How to Cook on a Charcoal Grill

For unparalleled flavor, nothing beats food grilled on a charcoal grill. Sure the gas grill offers convenience, but you can achieve a better sear and delicious smoked flavor by cooking over hot coals. Although it may seem a little scary or overwhelming if you've never used charcoal before, rest assured that by following a few simple tips, you'll be on your way to grilling like the pros in no time.

Choosing the Charcoal

When it comes to choosing the type of charcoal to buy, you have two basic choices: briquettes or hardwood charcoal, which is also sometimes referred to as charwood. Briquettes are made from a combination of wood scraps, coal dust, petroleum binders and borax. These pillow-shaped lumps light easily and boast a longer burning time than charcoal. Bon Appetit recommends skipping the briquettes in favor of hardwood charcoal, which gives food a pure, smoky flavor without any added chemicals.

Firing Up the Grill

For the uninitiated, this step can be daunting -- but it doesn't have to be. One of the easiest ways to light a charcoal grill is with a chimney starter. With this simple gadget, you can bypass using the lighter fluid that tends to give your grilled foods a chemical-like flavor.

Lighting the Coals

Add two sheets of crumpled newspaper to the bottom of the chimney, and top it with the charcoal. Remove the top grate from your grill and arrange the chimney on the bottom grate. Light the newspaper on the bottom of the chimney. The vertical design of the chimney forces the heat from the lit newspaper upward to ignite the coals. In approximately 20 minutes, your chimney will be filled with ready-to-use lit coals.

Setting Up for Direct Grilling

Direct grilling -- or cooking the food right over the fire -- is best used for quick-cooking foods, such as vegetables, thin cuts of meat and fish fillets. Dump the lit coals from the chimney starter and use a grill rake to arrange them in an even layer covering two-thirds of the bottom of the grill. Keeping one-third of the grill free of coals gives you a cool safety zone where you can move food if you have a flare-up. Add the cooking grate and let the grill continue heating up before getting started. When arranging the grate, keep in mind that the closer the food is to the heat source, the faster it cooks. According to The Barbecue! Bible, the lid typically stays open while direct grilling, especially if you're grilling flammable items such as bread or small cuts of meat, such as kebabs.

Setting Up for Indirect Grilling

As its name implies, this method relies on cooking food near -- but not directly over -- the hot coals. It's particularly useful when you're grilling fatty foods, such as such as skin-on chicken thighs or ribs. It also allows you to slowly cook the food, making it ideal for grilling a whole chicken, roast beef, pork shoulder or leg of lamb. To set the grill up for this method, dump the coals from the chimney and rake them in two piles on either side of the center of the grill. Place a disposable drip pan in the center of the piles to catch fatty drippings and minimize fires. Arrange the food over the drip pan once the grill is hot and close the lid to maximize the radiant heat.

Testing the Heat

Having a built-in grill thermometer is one of the easiest ways to determine whether the grill is hot enough, but you can just as easily estimate the heat by holding your hand 4 inches above the grate and counting, "One Mississippi, two Mississippi...." To figure out if the grill's hot enough to start cooking, use the following tips:

  • High heat ranges from 450 to 650 degrees Fahrenheit: You typically grill over high heat when you're searing large cuts or direct cooking thin cuts of meat or seafood. When the grill is ready, the coals will be bright orange and you should only be able to count to two or three Mississippi.
  • Medium-high heat averages 400 degrees F: While still hot, this setting provides a gentler sear and direct cooking for seafood or thin cuts of meat. The coals will still be glowing, but they also show signs of ashing over. You should be able to count only to four or five Mississippi.
  • Medium heat averages 325 to 350 degrees F: This setting is ideal for most indirect cooking as well as direct grilling thick cuts of meat. The coals show increased signs of ash, although you can still see the orange glow. You should only be able to count to six or eight Mississippi.
  • Medium-low heat averages 300 degrees F: This setting can be used for smoking and indirect grilling, as well as warming foods that you already cooked over direct heat. The coals only have a slight glow, with significant ashing. You can count up to nine or 10 Mississippi.
  • Low heat ranges from 225 to 250 degrees F: This setting is often used for smoking and indirect cooking of large foods, such as roasts. At this stage, the coals have a thick coating of ash with the faintest visible glow. You can count up to 11 to 14 Mississippi before having to move your hand.

Heat Control

Unlike gas grills, charcoal grills don't have a handy knob to help you dial the heat up or down as needed. Depending on how long you plan to grill, keep in mind that you generally need to refresh the coals hourly by adding 10 to 12 fresh pieces of coal to both piles to maintain the heat. You can also control the heat on your charcoal grill by adding double or triple layers of coals, which burn hotter than a single layer does, and by adjusting the integrated vents. Opening the vents lets more oxygen in, which makes the coals burn even hotter. Closing the vents cools things off a bit.