Charcoal grilling tips for beginners – the easy way
When it comes to grilling, there’s nothing quite like charcoal. The flavor it imparts is unparalleled, and definitely the way to go if you’re looking for that true BBQ taste. If you’re new to grilling with charcoal, though, it can be a bit daunting, that’s where charcoal grilling tips for beginners comes into it. Here are some tips to help you get started and make the most of your experience.
Why cook over charcoal
Firing up the barbecue for outdoor cooking is a big part of our lives but many people automatically think of grilling over gas. But what about cooking over charcoal?
It may seem like more of a hassle, but there are actually some great benefits to cooking over charcoal.
For one, it gives food a wonderful smoky flavor that you just can’t get from gas grilling and 2, cooking over charcoal is a slow and steady way to cook, perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Equipment and accessories
When it comes to charcoal grilling at home, there are a few key pieces of equipment that you’ll need to make the cooking process run smoothly every time.
First up is the obvious, having a good charcoal grill is essential for that smoky flavor that can only be achieved with charcoal, you may even own a Hibachi grill which is slightly different again.
A few other tools and accessories that will making cooking over charcoal more enjoyable and won’t cost the earth include.
Charcoal – you can use lump charcoal or briquettes.
Charcoal starter – available as a chimney starter or electric starter.
Grill brush – used for cleaning the grate prior to cooking.
Long handled tongs – keeps the hands further away from hot coals.
A meat thermometer, the cheaper digital instant read thermometers work really well or you can spend a few more bucks and get a wireless / Bluetooth version for lazy cooking, they alert you when your meat is cooked.
Grill gloves help when moving charcoal around or rearranging grates etc, also used for holding onto your meat while pulling or carving. Again there are many different types of grill gloves we wrote about them over here.
Choosing your charcoal
If you’re looking to add some flavor to your backyard BBQ, we’ve got the lowdown on charcoal. Here’s everything you need to know about choosing the right type of charcoal for your grill.
There are two main types of charcoal: briquettes and lump. Briquettes are made from wood that has been ground up and formed into small, uniform pieces. Lump charcoal is made from whole chunks of wood that have been burned down to coal.
So, which is better? It really depends on your personal preference. Briquettes are less expensive and light more easily, but some people find that they don’t give as much flavor as lump charcoal.
Lump charcoal burns hotter and longer, making it ideal for grilling large cuts of meat. But because it’s made from whole pieces of wood, it can be harder to find a consistent size and shape.
Using lump charcoal for grilling
Lump charcoal is a pure, natural product made from hardwood that has been burned down to carbon. Lump charcoal burns hot and is much cleaner than other types of charcoal, making it ideal for grilling.
Lump charcoal also lights more easily and evenly than other types of charcoal, so you can get your grill going faster. And because it burns hot, you can cook at higher temperatures, which is great for searing meat.
One downside to lump charcoal is that it won’t last as long as briquettes which can make the logistics of grilling for a few hours quite challenging.
So, if you’re looking for the best possible grilling experience, go with lump charcoal. It’s worth the extra money to get a better-tasting meal.
Using briquettes for your grill
Briquette charcoal is made from wood that has been burned down to ashes. The ashes are then mixed with water and a binding agent, such as sawdust, and pressed into briquettes. Briquette charcoal burns hotter and cleaner than regular charcoal, making it a good choice for grilling.
Briquettes also last longer than regular charcoal, so you don’t have to keep refuelling the fire as often. And because they’re made from renewable wood, briquettes are a more environmentally friendly option than regular charcoal, which is made from hardwood.
5 ways to light your charcoal
Lighting charcoal is an essential skill for any griller or smoker. The process is simple, but there are a few things to keep in mind to get the perfect fire.
First thing you need to do is take off the grill rack to access the charcoal grates, this is where you will be lighting the charcoal, and it is where I sit my chimney starter to get my charcoal lit.
