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There is no doubt that grilling with charcoal is one of the most widely known and most popular fuel sources to use. It’s also a great way to impart a delicious smoky flavor onto your food, whether it is chicken, seafood, or anything in between.

Charcoal is usually readily available, but cooking with it can be a little more complicated than using a gas or electric grill. There are definitely some things to keep in mind and tips to follow to ensure you’ll have a successful time cooking. If you are wondering how to grill with charcoal, you’ve come to the right place. We went straight to our champion Grillmasters and Pitmasters to find out exactly what you need to know.

 

What Is Charcoal Exactly?

To understand how to grill with charcoal properly, it is helpful to know the answer to a still common question: what is charcoal exactly? Charcoal is made from burning cooking hardwood at high heat in a low oxygen environment until it carbonizes or chars.

When charcoal is lit, the carbon combines with oxygen and creates significant amounts of energy. It actually produces more energy per ounce than raw wood, resulting in a fuel source that remains steady, hot, and burns clean.  

The most common form of charcoal that you’ll find is charcoal briquettes. These briquettes are made from sawdust and leftover woods and combined with binders to hold them together. Briquettes are often shaped like a miniature pillow, and are consistent in shape and size, usually roughly 3” x 2”. This means they are more consistent in their burn because they are all uniform. They will also burn for a significantly long time.

Hardwood lump charcoal is another form of charcoal. Newer to the barbecue world compared to briquettes, lumps are made from natural wood pieces and will vary widely in size and shape. They look like wood chunks that have been burned to a char and suddenly extinguished. Charcoal lumps are arguably one of the most flavorful fuel sources, usually contain no binders, and produce a great, consistent smoke. Lumps will also burn hotter than briquettes but not as long.

 

lump charcoal | how to grill with charcoal | how to grill using charcoal

 

Tips For How To Grill Using Charcoal:

Chances are if you found yourself on this site, you want to elevate your outdoor cooking game and grill or smoke some delicious food. If you are about to start cooking with charcoal, here are some of the pro tips you should follow to help you get one step closer to cooking some food that is sure to impress:

 

Use A Charcoal Chimney To Get Started

You may be wondering how to start a charcoal grill. One of the lengthiest parts of grilling with charcoal is indeed getting the charcoal lit. It may be tempting to use lighter fluid, but for the sake of your food’s flavor, it is best to skip any accelerant. To get your charcoal lit like the pros, opt for a charcoal chimney. 

Using a charcoal chimney is simple. You start by packing the bottom of the chimney with pieces of crumpled paper and put your charcoal in the top of it. Then just light the bottom and wait. Depending on how much charcoal you’re using, wait about 15 - 20 minutes to let your charcoal properly heat up. Then, grab a good heat-resistant grill glove and pour the lit charcoal into the base of your grill.

 

Don’t Overdo It With The Amount Of Charcoal

Just because you are going to grill with charcoal doesn’t mean you go for a ton of it to get started. When you are trying to determine how much charcoal to use, think about your target temperatures. 

The higher the desired temperatures, the more charcoal you’ll use. If you are wanting to cook things like a steak over high heat (450 degrees Fahrenheit or more) then you’ll fill your charcoal chimney. If you are aiming for medium heat (350 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit) and cooking things like chicken or fish then you’ll fill your chimney ½ way to ¾ of the way full. Finally, if you are wanting to cook things like brisket or pork shoulder low and slow over “low” heat (250 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit) then you’ll only need ¼ of the chimney full of charcoal. 

 

Avoid Pre-Coated Briquettes

As touched on above, to help avoid a strange flavor on your food you want to avoid lighter fluid in any way. So, if you are using briquettes, this also means avoiding charcoal briquettes that come pre-coated in lighter fluid. The little amount of extra effort to get the charcoal lit is well worth protecting your food from accelerant fumes.

 

Wait Until Your Charcoal Is Really Ready 

 

how to start a charcoal grill | how to grill with charcoal | how to grill using charcoal

 

It is important to wait until your charcoal is fully gray-white hot in the charcoal chimney before you start adding them to the base of your grill. Waiting until they are will definitely pay off in the end. If you start adding the charcoal to your grill when some of it is still black, it will be much more difficult to control the temperature as you cook. 

