7 Tips to Master Cooking With a Charcoal Grill

Even though science might not be able to explain why food cooked outside tastes better, we all know it does. Opt for a charcoal grill, and the delicious factor increases even more. Cooking with this type of model might not be quite as straightforward as using a gas grill, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. With these tips, you’ll be a master of the flame.

1. Get the right gear

cooking a bunch of food on a charcoal grill

Cooking food on a charcoal grill | iStock.com

Obviously getting a grill is where you want to start. Things to consider include your budget, how many people you typically need to feed, and the types of food you plan to cook. Reviewed.com shared their favorite models, which can really help you find what will best fit your needs. Kettle grills are the standard, but some might prefer a kamado-style since it can double as a smoker. If you’re a tailgater, keep weight in mind because a hefty ceramic model isn’t particularly portable.

Once you have your grill, you also need to stock up on some tools. Surprisingly, you don’t need as many as you’d think. As long as you have some heavy-duty tongs, a grill brush, a chimney starter, and a few other accessories, you’ll be good to go. Alton Brown’s website offered a great list that covers everything. The most important tool of all? A fire extinguisher.

2. Choose your charcoal

pile of lump charcoal

Lump charcoal for grilling | iStock.com

It sounds simple enough, but buying charcoal can quickly get confusing when you see all the options available at your local hardware store. For the most part they fall under one of two categories: lump charcoal and briquettes. Briquettes have long been the standard because they’re processed and formed into consistent shapes that provide steady heat over a long period of time. According to Fine Cooking, some lean more toward lump charcoal because it can burn hotter and delivers a cleaner flavor. The story said you can also combine the two to get the benefits of both. Ultimately it’s up to you, so you might want to experiment with each. As for specific brands, check out some picks from The Sweethome.

3. Build a screaming hot fire

slices of potato on the grill with flames

Grilling potatoes outside | iStock.com

There might be other methods to get your charcoal burning, but a chimney starter should be the only one you use. These devices guarantee searingly hot coals every time, and the method is super simple. It also eliminates the need for lighter fluid, which can give your food some odd flavors.

You’ll need a heatproof surface to start the fire, so setting it up directly over the grill is usually easiest. Once you fill the top with charcoal, either set the starter over a lighter cube or stuff a few sheets of newspaper in the bottom. Light the cube or paper, then let time take control. Once your charcoal is covered with ash, you’re ready to cook. For a more detailed outline, check out a step-by-step guide from Weber.

If you’re cooking a big piece of meat or something that will take a really long time, you’ll need to repeat the process to make sure you can replenish the fire during cooking. This means you’ll need to have a safe space to start a fire other than your grill. Go for concrete that’s a safe distance away from your house. And keep your fire extinguisher within reach.

4. Create a two-zone fire

close-up of a pile of burning charcoal in a grill

Blazing hot charcoal piled in a grill | iStock.com

Some foods cook quickly enough that you don’t have to worry about creating different heat levels, but most require a two-zone fire. It’s also a good idea to arrange your grill this way just in case things are burning too hot. You don’t want to incinerate the outside of your burgers before they’re cooked to your desired doneness. Having two levels means you can get a great sear over the hot side while the cooler side lets food cook more gently.

To build your fire appropriately, all you have to do is bank the coals to one side as per this diagram on Bon Appétit. If you’re cooking something particularly fatty over the cool side, it’s also a good idea to put a drip-pan in place both to avoid flare-ups and to keep your grill clean. Just toss a disposable aluminum roasting pan next to the coals.

5. Get the grates ready

hot dogs

Hot dogs on grill grates | iStock.com/liveslow

While it might sound strange to clean before cooking, this is the easiest way to do it. Set the grate in place once your charcoal is arranged, then let it heat up. This allows excess food on the grates to burn off. Next, use a heavy-duty grill brush to scrape away any remaining debris. Lastly, oil your grates, but do so carefully. Serious Eats recommended dipping a wad of paper towels in cooking oil, then using tongs to gently rub them over the grates. The story also said not to go crazy with cleaning after you’re done cooking because too much scrubbing can actually make your cooking surface more prone to rusting.

6. Learn how to use the vents

man preparing burgers on a charcoal grill

Man cooking burgers on an outdoor grill | Source: iStock

Most people avoid the vents for fear of messing things up, but they’re really the easiest way to control the heat. It’s less confusing than you might think. In simple terms, more oxygen means more heat. Kingsford explained opening the vents allows oxygen to get to work, making your charcoal burn hotter and faster. Closing the vents does the opposite. Keep more fuel at the ready in case you need to replenish your supply.

7. Extinguish that flame!

Don’t forget to extinguish the coals once you’re finished cooking | iStock.com

Just because you’re done cooking doesn’t mean your grill is done burning. Even if your fire appears feeble, there’s always a chance a breeze could stir things up. SFGate said the easiest way to get your coals to stop burning is to close the vents and the lid. This makes sense because you’re essentially cutting off the supply of oxygen. Do this before you sit down to eat. Once the grill is cool to the touch, you can dump out the ashes to get ready for next time. If there’s unused charcoal still in there, save it. You can use it the next time you grill by adding fresh charcoal right over the top.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec

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