They should come out easily enough by hand but some bbq’s may have a special tool for removing the cooking grates, just have a good look or if in doubt, check the manual (like they say, “if all esle fails, read the manual”).
Remember to only start cooking once the charcoal has turned a light grey / orange – ash colour, 80% of the charcoal should be this colour not black.
Now let’s run through 5 common ways to light your charcoal or briquettes, and get them burning hot and ready for grilling.
Use a chimney starter
First, you’ll need a good charcoal chimney starter. This is a metal can with a grate on the bottom and a handle on the side. You’ll also need some crumpled newspaper and a match or lighter.
A charcoal chimney starter is a great way to get your charcoal going for your next cookout. Here’s how to use one:
- Fill the charcoal chimney starter with about half of the charcoal you will be using. Overall, you’ll want to use enough charcoal to cover the bottom of your grill.
- (HOT TIP) Place an empty cardboard roll from a toilet roll or kitchen paper roll, in the center of the chimney starter and place the charcoal around the edges. This creates more airflow through the middle to get them burning faster.
- Place the charcoal chimney on the ground or on a heat-resistant surface, I just place mine inside my Weber on the charcoal grates to get it going.
- Stuff some crumpled up newspaper (3 – 5 sheets if possible) under the bottom of the chimney starter then use a lighter or match to light the paper.
- Once the charcoal is alight (it should be glowing red, at least in the bottom portion of the chimney), allow the charcoal to burn for 20-30 minutes, or until it’s covered in grey ash.
- Carefully pour the hot coals into your grill positioning them for direct or indirect cooking, and you’re ready to cook!
Electric charcoal starter
One of the easiest ways to light your charcoal is by using an electric charcoal starter. There are a couple of different types available, but both take between 5 – 10 minutes or so to get going.
One is a bit like a blow torch which blows incredibly hot air (up to 1200°F) out of the end directly onto the charcoal. This type of electric starter generally needs to be handheld until the charcoal is alight, so you need stay there around for 5 minutes.
The other type uses a metal heating coil that you place directly into the middle of your pile of charcoal. These types of starters take a bit longer, up to 10 minutes, but you can sit them in place and keep prepping for your meal.
Once half the charcoal is burning bright orange / red you can remove the starter and be careful to place it onto a non-flammable surface, away from small kids.
Use fire lighters
Fire lighter cubes are another useful and easy way to start your charcoal. They are made from paraffin or kerosene and will burn for at least 5 minutes which is enough to get the charcoal burning.
Place four or five fire lighting cubes on the grate and add the charcoal or briquettes on top and around the fire lights.
Using a long stem gas lighter, or long matches, light the fire starters from the bottom ensuring they are burning well.
Make sure the charcoal isn’t stacked too tightly or you may end up smothering the flames.
Using newspaper to light your charcoal
If you’re looking for a natural way to light your charcoal, look no further than your recycling bin. Newspaper is an easy and eco-friendly way to get your grill going without any harsh chemicals.
Here’s how to do it:
- Crumple up a few sheets of newspaper, around 5 or 6 sheets should do the trick, and place them on the charcoal grate.
- Place a couple of handfuls of briquettes or charcoal on top of the paper making sure you stack them loosely to allow plenty of airflow.
- Light the newspaper let the flames lick the charcoal for a few minutes until they start to glow orange / red. Once they’re turn white-hot, you’re ready to start cooking.
- Now you just need to rearrange them ready for grilling your favourite piece of meat.
So next time you’re firing up the grill and can’t find anything else to use to get your charcoal started, reach for some old newspapers instead. Your taste buds (and the environment) will thank you for it.
Using lighter fluid to light your charcoal
If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to light your charcoal, consider using lighter fluid. Bear in mind though, lighter fluid is a highly flammable liquid that needs the utmost care when using it.
All you need to do is scrunch up a few sheets of kitchen paper and place underneath your charcoal or briquettes.