The black charcoal will eventually ignite and will increase the temperature in certain areas of your grill very quickly. This will make the way you’ve arranged your charcoals in the grill pointless and will no longer match the desired temperatures.

 

Kick The Flavor Up A Notch With Wood

If you want to enhance the smoke flavor imparted on your food, you can also throw some dried wood chunks on top of your charcoal. This works especially well when you are cooking for longer periods over lower temperatures. Hickory, walnut, mesquite, and fruitwoods like cherry and apple are grillmaster favorites. The different types of wood all add different subtle flavors.

If you are grilling over higher temperatures, the same can be done with wood chips. Just make sure to soak the wood chips first.

 

Set Up A Two-Zone Grill

Ideally, you want to give yourself the flexibility to move food around on the grill and utilize different temperatures as needed. When you are cooking with charcoal, this is done by setting up a two-zone grill. This grill setup will allow you to sear and roast all on the same grill.

To do this with charcoal simply distribute at least 75% of the briquettes or lumps on one side of the grill, creating two different temperature zones, an indirect heat side and a direct heat side. This gives you the ability to cook different foods at different temperatures and speeds. It also gives you an area to let your food rest over little to no heat while you get everything else ready before it’s time to eat.

A two-zone grill setup will also give you a safety zone in case you have a grill flareup. Then you have a place to move the food to and prevent it from burning.

 

two zone charcoal setup | how to grill with charcoal | how to grill using charcoalSource: Weber Grills

 

Let Your Grill Heat Up Before Putting The Food On

Just like if you were cooking in an oven, you want to make sure your grill is preheated before putting any food onto the grates. Of course, you also want to make sure the grill racks are clean before placing anything on them. 

Once you’ve got your lit charcoal distributed in your grill, close the lid and let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes before placing any food on the grill. This is where a good digital grill thermometer comes in handy to be able to quickly determine the internal temperature of your grill.

You also want to oil the grill grates before they go over the hot coals and before you put food on. This will prevent the food from sticking to them and allow you to get those nice grill marks. 

 

The Grill Vents Are Your Friend

Compared to gas grills, it might seem like cooking with charcoal doesn’t give you as much control over temperatures. You can actually regulate the grill's temperature by controlling the airflow through the top and bottom grill vents. 

If you are wondering how to make a charcoal grill hotter, look to the vents. These vents control the airflow through the grill and the wider open they are, the hotter it’s going to get. Alternatively, if you want to lower the temperature, just close the vents a little more.

Utilizing the grill vents properly will also help you avoid and control any grill flareups

 

Put The Charcoal Out Safely

When you are done grilling and ready to put the charcoal out, remember that charcoal needs oxygen to stay burning. So the best way to put it out is to close all the air vents to snuff out the fire. Wait 24 hours before you clean out the charcoal ash from the grill to prevent unintended fires from ash that may still actually be smoldering after a couple of hours.

You can reuse any unburned charcoal the next time you want to grill.

 

Keep Leftover Charcoal Fresh

 

how to grill with charcoal | how to grill using charcoal | cooking with charcoalSource: Kingsford Charcoal

 

Charcoal performs best when it is dry and fresh. So, if you have leftover charcoal and want to be able to use it again later, it must be stored properly. Make sure that the bag of remaining charcoal is sealed tightly and kept away from water. If stored properly in a cool, dry place, charcoal will have a shelf life of 1-2 years. 

 

You Can Master Cooking With Charcoal

Charcoal is still a favorite of many champion grillmasters. By following the tips above, you too can master cooking with charcoal and have the ammunition to do it easily and successfully. 

What is the first thing you are going to grill with charcoal now? Do you have another tip we forgot? Let us know by commenting below. We want to hear from you!

These kinds of insider tips from some of the barbecue world’s champion grillmasters are just a glimpse of the kinds of things you’ll learn in the online grilling classes here at BBQ Champs Academy. Packed with everything you need to know, our step-by-step classes will get you cooking like the pros. Check out the All-Access pass now for the full inside look!

