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How to Use a Charcoal Grill – The Ultimate Guide, With Illustrations

This article is a monster! A complete, no stone left unturned, detailed A to Z instructional guide on how to use and master your charcoal grill.

Last Updated: June 9, 2020 | 31 min read

The top portion of a how to use a charcoal grill infographic

Welcome to my extensive guide on how to use a charcoal grill.

Grilling over charcoal isn’t easy when compared to other fuel types such as gas. With a gas grill, you simply turn a dial or two up or down to set the cooking temperature where you need it. It couldn’t be easier.

But by buying a charcoal grill, you’ve committed to learning a set of skills such as fire starting, fire management, and controlling airflow with vents for temperature control.

Charcoal grilling is somewhat going back to basics. No push-button accuracy, set-and-forget simple cooking. It requires a certain intuition, a feel for the process, the heat and the timing, things we have kind of lost touch with as we flick on switches, press buttons, and program our modern cooking appliances.

But honestly, charcoal grilling is not hard. I firmly believe that anybody can learn it. All that’s needed is the right information and guidance, and a little commitment to learning.

I’ve provided the right information and guidance below, so if you bring the commitment to learning, together we’ll have you mastering your charcoal grill and producing drool-worthy BBQ in no time.

Graphic with text introducing a how to use a charcoal grill guide

In this post, I’m going to show you the raw beauty of cooking on charcoal grills. Why, despite having faster, cleaner, and easier ways to cook, we keep coming back to charcoal grilling.

I’m going to take you through every step of the process from set up and prep to fire management, fuel selection, and coal configuration. And a whole lot more besides. In fact, I don’t think there’s much about charcoal grilling that I haven’t covered in this post!

So if you are completely new to charcoal grills, I’ve got you covered. And if you are a seasoned griller, there should still be some useful takeaways for you after reading this.

All fired up? Then let’s get started!

 

Note: For the full guide, please continue reading. For the standalone, complete graphic that has not been chopped up for an article, please click here: How to use a charcoal grill: Infographic.

Contents (clickable)

Always, Always Start with a Clean Grill

Graphic of instructions for cleaning a charcoal grill

If your grill is dirty, it is NOT extra flavor as many would have you believe.

It is old food, fats and oils that will burn and produce bitter-tasting, acrid smoke, as well as old bits of food that will transfer from your grates onto the fresh food you are cooking.

Not only this, but old ashes collecting in the grill can really hamper your ability to accurately control the temperature inside your grill, making the whole task of grilling harder.

So please, take my advice and always start with a clean grill.

When it comes to cleaning your charcoal grill, here are the three simple steps to follow:

Step 1:

Scrape and scrub down all grates and cooking surfaces while the grill is still warm from the previous cook because the crud is a whole lot easier to remove before it hardens.

Use a good quality bristle-free grill brush or a purpose-made grill cleaning scraper.

Post-cook cleaning is the best option, but failing that (you had a couple too many and forgot?!), just preheat the grill for a few minutes before your next cook, long enough to soften the old food, and then scrape the grates before cooking.

If you don’t do this, you get all the old burned food on your fresh meat, and worse yet: What you’re cooking now will stick to the grill, tear and fall apart. Not good.

Close up of old food and bbq sauce on grill grates
Do you REALLY want this on your food?

Step 2:

If your grill has a grease tray (AKA starter kit for an inferno!), remove and clean it out. Nothing says flare-up like a good old pan of grease meeting new flames.

Step 3:

Empty out any ash. Just be sure it’s stone-cold because warm ash can be harboring a few live embers, and you could end up with a bigger fire than you’d bargained for.

You might think you can simply add new charcoal over the top of old ash and grill on?

Well, too much ash can eventually block the vents, reducing airflow, making temperatures harder to keep constant and accurate, ultimately resulting in more work to get sub-par results with your food.

Have the Correct Tools Ready

Graphic detailing what tools to have when charcoal grilling

There are few things more frustrating than hunting around in the dark for your grill tongs while your perfect fork-tender, gorgeously seared steaks are ready to come off the grill. Like NOW!

So get all your bbq tools ready before you even light the grill.