Pour some lighter fluid onto your charcoal and the kitchen paper, let it settle for around 10 seconds then light it very carefully with an extra-long match or lighter. Don’t lean over the top while igniting the charcoal or you could get burnt.
Lighter fluid is a great option if you’re in a hurry, but it’s important to use caution when handling it. Be sure to keep the lighter fluid away from children and pets, and never pour it directly onto an open flame.
How much charcoal is required to start a charcoal grill
As we both know, a charcoal grill is a great way to cook food, but you need to make sure you have enough charcoal to get it started. Here are a few tips on how much charcoal you will need to start your grill:
- If you are using a small, portable grill, you will need about 20 briquettes of charcoal.
- For a medium-sized grill, you will need 30-40 briquettes.
- For a large grill, you will need 50 or more briquettes.
Keep in mind that the amount of charcoal you use will also depend on how hot you want your fire to be. If you want a very hot fire, use more briquettes. If you want a moderate fire, use less.
It will take a bit of trial and error to perfect it but hey, that’s part of the fun of grilling over charcoal. Once you get the feel fit it you will be grilling like a pro.
How to use the vents on your charcoal grill
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t think much about the vents on your charcoal grill. But if you want to get the most out of your grill, it’s important to understand how they work and how to use them.
I have the Weber Kettle Premium so will explain how the vents work on that particular grill. Many people don’t realize that there are vents on their charcoal grill and they are there to help regulate the temperature of the grill. To use the vents, there are a couple of things to consider.
There are two lots of vents on a Weber charcoal grill and are located on the bottom of the grill and on the lid.
The bottom vents help regulate the flow of air to the coals by controlling the amount of oxygen that reaches the coals. This allows you to control the heat within the Weber grill.
Generally, after the coals are glowing orange / white, I will close the top vents about halfway to ensure a nice steady grilling temperature.
The top vent in the lid is used to release smoke and excess heat. I open both vents up fully when starting the coals and then adjust them to control the temperature and smoke.
Bear in mind if you leave both vents open fully the charcoal or briquettes will burn at a faster rate because the grill will be hotter with these settings so you may need to add more if grilling for a couple of hours.
The vents also come in handy to put the charcoal out after grilling. Just close both vents fully and leave the lid on to help smother the fire.
When is charcoal ready to grill on
When is charcoal ready to grill on? When it looks like the image above.
Charcoal is made from wood that has been burned in a low oxygen environment. This process removes water and other volatile compounds from the wood, leaving behind carbon.
The burning process also creates pores in the charcoal, which allows it to absorb and release flavors from the food it’s grilling.
So when is charcoal ready to cook on?
One way is to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals. If you can keep it there for 3-4 seconds, then the fire is probably ready.
Probably the easiest way to see if your hot coals are ready is to look at them. If they have a thin layer of gray ash on them, they’re more than likely good to start grilling on.
If you’re in doubt, give the coals a little more time. You can always add more coal to the fire if it’s not quite hot enough.
Direct and indirect heat grilling – What is it?
Grilling is a great way to cook food, especially when grilling over charcoal but it can be difficult to know how to grill properly. There are two methods of grilling – direct and indirect grilling.
Direct heat grilling is when the food is placed directly over the heat source, while indirect heat grilling is when the food is placed to the side of the heat source. Both methods have their own benefits and drawbacks.
Direct heat grilling
Direct grilling is a type of cooking that involves cooking food directly over an open flame. This method is popular for its fast and easy cooking process, as well as the delicious taste that it generates.
One of the main benefits of direct grilling is that it allows you to cook food quickly and evenly on all sides.
Another benefit of direct grilling is that it’s a great way to cook fatty foods like steak, burgers, and chicken breasts. These foods tend to have a tough crust on the outside due to their high fat content, which makes them difficult to cook through conventional methods.
With direct grilling, however, these fats are rendered into oil so they can be easily cooked through without ruining the exterior crust.