Wood has always been a classic, tried and true fuel source for outdoor cooking and to produce smoke that will flavor your meat perfectly. For a long time, hardwood logs were the only option when it came to using wood when smoking or grilling. But, in today’s BBQ world, using wood can mean a variety of different methods, shapes, and sizes.

Now, one of the great options available for wood-based fuel sources is wood pellets. A newer fuel source to the barbecue game, wood pellets are a versatile way to achieve a great smoky flavor in your outdoor cooking. In this article, we’ll take a deeper dive into exactly what wood pellets are and how to use them to cook great tasting BBQ with that delicious, smoky flavor you are looking for. 

 

What Exactly Are Wood Pellets?

Wood pellets are made from a combination of hardwood shavings and sawdust. This is pressurized, compressed down, and held together through the use of the wood’s lignin, an all-natural binding agent. It’s made into long, pencil-thick rods that are broken into smaller pieces. Most wood pellet pieces will be about a half-inch long. 

During the compression of the wood shaving and sawdust mixture, most of the air and moisture is removed. Also, this mixture means you won’t be burning any bark, dirt, etc that you would find on raw wood logs. This results in an extremely efficient and clean-burning fuel source. Pellets used for smoking are also food-grade. Therefore, they do not contain any adhesives or chemicals. They also don’t contain softwoods, like pine or spruce, that have a high amount of sap that can adversely affect the taste of your meat.

Most wood pellets are made up of mainly oak, a very stable burning wood. This is then blended with another hardwood or fruitwood to impart the flavor through the smoke.

 

Using Wood Pellets For Smoking

Pellets are a very versatile fuel and flavor source that has been growing in popularity in the outdoor cooking world.  The use of wood pellets, whether by themselves or in combination with another fuel source, does have some great advantages. Some of these include:

  • Very clean burning since it contains no bark or scrap wood
  • They produce less than 1% of ash, making for easier cleanup
  • Low moisture
  • High BTU
  • Much lower carbon dioxide production
  • More energy efficient compared to other fuel sources
  • Costs less per energy unit than most other types of fuel
  • Easier to maintain consistent temperatures

Wood pellets can also be used in a variety of different ways. One way is in a pellet smoker or grill. These smokers have been quickly growing in popularity in the outdoor cooking world, specifically in barbecue competitions. You may be familiar with them or have seen one being used. 

Pellet smokers use the pellets as the main fuel source for both heat and flavor. With these smokers, wood pellets are poured into a box on the side known as a “hopper”. From this hopper, the pellets are automatically fed at a controlled rate by an auger into a small burn pot or hot box. This is where the pellets are ignited and produce heat and flavorful smoke. 

 

wood pellet smoker | wood pellets | wood pellet grillSource: Traeger Grills

 

One of the best things about pellet smokers is that they can be regulated with a thermostat, so it is very easy to maintain a constant temperature without having to constantly monitor your heat source.

You don’t necessarily need a pellet smoker to take advantage of wood pellets. What you might not know is that wood pellets can also be used in a charcoal smoker or grill to add a more enhanced smoke flavor. And it’s very easy to do.

Once your coals are totally covered in white ash and to a hot, even temperature, add your wood pellets to the coals. You want to use enough of the pellets to create a thin layer over your charcoal. As soon as the pellets ignite and start smoking, you are ready to start cooking your meat. 

 

Flavor Profiles Of Wood Pellets

As mentioned above, wood pellets are available in a variety of mixtures of oak with other hardwoods or fruitwoods. Each of these will impart a very different flavor profile on meats. Also, using one type of wood pellet while smoking one type of meat will taste different than with another type of meat.

Wood pellets for outdoor cooking can be found in several different flavors. Each variation has a different flavor intensity it imparts. Also, each flavor pairs well with some meats more than others. To decide which type of wood pellet you should use for your smoking, it is best to use the type of meat you are cooking as your starting point. Then decide how intense of a flavor you want to pair with that meat.

