How to Use a Charcoal Grill

With just a bit of know-how required, cooking on a charcoal grill pays dividends in delicious flavor. Check out our complete guide to charcoal grilling, from lighting the coals to cleaning when the cooking's done.

american barbecue - preparing beef ribs on charcoal grillShutterstock / ronstik

Grilling is a wonderful way to sizzle your suppers in summertime—and year-round, too. Before you head to your backyard for some fresh-air cooking, refresh your grilling skills with tips for mastering how to barbecue with charcoal.

Yep, there’s a little more to charcoal grilling than turning the knobs on a gas model, but the depth of flavor you’ll get is well worth it. So relax, and learn answers to some common questions.

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Q: How much charcoal should I use?

A: Easy, just spread the briquettes (lumps) in a single layer just a bit beyond where your food will be cooked.

Q: How do you light a charcoal grill?

A: There are several methods. Pick the one you’re most comfortable with.

1. Pyramid Style

Light your charcoal grill pyramid-style

Arrange briquettes in a pyramid in the kettle. Pour lighter fluid over briquettes. Recap the fluid and place away from grill. Light briquettes.

2. Electric Starter

Lighting a charcoal grill with an electric starter.

Arrange briquettes in a pyramid in the kettle. Insert electric starter in the middle of coals. Plug starter into an outlet. If using an extension cord, use a heavy-duty one. It will take 8 to 10 minutes for ash to form on coals. At that point, unplug the electric starter and remove from briquettes. The starter will be very hot, so place it out of the way on a heatproof surface. Continue heating briquettes until they are covered with a light gray ash.

3. Chimney Starter

Adding briquettes to a chimney starter to light a charcoal grill.

Crumple newspaper or waxed paper (yep, waxed paper—it’s good for all kinds of stuff) and place a chimney starter over the paper in the grill. Fill the chimney starter with briquettes. Light paper. When coals are ready, dump them out of the chimney starter and spread out. The Taste of Home Test Kitchen recommends this method.

Q: How can you tell how hot the coals are? 

A: Get a feel for things! Cautiously hold your hand 4 inches over the coals. Start counting the number of seconds you can hold your hand in place before the heat forces you to pull away.

  • If you can hold your hand above the fire for no more than 2 seconds, the heat level is “hot” (about 500°).
  • If you can only hold your hand above the coals for 3 seconds, the heat level is “medium-hot” (about 400°).
  • If you can hold your hand above the coals for no more than 4 seconds, the heat level is “medium” (about 350°).
  • If you can hold your hand above the coals for about 5 seconds, the heat level is “low” (about 300°).

Q: What’s direct heat?

A: Cooking directly over the flames is called “direct heat.” The exterior of foods will char quickly, so think small. Petite or thin pieces of meat or vegetables that cook quickly over high temperatures. Direct heat is also great for steaks, chicken breasts, veggies and fish fillets.

To prepare for direct heat, spread preheated coals in an even layer. Or, for better control, arrange the coals to create a hot zone, a medium zone and a cool zone. Accomplish this by raking coals into a double layer in one third of the grill, a single layer in another third, and by keeping them out of the final third entirely. Use the hot zone for searing, the medium for cooking, and the cool zone for resting food once it’s done cooking.

Preparing a charcoal grill for direct heat.

Q: What’s indirect heat?

A: Cooking slightly away from the flames, where temperatures are lower, is called “indirect heat.” Here, you should think big! Indirect heat imparts delicious flavor, sometimes over hours of cooking time. Think large pieces of meat, such as ribs, brisket or whole birds.

To prepare for indirect heat, bank half of the hot coals on one side of the grill and the other half on the other side. Place a foil drip pan in the center of the grill. Replace the cooking grate and place the meat over the drip pan. Cover and grill according to recipe directions.

Preparing a charcoal grill for indirect heat

Q: How do I clean a grill?

A: Use a stiff wire brush after cooking—the residual heat will help remove food residue.

Cleaning a grill grate after cooking while it’s still hot

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