So if your looking to grill a steak, especially over the coals, direct heat grilling is the way to go and give you a nice smokey flavour due to the fats rendering down on the coals.
If you want to cook a larger cut of meat like a whole chicken or a leg of lamb etc, you should try indirect grilling for a slow cook.
Indirect heat grilling
If you’re not sure which method to use, try both! Experiment with different techniques and find what works best for you and your food.
Indirect grilling takes longer, but it is easier to control the temperature. This method is better for thicker cuts of meat or for items that need to be cooked slowly, such as prime ribs, roast lamb or whole chickens and the like.
Low and slow is the way to go with thicker cuts of meat, it also gives you the option of adding wood smoking chips to enhance the flavour.
If you’re not sure which method to use, try both! Experiment with different techniques and find what works best for you and your food.
Using wood chips with a charcoal grill
When it comes to grilling, there are a lot of different ways that you can add flavour. One way to do this is to use wood chips with your charcoal grill.
Wood chips give your charcoal grill a great flavour and some extra smokiness that is sure to be a hit with your guests.
If you have never used wood chips before, here is what you need to know. Best thing is to experiment with different things to get different results.
- Soak your wood chips in water for at least 30 minutes before using them. This will help to prevent them from burning up too quickly on the grill. I usually add around a handful first and may add a few more if needed.
- Once they are soaked, drain the water, and put the wood chips directly on top of the charcoal.
- Place the lid on the grill and let the wood chips smoke and add flavor to your food for about 30 minutes. After that, you can remove the lid and cook as usual.
- Keep in mind that different types of wood will give off different flavors. For example, hickory is a classic smokey flavor while mesquite has a more intense flavor that can be overpowering if used too much.
- Experiment with different types and amounts woods to find the perfect flavor for your next barbecue! You don’t need heaps of wood chips to impart the taste of smoke.
How to put out a charcoal grill
If you’re one of the many people who love grilling, you know there’s nothing quite like the taste of food cooked over a charcoal fire.
But when it comes time to clean up, putting out the coals can be a bit of a challenge. Here are a couple of ways to help you get the job done quickly and efficiently.
- Start by moving all of the coals to one side of the grill using a long-handled tongs or a grill rake.
- Once all the coals are on one side, douse them with water carefully from a garden hose or a bucket of water. Can be a bit messy though.
- You can also use tongs or small shovel and place them in a metal bucket filled with water.
- The method that I like to use is not so messy and simply involves shutting both grill vents, the top and bottom vents, and let the coals die down. Just check them after 30 minutes to make sure they are nearly out.
How to clean your charcoal grill
If you’re one of the many people who enjoy cooking with a charcoal grill, you know that a little bit of elbow grease is required to keep it clean. Here are a few tips to help make the cleaning process a little easier.
I do like to give the grate a good brush down with a wire brush straight after I’ve finished grilling my food. This gets the bulk of the leftovers off and makes it easier to get cooking next time.
Before lighting the charcoal for grilling it’s best to start by removing the grill grates and brushing them with a wire brush to remove any excess food or grease build-up.
Next, empty out the ash catcher and dispose of the ashes (do make sure they are totally out and cold if placing them in the bin).
If your grill has a removable grease tray, be sure to empty that as well. If not, you may need to give the inside of the grill body a bit of a brush down.
Before the start and at the end of grilling season it’s a good idea to give your grill a major clean-up. You can give your grill a good scrub with soapy water and a sponge or stiff brush.
Rinse it off thoroughly with fresh water and dry it before putting everything back in place.
With just a little bit of time and effort, you can keep your charcoal grill looking and functioning like new for years to come!
So with a few basic tips and tricks you will be grilling anything and everything like a true grill master before you know it. Just have a crack and don’t be afraid to try different things to up your charcoal grilling game.
From using different types of wood chips for additional smoke flavour to grilling different cuts of meat using direct and indirect grilling.
Just remember to have fun….Enjoy.