Grill tongs and spatula. Check. Grilling small items like prawns or mushrooms? Have that grill basket ready to go. Skewers if you’re planning kabobs.

And, above all, don’t forget the heat-proof grilling gloves. This is an important safety measure. Scorched fingers is the easiest thing to protect against. So have a good pair at the ready.

An instant-read food thermometer is another useful item to have at hand. Measuring the internal temperature of food is the very best way to ensure you cook to perfection. No other method comes close.

Plan Your Cook, and Ready Your Grill Before You Start

Infographic section describing tools needed for grilling

What’s cooking tonight?

What you plan to throw on the grill will dictate how much fuel you need and how you need to prepare and set up your grill.

For a quick cook of burgers or sausages, you need to simply set the grill up with a pile of good hot coals and that fuel will last the course.

But for a longer cook, say ribs, a large roast or a whole chicken, you’re going to need a different set up and potentially another fill of fuel.

And not in the garage, or worse, the supermarket. That back-up fill needs to be right by the grill so that adding more fuel when the time comes is quick and seamless.

Always try to keep a good stock of charcoal, so you never need a last-minute dash to the convenience store mid-cook.

Other items you may need for a longer cook are:

  • Wood chips or pellets to add or enhance the smoky flavor goodness.
  • Heavy-duty foil to do a wrap partway through cooking, ‘Texas crutch’ style if doing brisket or some ribs.
  • Sauce and brush or mop for basting and layering on flavor.
  • A small foil water pan to add moisture to the cooking chamber, which can help maintain stable temperatures, as well as help keep food moist.

Direct Heat or Indirect Heat?

Graphic showing the difference between direct and indirect heat grilling

OK, so you have all your essential items at hand.

Now you need to decide – depending on what you’re cooking – whether you are going to grill using direct heat, indirect heat, or a combination of both.

Let’s take a closer look at these two key grilling terms, how you perform them, and how to decide which you need.

Direct Heat Cooking

This is your fast and furious high heat method, where food sits directly above the screaming hot coals.

If you’re grilling small items that take little time to cook, like individual steaks, chicken pieces, sausages, fish, pork chops, or vegetables, you’ll want direct heat.

Direct heat cooking sears meat fast, creating great color and a flavorful Maillard crust.

Indirect Heat Cooking

This is a low and slow method that works great for large tougher pieces like pork shoulders or whole chickens.

The meat is placed near to but not directly over the heat source, the lid closed, fewer coals burning to provide a lower heat.

With indirect cooking, it’s pretty much slow-roasting like you do in your kitchen oven.

The low heat will – over a long period – help break down tough muscle fibers and make chewy collagen melt-in-the-mouth tender in some cuts. Or for chicken and beef roasts, allow enough time to cook the interior fully without burning the outside.

This is a study in patience and watchfulness. You need to tend the grill and make sure nothing goes wrong.

Two-Zone Cooking

Graphic with two-zone cooking written instructions

Did I say two ways to cook? Direct and indirect? OK, I meant three because on the same grill, you can do both simultaneously!

The recommendation of top grill-masters is generally a two-zone cooking setup.

This is where you set half your grill for high direct heat cooking, and set the other half for lower heat indirect cooking.

As pieces cook, or if you are concerned about burning, you can move them from high direct heat over the hot coals, to low indirect heat away from the coals.

Got a big joint or thick steak to cook? How about a reverse sear?

Cook on the low heat side until it’s internal temp is close to finished, then switch it to the direct heat side of the grill for a few minutes towards the end of the cook, to finish it with a gorgeous seared crust.

A two-zone method gives you flexibility and options, and more importantly, it gives you a “safe zone” where you can instantly move food in the event of cooking too fast or flare-ups.

Choose Your Fuel: Lumpwood Charcoal or Briquettes?

Graphic showing the pros and cons of lump charcoal vs briquettes

When I’m grilling, I always think of charcoal as my first ingredient. And we all know what they say about your final product being only as good as your ingredients.

So yes, what you choose to put in your grill can have a significant effect not only on the flavor of your food but also on how long and how evenly it will cook.