Here is a breakdown of the most common variations of wood pellets:

  • Mesquite - Often a favorite of Texas-style barbecue purists, this is going to be the strongest flavor. Mesquite produces an intense aroma and a more savory, spicy flavor. This type of wood pairs well with beef and other strong-flavored meats.
  • Hickory - This is also going to be a richer, stronger flavor but not as strong as mesquite. This savory flavor pairs well with many different types of meat.
  • Pecan - Pecan wood has a fairly robust flavor that is smoother compared to mesquite and hickory. It does pair well with chicken and pork.
  • Maple - This wood flavor has a milder, smooth flavor that many outdoor cookers also pair with pork. 
  • Oak - Post Oak wood is a medium flavored, very versatile when it comes to what meats pair well with it. It is also a very stable-burning wood. That is why most types of wood pellets you can buy are mainly Oak mixed in with another variation/flavor of wood.
  • Apple - Out of the fruit woods, Apple will provide a stronger, sweet flavor. This wood pairs well with pork and chicken. 
  • Cherry - A milder fruitwood, Cherry will also give you a slightly sweet flavor. This wood also pairs very well with pork and chicken. Because of its milder intensity, some pitmasters use it for beef and lamb as well.

 

Some brands of wood pellets, like the selection from B & B Charcoal, also have blends of several different types of wood flavors. For example, the Championship Blend from B & B Charcoal is a blend of Pecan, Cherry, and Oak. 

best wood pellets | flavored wood pellets | wood pellets for barbecue

This results in a deliciously smooth, savory flavor with a sweet undertone that pairs well with many types of meat.

There are also specialty variations, like Jack Daniel’s Pellets. These wood pellets are made from the mellowing charcoal from the Jack Daniel’s distillery. Producing a rich, smooth taste that works well with chicken and pork. jack daniels pellets | best wood pellets | flavored wood pelletsSource: B & B Charcoal

Deciding which flavor of wood pellets will work for you comes down to your flavor preference and experimentation. Get creative and try several different flavor variations with different meats, different rubs, etc to find out what you like best.

 

Wrapping It All Up

Wood pellets are increasingly becoming a favorite option of fuel sources for many outdoor cookers. From the backyard barbecuers to the champion pitmasters. It is a very clean, efficient, and versatile way to impart that great smoky flavor from natural wood. Cooking with wood pellets also means easier-to-maintain temperatures, which is critical to successful low and slow cooking sessions.

Both pellet smokers and charcoal smokers and grills provide an opportunity to experiment with different flavor variations of wood pellets to achieve desired results. From strong, spicy flavors to smooth, sweet flavors and everything in between. 

One this is certain when it comes to cooking with wood pellets. To cook competition-worthy barbecue you want to be sure you are using a quality brand of pellets. Using cheap pellets can quickly ruin the flavor of your meat and wreak havoc on your smoker or grill. That’s why many champion Pitmasters and Grillmasters, like Mark Lambert and Shawn Roppolo, recommend the high-quality wood pellets from B & B Charcoal

Do you want to learn more insider information like this, as well as proven techniques and competition barbecue secrets? Get the inside scoop from Mark Lambert, Shawna Roppolo, and more Champion Pitmasters and Grillmasters here in the BBQ Champs Academy online barbecue cooking classes. Our easy-to-follow, step-by-step classes are all in high definition video and packed with everything you need to know to start cooking like the pros. Check out the All-Access pass now to get the full inside look!

Smoke is what sets barbecue apart from other types of food and gives it that delicious flavor we all crave. Some people only picture wood logs as the heat source when it comes to outdoor cooking. But, there are now several options for fuel sources that are available when it comes to your grill or smoker.  

Understanding the different fuel sources is a big part of helping you master outdoor cooking. As well as selecting a new grill or smoker that you’ll be happy to use regularly. Some fuel sources are more convenient than others, while others result in more flavorful meat. Some will have longer cooking times and a higher cost than others.  

One for sure thing is that they will all result in different flavors. This is because each fuel source produces different gases and byproducts during combustion. It is just a matter of determining which fuel source is right for your situation and your preferred flavor. 

