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How to cook on a charcoal grill: A beginner’s guide

Everything just tastes better when cooked over charcoal

Man grilling
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With grilling season now officially underway, you might be eyeballing that bag of charcoal at the grocery store. Perhaps you’re remembering the irresistible flavor of those incredible barbecued ribs you had last summer. Maybe you saw a new charcoal grill model at the hardware store, you just couldn’t resist, and now you have questions. Whatever situation you’re in, charcoal grilling is always a good idea. If you’re used to a gas grill, though, there are differences to know and keep in mind when it comes time to light that fire. This is everything you need to know about cooking on a charcoal grill.

Types of charcoal

Coals on hot grill
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The key difference between a gas grill and a charcoal grill is – clearly – the charcoal. Ingredients cooked on a charcoal grill are arguably far superior in taste due to their richer, smokier flavor. While gas grills have metal grates that cover the grill’s flames and trap the drippings of the food inside, a charcoal grill captures and transforms those drippings into delicious smoke that works its way into your food. Of course, those drippings and that wonderful smoke come from the charcoal inside. So, which charcoal should you be using for your grill?

There are three main categories of charcoal: briquettes, hardwood/lump, and a mixture of the two. Within these perimeters, there are many different blends and varieties, but these are the main groups to consider when buying charcoal. Each of these three categories offers its own pros and cons when it comes to heat and flavor.

Briquettes

This is the most common type of charcoal, easily found everywhere, from your local grocer to your favorite hardware store to the 7-Eleven on the corner.

Made from compressed sawdust and other wood materials, briquettes burn evenly and for long periods of time. They’re also extremely affordable, which is nice when you’re planning to grill throughout the entire season.

There are two cons to briquettes, though. Firstly, they aren’t the best choice for imparting a lot of smoky, charred flavor. While you will absolutely get more than if you use a gas grill, you might want to look elsewhere if you’re looking for a particularly nuanced flavor in your barbecue. Briquettes also create quite a mess, so be prepared to clean up a lot of ash.

Hardwood/lump 

Slightly more expensive than briquettes, hardwood or lump charcoal is made from pure wood pieces rather than compressed parts and fillers. Though this type is a few more dollars per bag, the added cost is well worth it if you’re looking for extra flavor in your barbecue. The pure wood in hardwood and lump varieties does a far better job of adding that signature smoke to your food. It also burns cleaner, making for an easier clean-up.

Mixture

The beauty of barbecue is its flexibility, and your charcoal choice is one such example. There isn’t a hard and fast rule that you have to choose one charcoal type and stick with it. You’re lighting it on fire, after all, so mix it up. A popular choice is to use a base of cheaper briquettes and top with hardwood or lump charcoal to bring in the flavor. There are no wrong answers.

Lighting your grill

Charcoal on grill
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Depending on who you are, this is either the best or the most intimidating/frightening part of charcoal grilling. Personally, we’re part of the former camp, but we understand the hesitation. You’re working with fire, and likely a lot of it. Of course, there are dangers, and it’s important to always treat the process with the respect and caution it deserves.

To get your grill fire going, there are lots of lighting aids to choose from. A few of our favorites are as follows:

Lighter fluid

When using lighter fluid to amp up your fire, it’s important to use it sparingly—not just for safety reasons but also for flavor. The last thing you want to do is make your otherwise delicious tri-tip taste like lighter fluid, so only spritz a bit over the coals and allow it to absorb properly before lighting that match.

Chimney starter

These handy little gadgets are a best friend to anyone who’s ever frustratingly kicked a grill that refuses to light. For various reasons, it can be difficult to get things going, and a chimney starter will help move things along nicely. Simply insert a few crumpled pieces of paper into the bottom of the chimney, top with your charcoal and light. When you’re ready to cook, simply (and carefully) pour the now-blazing coals into the grill.

Electric charcoal starter

Perhaps best known for the damage it inflicts on Harry’s hand in Home Alone, the electric charcoal starter is a pretty useful tool for starting your charcoal. Simply pile your charcoal inside your grill, laying the starter on top with the handle removed from the charcoal. Top with a bit more charcoal and turn on the starter. In a few minutes, the coals will catch, and you can remove the starter from the heat.

Prepping your grill

Brush cleaning grill grates
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Grill grates

First and foremost, you’re going to need to clean your grill grates. This can be done with any standard grill brush. Next, make sure and lubricate them with a good oil with a high smoke point such as vegetable or canola. Properly cleaning and lubricating (seasoning) your grill grates will both protect the grates themselves, and keep your food from sticking to them.

Coals

If you’re new to charcoal grilling, you may think that the coals and flames should be evenly dispersed throughout the grill, creating a uniform cooking platform on your grill’s surface. What you should do, instead, is create different areas of varying heat. In the same way, if you have different burners on a stove, you may want to be able to cook different ingredients at varying temperatures.

You can do this by arranging your charcoals to one side of the grill and leaving the other side empty of coals. Of course, the empty side will still receive heat, but it will be indirect and better for foods that will take longer to cook.

Get to grilling

Person grilling sausages
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At this point, the only thing you have left to worry about is the food you’re cooking. And while there are – of course – different rules for different foods, there are a few basic grilling guidelines you should follow for just about anything you’re lighting a fire underneath. Here are a few important things to keep in mind when you’re grilling:

Leave it alone. In the same way, you wouldn’t want to disturb a steak in a cast iron pan over the stove, and you don’t want to move your food around on the grill grates. You’re likely aiming to create a good sear and caramelization, and the best way to do that is to leave it alone.

Don’t press your protein. We know – that spatula is practically begging you to push it down and flatten that burger. Don’t. This will squeeze out your meat’s juices, leaving you with a completely dry and flavorless dinner.

Grill marks are sexy. Admittedly, they don’t do anything to add any extra flavor to your grilled foods, but damn, they look good. Learn how to make perfect grill marks here.

Let it rest. Just as with meats and other ingredients cooked in the oven or on the stove, it’s important to give your foods a good rest after they’ve come off the heat. This will allow those delicious juices inside to redistribute properly and not end up all over your cutting board.

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Lindsay Parrill
Lindsay is a graduate of California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco, from where she holds a degree in…
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