The two options you have for fuel are lumpwood charcoal or briquettes. Let’s briefly look at each in turn:

Lumpwood Charcoal

 

Close up of lump charcoal slowly lighting in a kamado grill

OK, I’ve got to tell you, this is numero uno with me and many grillers.

The best lumpwood charcoal is 100% natural, cleaner, burns hotter and imparts a killer smoky flavor to food. It’s also easier to light than briquettes and leaves less ash to clean up afterward.

But being irregularly (naturally) shaped means it doesn’t burn evenly, so needs a little more babysitting than fix-and-forget briquettes.

Also, because it burns hotter, it burns faster, meaning you’re replacing coals more frequently and it will cost you more.

One more thing to know about lump is that you can now get “single species charcoal,” which essentially adds different flavors to food on the grill (so you wouldn’t need flavored wood chips in this case).

This is something to consider when you’re smoking rather than just a quick grilling session where the subtleties of the flavor wouldn’t have time to develop.

Charcoal Briquettes

Small pile of charcoal briquettes on a stainless steel grill grate

This is your grilling workhorse, a little slow to get going, sometimes a bit tricky to light, but burns slow, steady and evenly once lit.

Briquettes will not, however, impart that deep smoky flavor that we all crave as well as lump charcoal does.

Always look for quality charcoal briquettes without accelerants and additives that can give off an unpleasant chemical odor and interfere with the flavors of the food.

I’m splitting hairs here, of course. Both lump and briquettes will give you a great fire to cook with. I just think it’s worth understanding the differences so that, like all ingredients, you know what’s going into your food.

Choose Your Cooking Method & How to Configure Your Coals

Image with text asking what cooking style you will choose

Back in the dark days when I didn’t grill much, I’d just dump a bag of briquettes on the grate, light it, close the lid, and hope for the best.

I expect the food tasted OK, but I can promise you’ll get a far superior result if you take a moment to familiarize yourself with the different ways to arrange coals and understand why this is important.

There are four popular ways to set up your charcoal grill which will give you four different ways to cook your food.

Method 1: Direct-Heat Grilling

Text image deating direct heat grilling method

With this method, high heat directly under your food cooks it fast.

What this Method is Good for

Small or thin cuts such as individual steaks, burgers, sausages, chicken pieces, fish fillets, pork chops, and vegetables.

Basically, whenever you’re looking to get a good quick sear with a still moist and tender interior, direct-heat is your man.

How to Set up Your Grill

Spread a layer of lit coals across the charcoal grate, leaving just a small area empty we call the “void zone” which gives you an out in the event of flare-ups or food cooking too fast.

Method 2: Two-Zone Cooking

Text image detailing two zone cooking

This combination of high heat and low heat is all about controlling temperature. And when you’re working with a natural element like fire, there will always – even for the top grill-masters out there – be certain uncontrollable factors that can affect cooking such as wind or irregular coals.

With a two-zone set-up, you always have the option to lower or raise heat instantly by transferring food from one side to the other so that you, not Mother Nature, are totally in control of the heat.

What this Method is Good for

Well, pretty much everything, because even the humble hotdog if it cooks fast, needs to be removed to a low heat zone so it won’t burn.

And larger pieces cooked in a two-zone setup will love a good blast of high heat to sear the exterior followed by low heat to finish the cook.

Or flip that and cook low and slow, tender and juicy, then sear on the high heat side of the grill to get that wow factor at the table.

Whole birds, racks of ribs, pork butts, even the hallowed prime rib will all grill up just beautifully on a two-zone grill.

How to Set up Your Grill

Pile up coals on one side only of your grate leaving the other half empty. Food will still cook in this empty zone but at a much lower “indirect” temperature.

Method 3: Parallel Configuration

Text image detailing parallel configuration grilling

A type of two-zone grilling where only the indirect zone is used for cooking. The parallel configuration is one of the preferred ways for slow roasting.

With this method, there is heat coming from both sides, so food cooks more evenly compared to a two-zone setup.

It’s also a favorite way for cooking whole chickens, because with lit coals both sides, but none underneath, the chicken is cooking indirectly in lower heat avoiding burning, but getting radiant heat from both sides for crispy skin.

You will typically be roasting in this configuration with the lid closed.

