How to Use a Charcoal Grill
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This summer, learn how to use a charcoal grill. Mastering this skill means you'll have some amazing cookouts, delicious food and fond memories.
Grilling is a wonderful way to sizzle your suppers in the summertime (and in the colder months if you’re brave!). While some folks like the ease of a gas grill, we know there are some dedicated charcoal fans out there. After all, there’s no replicating that flavor!
But before you grab that bag of charcoal or head to the store to buy your first-ever grill, read up on how you can master your barbecue.
How to Start a Charcoal Grill
The most daunting part of grilling is firing up the coals. After all, who hasn’t tossed a match into the bowl of a grill, walked away and found the coals still cold 20 minutes later? (Every griller has done this!) Starting a charcoal grill, though, really isn’t very difficult. Just choose the right techniques and have a little patience, and you’ll be ready to flip a few burgers.
Choose a Type of Charcoal
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Before you even strike a match, you need to choose the right fuel for your fire. There are a few types of charcoal out there, and each suits different needs in terms of heat and flavor profile.
- Charcoal briquettes: You’ll find charcoal briquettes at supermarkets, convenience stores and the like all summer long. These bits of charcoal are made of compressed sawdust and other wood material. Charcoal briquettes burn consistently and for a long time. They’re also super affordable. A 16-pound bag will cost you about $10. The downside to this fuel is that they produce a lot of ash to clean up later and don’t impart a lot of that charred flavor many grillers are looking for.
- Hardwood or lump charcoal: This type of charcoal is made from pure wood that imparts more flavor to the food you grill. This charcoal burns more quickly than its briquette cousins but it produces less ash and waste. Because of the extra flavor here, many experienced grillers prefer hardwood charcoal. It costs a bit more than briquettes—a 15-pound bag runs about $14—but our Test Kitchen thinks that the flavor is worth the extra spend.
- A mix of both: The good news is you don’t have to stick with one type of charcoal. You can mix inexpensive briquettes with hardwood charcoal. This helps cut costs and speed up the grilling process while still giving you some of that smokey flavor.
No matter what fuel you choose, be sure to store your extra charcoal in a dry place. Your garage or shed will do the trick. If you want to be extra cautious about moisture, invest in a lidded container to stash your coals.
How to Light a Charcoal Grill
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- Lighter fluid: This is the method most people think of when starting a charcoal grill. Start by pouring your charcoal into the belly of the grill and shaping them into a mound. Then spritz the lighter fluid evenly over the coals and let it absorb into them for about 20 seconds. Then toss a match into the bowl and let ’em go. When the coals are white-hot, you can shift them around in the base of the grill and get to work.
- Chimney starter: Picky grillers are sensitive to the flavor of lighter fluid, so fluid-free methods of starting a grill are very popular, including the chimney starter. To use, crumple a sheet or two of newspaper into the bottom of the chimney and fill to the top with charcoal. Light the paper at the bottom and let this heat up until the coals are white—about 20 minutes. When ready, pour them into your grill kettle and start to cook.
- Electric charcoal starter: If you’re a gadget-loving griller, try an electric charcoal starter. To fire up the coals with one of these (our Test Kitchen likes the Looft Lighter), mound your charcoal in the kettle of your grill and touch the gadget to your coal. The starter will help the coal catch and you’ll be ready to grill in no time.
- Strike-able fire starters: You can also try a strike-able charcoal starter like these from Diamond. These fire-starting sticks ignite like a match and burn down with your charcoal. To use them, form a well in your charcoal, strike the fire starter and let it do its work. When the coals are white-hot, redistribute them in your grill as needed and grab some brats.
Color is a great indication of how hot the coals are. Aim for white to glowing red for cooking (you don’t want to see a lot of dark gray or black when you start to cook).
You can also tell if the grill is ready by hovering your hand about four inches over the coals. If you can comfortably hold it there for more than five seconds, your coals still need to heat up. If you can keep your hand hovering for about two or three seconds, that’s the sweet spot for grilling.
Also when you’re lighting your grill—and cooking and cooling it down—be sure to follow these grill safety tips.
How to Get Grilling
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Prep Your Grill Grates
This quick coating of oil will prevent food from cooking and will help season the grates the same way you’d season a cast-iron skillet.
Arranging Your Coals from Direct and Indirect Heat
While you might think that you want to cook everything from hot dogs to kabobs right over the coals, that’s not always the case.
Inside your grill, you’ll want to push your charcoal to one side. This area will be hotter and is where you’ll do all your direct heat grilling. Foods that should be grilled with direct heat are sausages, kabobs, shrimp and any food that you want to be seared like steaks.
The side without the coals will still be hot, just not scorching. This is the indirect heat area. Use indirect heat to grill foods that take 20 minutes or longer to cook like larger or tough cuts of meat. You can also use the indirect heat area of your grill to keep foods warm.
Charcoal Grilling Basics
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When it comes to learning how to use a charcoal grill, there are a few best practices to follow so your grilling recipes turn out mouthwateringly well:
- Turn food only once (if possible): Just like when searing a good steak in a cast-iron pan, it’s best not to fuss with what you’re grilling too much. Try to cook your food—whether it’s a brat or a veggie kabob—halfway through on one side and then flip. Ideally, you should flip your food just once for the best cook and the best grill marks.
