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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Source: Weber Grills
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.
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.
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.
Source: 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.
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!