What this Method is Good for

Larger roasts, brisket, whole birds, ribs, anything that will achieve a new level of nirvana with a good long, lower heat smoke and roast.

How to Set up Your Grill

Divide your grill grate into 3 parallel zones, piling coals on the sides and leaving the middle empty.

Not essential, but a good idea is to set a foil pan with water in this central zone to keep the air humid under the lid, which will help ensure tender, juicy meat.

The meat sits on the cooking grate directly above the water pan, not above the coals.

Method 4: The Charcoal Snake

Text image with instructions for using a charcoal snake

Ever wondered how to use a charcoal grill as a smoker? The charcoal snake is an excellent method for low and slow barbecue, and one that is used for turning a standard charcoal grill into an effective smoker.

What this Method is Good for

Large pieces and inexpensive, tough cuts such as brisket, pork butt, and ribs will become melt-in-the-mouth tender with a long smoke using the charcoal snake method.

How to Set up Your Grill

Create a continuous line of charcoal, 2 or 3 coals deep, around the edge of your charcoal grate.

Make sure it’s not a full circle, leave a good space between the “head” and the “tail.”

Add some smoke wood chunks here and there to crank up that smoky flavor, placing them toward the start or the ‘head’ of the snake, so smoke is generated toward the beginning of the cook.

Close up of a charcoal snake setup for grilling

Next, use a charcoal chimney starter to light 6 or 7 coals until glowing hot and ashed over, then using some tongs carefully place them onto the “head” of the line and close the lid, with the vents partially open, for the grill to warm up.

Then add your meat to the center of the cooking grate.

The lit coals will slowly burn along the line giving you hours of prolonged, slow, low-temperature smoking. And of course, you can keep topping up more coals to the “tail” to extend the snake and the cooking time.

How Much Charcoal Should You Use in a Grill?

Graphic of 3 charcoal chimneys with different amount of fuel in each

This depends on what you are cooking and how hot you want the grill.

Small pieces like individual steaks, chicken legs, and sausages will need a good quick hit of high direct heat. So you’ll want a full chimney of lit coals – about 100 – so you can quickly build a scorching fire, around 450-550°F.

For more delicate fish fillets, vegetables, or chicken breasts that you don’t want to dry out, shoot for a medium heat of 350-450°F, using a chimney that is ½ to ¾ full of lit coals (50 to 75 coals.)

And for low temperatures of around 250-350°F, a 1/4 full chimney of burning coals will be enough to get the cook going. And of course, you can always light more coals in the chimney and add later if the cook is a long one.

Keep in mind too that the thinner the layer of charcoal, the more quickly it will burn through and the less intense the heat will be. Kind of like wearing a thin sweater. This is fine for a quick cook of hot dogs or sausages where you don’t need too much heat.

On the other hand, build your coals up thick and multi-layered, then you will have more intense heat and for longer.

Lighting Your Charcoal Grill

Graphic showing 3 ways to light charcoal

When it comes to lighting charcoal grills, You’ve got a few options and some are better than others. I’ll describe the main ways first and then point you in the direction we recommend.

Option 1 – Use a Chimney Starter.

This simple metal cylinder with venting at the bottom is available from most hardware stores and a surefire way to get, well, a sure fire.

Concentrating all the coals in a small space, combined with the chimney effect (heat rising, pulling air up through the bottom to naturally fan the flames), allows intense heat to build fast.

Simply screw up 2 or 3 sheets of newspaper and place underneath the chimney – or a firelighter if you prefer – then light it and wait. The coals will be fully lit and ready to pour into your grill and to cook over in 15 minutes or so.

This is a fast, simple, and efficient way to light a charcoal fire. We absolutely love them, and you can check here for our recommended charcoal chimney starters!

Option 2 – Use a Looftlighter

A second excellent option to get your coals burning is to use a Looftlighter or other electric starter.

A Looftlighter is a clever handheld, quick-touch device that uses a powerful blast of hot air to ignite coals in about 30 seconds. Kind of like a super-hot hairdryer.

Also, If the coals need a boost, rather than chuck lighter fuel at them, just give them another quick hit with the electric starter.

Just know that you will need an electrical socket nearby to plug it in.