- Don’t press on your proteins: As tempting as it is, do not press down on your burgers or steaks. Yes, the sizzling sound is so satisfying, but pressing on your meats squeezes out the juices which can lead to a dry burger.
- Check your vents: Charcoal grills are equipped with vents on the underside and lid. You can change the positions of these vents to help with the heat. Closed vents will decrease the heat as less oxygen will fuel the fire. Open vents will give more oxygen to the charcoal so it burns hotter.
- Control the heat: The best way to keep your grill hot is to keep the lid on. This traps the heat inside so your foods cook in a timely manner. Use vents and the lid to control the heat
- Think outside the box: While hot dogs and chicken are grilling staples, you can do a lot more on your grill. Try grilling fruits or making dessert on the grill.
How to Clean a Grill
To keep your grill ready for cookout after cookout, you do have to give it a quick clean. Here’s how to clean a grill to keep it ready for a summer full of barbecues.
- Brush the grates: After you’re done cooking and while the grate is still hot, use a grill brush to clean the grate of any major debris. The heat will make some of the baked-on mess easier to remove.
- Clean the grates: If the grates are still a bit grimy after brushing, you can give them a serious clean by soaking them in hot water and dish soap. Use a good dish scrubber to get rid of any extra dirt.
- Remove the ash: When the grill is completely cool, remove the grates and empty out any ash or leftover coals into a metal container.
- Clean the interior: If you notice the bowl of your grill getting a little grubby, use a wire brush or steel wool to get rid of any stuck-on mess. For a deep clean, scrub the interior with warm water and dish soap, then rinse.
- Wipe the exterior: Keep the outside of your grill looking shiny by giving it a quick wipe with warm water and soap.
You don’t need to complete every step every time you grill, but it’s a good practice to at least make sure you’re starting with clean grates each time—this will prevent any flame flare-ups. And if you want your grill to keep looking its best, be sure to store it in a garage or shed when not in use. You can also invest in a grill cover.
Choosing a Charcoal Grill
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If you’re looking to buy a grill or just upgrade the one you have, there are a few criteria to keep in mind.
- Shape: You’ll find charcoal grills in many shapes and sizes. Round kettle shapes are very common, though you can also find barrel-style, rectangular and square grills. Any shape will work, but you may prefer one based on what suits your yard, storage space and cooking style.
- Surface area: Grills come in all sizes. Make sure you’re buying one with enough space for your needs.
- Ease of cleaning: Charcoal grilling is a messy business. Look for models that give easy options for cleanup including ash containers.
- Price: Charcoal grills vary greatly in price. The classic Weber kettle grill (one of our Test Kitchen’s favorites) starts at around $100 and is a great option for amateur and pro grillers alike. You’ll also find some pretty fancy charcoal grills out there nearing the $1,000 mark. It’s all up to you and your budget.
Grill Tools and Accessories
The great thing about charcoal grilling is that you can do a lot with just a few simple tools. You can also invest in a lot of fun gadgets once you get more serious.
Basic Grilling Tools
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- Spatula and tongs: Make sure you have a spatula and tongs for flipping burgers, turning sausages and grilling corn. Extra-long handles keep your hands away from the heat.
- Grill brush: A good wire brush will take care of cleaning away a lot of burnt-on grime. Don’t start grilling until you’ve got one of these ready for cleanup duty.
- Meat thermometer: Getting the temperatures right on your proteins is crucial. To make sure that steak is medium-rare and your grilled pork tenderloin is done, you’ll want a good quick-read thermometer.
- Chimney starter: These chimney starters are great—even for beginner grillers. For about $20 you can start your charcoal grill without chemicals.
Next-Level Grilling Accessories
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- Electric charcoal starter: Avid grillers will definitely appreciate this gadget. A Looft Lighter charcoal starter fires up the grill in seconds and is pretty darn fun to use.
- Grilling planks: You can give food more flavor with plank grilling. Wood planks are great for grilling fish and veggies. Using different planks, like cedar or maple, can really highlight your ingredients. They’re a fun grilling extra to experiment with.
- Grilling basket: A heavy-duty basket like this one from All-Clad is a great addition to your collection of grill gear. Easily contain ingredients that might normally fall through the grates inside the basket. This works especially well with grilled vegetables.
- Grill light: You might wonder why you never thought of this one before! A grill light helps you see what you’re doing once the sun sets—perfect for later in the grilling season.
- Hardwood charcoals: Some serious grillers think of charcoal as another ingredient for their favorite grilled recipes. You can impart different flavors with different types of wood. Cowboy Charcoal makes several options including mesquite, applewood and hickory.
- BBQ mop brush and basting pot: For many, grilling is synonymous with barbecue. If you like to cover your ribs with plenty of sauce, a good mop brush will do the job. Its bristles are designed to soak up lots of your favorite barbecue sauce to coat whatever it is you love to grill.
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