How to Grill with Charcoal?


Gathering friends and family for a cookout is always a welcome endeavor, and the smell of food cooking on a charcoal grill can make the mouth water. Learning the secrets of charcoal grilling will create an experience people want more of and can earn you a great reputation in the neighborhood.

If you have some questions on bringing your grilling skills to the next level, here are a few tips for easy starting, grill maintenance and creating foods that will amaze loved ones every time the grill gets lit. (1)

Proper Grill Preparation 

For those who love the taste of grilled food, keeping their grill ready to go is a key ingredient many new users might not completely appreciate. A grill that has been used will need cleaning but knowing how to do it right can save you time and effort while producing the best environment for cooking food.

corn and steak placing on the charcoal grill

Once you finished cooking, the grill will still be hot. This is an opportune time to run over it with a wire brush to knock off any food particles or residue. Some cooks believe this step is unnecessary, and they prefer waiting until they have started their grill the next time. While that will also work, grills are left outdoors and are subject to investigation by creatures. Cleaning it before it cools is a good way to avoid contamination and keep the grill ready for the next cooking adventure.

Light the Fire 

There are several schools of thought on this part of grilling, and many new users have gone down the path of adding lighter fluid to their charcoal. Yes, it will get the fire started quickly. While those who have experience have found it leaves a residue of unwanted flavor, the first few times might be good with light fluid. Once confidence and experience take over, using a chimney is the best way to light the fire quickly without fluid.

A chimney is simply a round metal piece with holes in the bottom, and paper that has been squashed by hand is placed in the bottom with the charcoal on top. It helps to have a long match or lighter on hand to start the fire through the holes at the bottom, and then it just takes a few minutes before the charcoals will be hot enough to remove it. Make sure to wear oven mitts for this step as the metal will be quite hot and we recommend keeping them one while using tongs to spread the charcoal in the grill once it is hot enough to use.

Create Cooking Zones

Not all foods will need the same cooking temperature, so it makes sense to create cooking zones with differing heat levels. Piling coals in a smaller area will produce high heat, and the areas surrounding these piles will have lower temperatures. Searing food to get that beautiful crust should be done over the hottest part of the grill, but they should be finished in areas with lower temperatures to avoid drying them out before they are fully cooked.

a bunch of food in the roasted time

We must mention grill size here because the amount of food you cook will help determine the number of zones you need to create. If you need to feed a large crowd, two or three hot zones might be necessary. Searing the food quickly to get the process started is a great way to get going, but we recommend moving charcoal around to create more medium and low heat areas to finish it properly. A large grill will accommodate this type of cooking method, but a smaller grill means cooking in batches.

Avoid Flare Ups 

One of the dangers of cooking with charcoal can be flare ups. You want to avoid this for a number of reasons, the most obvious one is to avoid getting burnt. A flare up can create an undercooked piece of food that will be dry and tough. Here are three ways of avoiding them to make sure they are not on the menu.

The vents on the bottom of the grill control the amount of air coming in, and they should be at least partially open for the charcoal to burn. Keeping them under control by not allowing them to be open all the way can avoid flare ups. Shutting the top of the grill can also help with this issue, and it can help keep the cooking area hot without burning the charcoal too fast. For those who have found they get flare up from meat drippings, trimming the fat before cooking is also an option.

Don’t Let Food Stick to the Grill 

One of the most embarrassing things that can happen during the cooking process is to have food sticking to the grill, but it can be avoided. Make sure the grilling surface has been properly cleaned before use. Then follow these recommendations if you would rather put the food on the plate instead of leaving it on the grilling surface.

sausages and meatballs fine grilled

Once the charcoal has been spread in the grill, donning oven mitts and grabbing the tongs is all part of the cooking process. Take a few minutes to soak a paper towel with ordinary vegetable oil and rub it on the cooking surface, so the food is less likely to stick. Waiting until almost the end of the cooking process to add sauces is another way to help avoid this messy issue, and they will still have their flavor component when they come hot off the grill and onto the serving platter.

If you are tempted to just cover the entire surface of the cooking area with foil, we do not recommend it. Part of the joy of using charcoal is the added flavor component, and it will be less than expected if the smoke does not reach the food.

Safe Grill Operation

No one wants a medical emergency during their cookout, so we recommend observing a few safety procedures to create a safe environment for everyone involved. Keeping small children away from the grilling area is a must and choosing one person to designate for this task could be a good way to ensure safety. Even older children should be kept away from the area if the event is a large one, but you can allow them nearer when only the family is present to teach them how to use a grill safely.

Burns are the most common issue arising from charcoal grilling, and they can occur several different ways. Hot food being transferred to serving dishes can drip liquids onto those around the area, so keeping even most adults away is a good habit to follow.

Safety extends past cooking time, and the grill should be monitored as the charcoal cools. We recommend placing the spent charcoal pieces in aluminum foil and putting them in a metal receptacle away from everyone. Some coals might look like they are no longer burning, but they can continue for hours after the cooking is finished.

David Walker
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