Let’s break down some of the fuel sources for outdoor cooking that are available today:

 

1. Wood Logs & Chunks

Wood is the classic, natural fuel source that has been used for ages when it comes to outdoor cooking over fire. Using wood as a fuel source not only cooks the meat over heat but also imparts a delicious smoky flavor and crispy bark. The wood you use can come in several forms, including logs and smaller chunks.

Some pitmasters will never use any other fuel source other than wood logs. You can rely on it to be consistent, usually abundant, cheap, and flavorful. No matter what shape or size of wood you use, you can even completely change the taste of your meat by using different types of wood.

When it comes to different types of wood, in general:

  • Oak – Has a mild flavor compared to other woods and burns slow and even. It is generally a good wood for longer smoking sessions.
  • Hickory – Has a stronger flavor than oak and also burns well when used to smoke for longer sessions. 
  • Pecan – This wood has a stronger flavor that is a combination of smoky and sweet. Because of this, many people prefer Pecan for shorter smokes. When used for longer smoking sessions, the flavor can become somewhat overpowering.
  • Mesquite – A strong flavored wood that usually burns hotter and faster than other types. It also produces a lot of smoke. This type is great for grilling and shorter cooks or to burn down as coals. Although, some Texas-style barbecue purists love the taste of Mesquite wood when slow smoking beef brisket. 
  • Fruit woods – These woods, including Cherry and Apple, have a sweeter, milder flavor. They are good for long smoking sessions and can be used green.
  • Avoid using softwoods. They contain a higher volume of sap and terpenes and will leave a very odd taste to the meat.

What type, size, and shape of wood you use will depend on your personal flavor preferences, what meat you are cooking, availability, and wood storage. It is important to use wood that has been left out to dry for approximately 6 months for optimal burning. Don’t soak your wood before cooking.

The thing to keep in mind is that outdoor cooking with wood takes practice to perfect. It needs constant monitoring to maintain consistent temperatures and ensure you end up with meat that isn’t charred and tastes great.

 

2. Wood Pellets

A newer, more economical fuel source that spun off the original idea of using wood as fuel is wood pellets. Used in pellet grills, wood pellets are all-natural, usually the size of a baked bean, and made up of compressed wood shavings or sawdust that has had most of the air and moisture removed. They come in several different varieties of types of hardwood to achieve the different flavor profiles.

In a pellet smoker, the pellets are automatically fed into a small burn pot at a controlled rate to maintain a constant temperature consistently. So, they do not need as much constant monitoring as when burning traditional wood logs or chunks in a smoker or grill.

With wood pellets, you can still achieve a great smoky flavor in a much more versatile, controlled, and less cumbersome way. Keep in mind that pellet fires don’t get really hot so they are tough to grill over.

 

wood pellets | outdoor cooking | fuel sources | outdoor cooking with wood

Source: B & B Charcoal

 

3. Charcoal Briquettes

Charcoal is one of the most widely known and widely used fuel sources in both smokers and grills, even by champion barbecue pitmasters. It is made by partially burning hardwood until it carbonizes. The most common form of charcoal is briquettes. These are all consistent in size and shape and are engineered to provide a consistent and convenient fuel source.

Charcoal briquettes create an optimal amount of smoke, burning at low or high temperatures, which produces that great smoky flavor you are looking for. Charcoal lighter fluid has often been used to start briquettes but can leave a foul chemical taste on the food. The best way to avoid this is to use a chimney starter to ignite your briquettes without any chemical additive. Also, look for briquettes that are not pre-coated in additives to help start them.

 

4. Hardwood Charcoal Lumps

Another form of charcoal is hardwood charcoal lumps. These are newer to the barbecue scene compared to briquettes. Charcoal lumps closely resemble chunks of wood that were burning in a bonfire and suddenly extinguished. The size of the pieces will widely vary between a small chunk the size of a golf ball to a lump the size of a grapefruit.

Hardwood charcoal lumps rarely come with unnatural additives and chemicals. They are arguably one of the most flavorful fuel sources, producing great and consistent smoke. As with charcoal briquettes, charcoal lumps are great for “low and slow” cooking sessions as well as high heat grilling.