Option 3 – Pyramid of Coals and Firelighters

Create a small pyramid of coals on your charcoal grate, with a couple of fire starters in there toward the bottom. Then light the firs starters and wait for the coals to catch.

Kind of old-school, but it still works.

This method will take a little longer because you have to wait for the fire starters to light the coals and get them going on an open grate.

A charcoal chimney starter or Looftlighter has you ready to cook in at less than half the time!

What do I Recommend?

Charcoal chimney and Looftlighter in use side by side lighting charcoal

I highly recommend methods 1 or 2. They are foolproof and fast. And when you’ve got a big cook ahead of you and a hungry hoard to feed, you need quick and easy.

A charcoal chimney will last you for years, making it an easy investment when compared to time saved starting up your grill.

And also, when you grill as much as I do, a Looftlighter pays for itself in saved costs compared to firelighters in 12 to 15 months. Plus it’s a cool looking toy to have and use 🙂

A Word on Lighting Fluids

Don’t. Just don’t. Petroleum, methanol, ethanol. You don’t want any of that on your burger.

You can buy and use some brands of briquettes that are infused with a little lighter fluid which makes them easy to light, or you can use lighter fluids on standard briquettes, you just have to follow the next piece of advice.

When using ANY kind of accelerant such as lighter fluid, alcohol, or ‘easy light briquettes,’ you have to make sure EVERY SINGLE PIECE of charcoal is fully lit, glowing red and ashed over.

Any accelerant and nasty odors will have burned off before a piece of coal ashes over, so you can be sure then it’s all gone.

If you don’t patiently wait for every single coal to be ashed over, then you have a high chance of the lighter fluid imparting a nasty chemical taste to your food.

I prefer never to use lighting fluids or briquettes with accelerants, and I advise you to do the same.

This way, you can cook on partially lit coals, put unlit coals into your grill on top of lit ones mid-cook, or use the snake method described above, all with no worries.

Arrange Lit Coals and Preheat Grill

Image with text instructions to preheat a grill before cooking

OK, so using one of the three methods we’ve discussed, you’ve got some good hot coals ready to go.

So grab your heat proof gloves (very important) and your tongs and carefully arrange the coals in whatever configuration you’ve chosen (also discussed earlier).

Then it’s just a case of closing the lid to allow some good cooking heat to develop.

You should wait for the entire grill to get heated through which will help maintain a steady temperature, and the grill grates to get hot which will help prevent food sticking.

Don’t skimp on preheating before cooking or you will have inadequate heat, inconsistent heat, and every griller’s nightmare, food that tears when you try to flip it. Consider yourself warned!

Lid Open or Closed?

Text image discussing whether to grill lid open or closed

OK, fessing up, it took me a while to figure this one out. I thought it was always good to keep the lid closed to keep the heat in. And most of the time, this is right.

But think about this:

If you are cooking small stuff – shrimps, burgers, kebobs – with high direct heat, you want that great sear from the flame below on all sides, but keeping the lid closed creates intensely hot conditions that could easily overcook small pieces like these.

With the lid open, heat comes almost all from below, some on the sides, and none from above. Food cooks slower, you have more time to develop a seared crust before the insides are cooked (or overcooked.)

With the lid closed, heat comes from all asides, even above, the food cooks faster and you either have to remove it when the insides are finished and the outside sear hasn’t yet formed a crust, OR, you create that seared crust and the insides are overcooked.

So…

Lid Open

If grilling quick-cook small items that you want a great sear on, leave that grill lid open when cooking to slow the cook down a little and allow you more time to brown all sides before the food is cooked through.

Lid Closed

Conversely, for large cuts – whole chickens, thick steaks, roasts – you’ll want the lid down all the time to maintain a good steady medium heat that will surround and sink deep into the thicker meat from all sides.

In this case, you also want to minimize as much as possible opening the grill lid because the temperature inside the grill will drop significantly every time you do so, resulting in longer cooking time.

This spawned the oft spoken phrase in pitmaster circles: “If ya lookin’, you ain’t cookin’!”

Tip for when cooking with a closed lid:

If your grill lid has a built-in thermometer – like the Weber kettle and many others – Try to position the lid thermometer directly above the food if you can, and not over the coals. Otherwise you’ll be measuring the wrong temperature.

