettes in your grill. Lump charcoal is considered the “premium” option, as it consists of 100% natural, additive-free wood that has been burned down to a pure carbon state. It burns very hot, provides a consistent flavor, and produces very little ash, though it sells at a higher price point. On the other hand, briquettes offer an economical solution. They’re less pure and produce more ash than lump charcoal, but they’re generally more affordable and burn for longer.

Determining the Charcoal Amount

The next step in how to charcoal grill is determining what amount of charcoal to use. The amount of charcoal you put in your grill will depend on the type of meat you’re grilling. Less dense meats like fish will take less charcoal. (Whitefish requires about a quarter chimney of charcoal, for example.)

Red meats like burgers or steaks are usually grilled with about three-quarters of the chimney filled with charcoal, allowing you to get the grill hotter. The general rule is that the more charcoal you use, the hotter and faster you can cook something. So, if you fill the chimney all the way up, you’ll be able to get the grill hot enough to provide that perfect sear you’re looking for.

Now that you’ve got your charcoal and prepared the grill, it's time to get cooking.

Lighting the Charcoal

There are a few different ways to light the charcoal in your grill. The method you use will depend on what works best for you and what equipment you have at your disposal.

Since this is an important part of how to use a charcoal grill, we’ll go over a few of the best lighting methods in the following sections.

Using a Chimney Charcoal Starter

A chimney charcoal starter is essentially a metal tube that holds your charcoal until it’s lit. It’s easy to use and an effective way to get started.

First, take out your grill grates and fill the chimney starter with charcoal. Place lighter cubes on the charcoal grate and light them. Set the chimney starter on the lighter cubes and wait about 10 to 15 minutes.

Once the charcoal on top has begun to burn, pour out the chimney onto the charcoal grate. Make sure the charcoal is evenly arranged, replace your cooking grate, and start cooking.

Using Lighter Fluid

Lighter fluid—what did we do without it? This is one of the easiest ways to get your charcoal grill started. All you’ll need is lighter fluid and a lighter or a match or two. However, many grillers don’t recommend using lighter fluid with charcoal grills, both due to the added risk and the chance of ingesting chemicals.

Pile the charcoal into a pyramid on the charcoal grate, then douse it with lighter fluid for about ten seconds. Use a long lighter to ignite the charcoal. Let the charcoal burn until the edges of the coals turn gray with ash, making sure the fluid has burned off. You can then spread out the coals and start cooking when your grill is hot enough.

Never squirt lighter fluid onto already-lit coals! This will cause dangerous flare-ups.

Using an Electric Starter

Looking for a safe, simple way to light your charcoal? An electric starter may be your solution. These are essentially long metal devices that start your coals with electricity.

All you have to do is place the tip of the starter on a pyramid of charcoal assembled on your charcoal grate. As the coals begin to light, pull the starter back a few inches and continue to heat the charcoal.

Once the fire has fully started, you can remove the starter, spread out your coals, and replace the cooking grate to start grilling.

Using Instant-Lighting Charcoal

When learning how to use a charcoal grill, a great way to bypass the hassle of lighting your coals is to use instant-lighting charcoal. This specific kind of charcoal can be lit with just a lighter or a match.

Stack the instant-lighting charcoal in a pyramid and light it in several places. This should start the fire. Let it burn for about 10 to 15 minutes until the charcoal is ready for cooking.

How to Put Out a Charcoal Grill

Once you’re done grilling, you’ll need to extinguish the charcoal safely. The recommended method is to “suffocate” the coals until the fire burns out. Simply close the vents and lid and let the charcoal burn out for at least 48 hours. After that, everything should be cool and turned to ash.

A quicker solution is to slowly douse the coals with water, stirring them as you do. While this method effectively extinguishes the charcoal and prevents dormant embers from reigniting, it should be done with care to avoid creating hot steam.

Tips for Charcoal Grilling

Now let’s talk about actually grilling meat and veggies on your charcoal grill. Here are a few of the BBQ Depot’s experts on how to use a charcoal grill:

  • Add chips of hardwood to your charcoal to add a smoky flavor.
  • Open your grill’s dampers to heat up your grill even more.
  • Large cuts of meat often benefit from indirect cooking for a longer time.
  • Make sure you let your meat rest for at least 15 to 20 minutes after you’re done cooking.

The BBQ Depot is always here to answer your grilling questions. As the trusted source for everything from gas to charcoal grills, we can help you purchase your next grill or determine how long your current grill will last. Our grilling experts are always standing by. Give them a call at 1-877-983-0451 and start your grilling journey with us!

by Tracy Hollander on 12th Dec 2023
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