Most hardwood charcoal lumps come as a mixture of several types of wood, but some options will specify that the lumps are from one particular type. For both charcoal briquettes and charcoal lumps, it does take practice to get used to how much to use in your grill or smoker to reach and maintain consistent desired temperatures.

 

hardwood charcoal lumps | outdoor cooking | fuel sources | outdoor cooking with woodSource: B & B Charcoal

 

5. Propane

Another common fuel source is liquid propane. Approximately 60 percent of grills available today are fueled by propane. The liquid propane tanks are easy to find, affordable, and portable. Making them perfect for outdoor cooking on the go. 

Propane is fast to start up and makes keeping a consistent temperature easy. It does burn hot and clean, good for both smoking and grilling, but it will be less flavorful compared to charcoal or other wood-based fuel sources.

If you are cooking with liquid propane, always make sure you have a full spare tank on hand so you don’t take a chance running out of fuel mid-cook. 

 

6. Natural Gas

Natural gas is another good option as a fuel source. It does have many similarities as liquid propane. But, unlike propane, when using natural gas for your outdoor cooking your grill would be connected to a natural gas line from your home. So, you’ll enjoy a seemingly endless supply of fuel that is always ready to go. Making it a very affordable and convenient option to fuel your outdoor cooking.

Many grills can be purchased to run on natural gas as your fuel source. Many manufacturers also offer conversion kits to turn your propane grill into a natural gas grill. As with propane, natural gas provides the ability to easily maintain a consistent temperature but you will sacrifice some smoky flavor.

 

7. Electric

Electric smokers are also an option when it comes to outdoor cooking, though less common in the championship barbecue scene. If you are tight on space, these are a great option because they are usually lighter and smaller. Electric smokers use a heating element that glows hot to cook the meat low and slow. This also results in an easy way to maintain your desired temperature without much effort.

The thing to keep in mind when it comes to electric smokers is that because there is no fire, there is no combustion to create smoke. So, unless you are using some form of wood as a secondary fuel source you will not get much of a smoky flavor or bark on the meat.

 

electric smoker | outdoor cooking | fuel sources | outdoor cooking with electricSource: Char-Broil

 

Combining Fuel Sources For Great Flavor 

As you can see, a lot of the smoky flavor that everyone craves in BBQ comes from burning wood. But that doesn’t mean you have to solely use wood as your main heat source to achieve a good flavor. 

Many champion pitmasters today actually use a combination of fuel sources. This provides the ability to control temperatures more easily while still getting a great smoky taste. 

For example, a common mix is to use a charcoal smoker with wood chunks added. This equates to a cheaper, more portable, and easier to maintain fuel source while still getting a great smoky flavor, bark, and smoke ring from the wood. The same thing can be done with propane, natural gas, or electricity as the main fuel source and wood chips as a secondary fuel. 

 

Wrapping It All Up

As you can see, there are several ways to achieve a rich, smoky flavor in your meat. Each of the fuel sources we touched on above will result in varying flavors. No matter what fuel source you are using, it is important to always maintain a thin blue smoke for best flavor results.

Deciding which fuel source is the best will be a very personalized choice. You should consider the cooking time, ease of use, cost, portability, and desired flavor when choosing the fuel source that will work best for you. With the right selection and/or combination, you can achieve great tasting meat that you’ll have fun cooking as frequently as you can.  

Stay tuned next month for a deeper dive into wood as a fuel source!

This kind of insider knowledge straight from the champion barbecue pitmasters and grillmasters is just a taste of the kinds of things you’ll learn in BBQ Champs Academy’s online cooking classes. Our step-by-step classes, all in high definition 4K video, are packed with everything you need to know to start cooking like the pros. Check out the All-Access pass now to get the inside look!

Looking for high-quality wood logs, charcoal briquettes, charcoal lumps, and wood pellets that the pros use? B & B Charcoal is the premier provider for your barbecue fuel needs. If B & B Charcoal products are not sold in your area, reach out to them directly on their website and they’ll get them in stores near you!

Looking for a great place to buy rubs, sauces, charcoal, accessories, & more with fast shipping? Click the logos below!

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