This is especially important when you’re cooking using a two-zone setup where different parts of the grill will have radically different temperatures. At the end of the day, the main goal is to monitor the area of the grill where the food is!

However, if you have a weber kettle – and I have two – then this is impossible sadly.

Top view photo of a weber kettle lid, showing thermometer, vent and handle

In a two-zone setup, you want the vent above the food, which is the side away from the coals, so that the heat has to travel up, over and around the food, instead of straight up and out the vent if it was above the coals.

As you can see in my photo just above, on the lid of a weber kettle the thermometer is on the opposite side to the vent, so having the vent in the correct place places the thermometer directly above the coals.

This means the lid thermometer will NOT be measuring the temperature your food is cooking at on the indirect side, but measuring the far hotter temp above the coals instead. Can’t be helped…so I use a 3rd party digital thermometer instead, which I discuss in just a few paragraphs later from now.

When Is It Time to Cook?

There are some easy rules of thumb here, and you want to get it right.

For high heat grilling with lump charcoal, look for all pieces being lit and for the flames to die down.

For high heat grilling with briquettes, you’ll want to see the coals covered with a light gray ash before you add food.

For low n slow smoking or indirect heat roasting, you do not need to wait for all the coals to be lit and can add the food as soon as your grill has come up to cooking temperature and has heated through.

Monitoring Grill Temperature

Graphic with text describing monitoring grill temps

Ah, now this is the holy grail of accurate barbecue and consistent results! All successful cooking relies on accurate temperatures.

Just like when following a recipe for your kitchen oven where it says ‘roast for 90 minutes at 375 F’, so will BBQ recipes require a set temperature for a certain time.

A grill with the lid on can reach temperatures of anything between 160 to 700 F+. That’s quite some difference, and too low or too high temps can completely ruin your cook.

So, start by always having your target temperature in mind.

A plain digital BBQ thermometer – no gadgets or trickery necessary – will be your friend here, ensuring no over or under-cooking and helping you maintain a stable temperature throughout the cook, which is very important.

So go the distance and invest in a good, easy-to-read thermometer even if your grill has a built-in one.

A digital grill thermometer on a wooden surface

Built-ins aren’t especially reliable, plus they are often on the opposite side of the lid from the vents (as discussed just above) causing highly inaccurate temperature reading.

On the other hand, a digital thermometer that you add to your setup can be placed precisely where you need it, at grate level, next to the food you are cooking, to give accurate temps right where they are most important.

Thermometer probe on a charcoal grill grate

For food safety as well as ensuring perfect doneness, we also strongly recommend using a multi-probe food thermometer. Find one with a neat magnet on the back to stick right on to the grill lid and with probes that will tuck under the lid and directly into that fat juicy steak.

No thermometer? In a pinch – and this is not scientific but will work if it’s all you’ve got – use your hand.

Here’s how to very roughly gauge the temperature of your grill using your hand:

Carefully hold your hand about 4” above the heated cooking grate. If you can keep it there for:

  • 2 seconds or less, heat is high (about 500°F)
  • 3 seconds, heat is medium-hot (about 400°F)
  • 4 seconds, heat is medium (about 350°F)
  • 5 seconds, heat is low (about 300°F)

How to Use a Charcoal Grill Vents to Control Temperature

Graphic with text describing charcoal grill vent control

Oxygen and how you manage it is at the very heart of taming the flame. Together, oxygen and fire are your two fuels on charcoal grills, and controlling both is the goal of every successful griller.

The more oxygen your lit coals have access to, the hotter the fire will burn. If you limit how much oxygen gets into your grill, the lower the fire will burn. This is the very essence of how to control the temperature of your grill.

The way to control how much oxygen is feeding your flames is to manage the vents. And I mean micro-manage the vents.

Your fire is a living thing and changing every minute. Without your vigilance, temperature and cooking conditions can change fast.

So while you’ve got one hand on your beer, always also keep one eye on your vents.

There are always at least two vents on a charcoal grill that work together as your grills temperature control. Here’s how you should use them:

Intake Damper

2 images of a charcoal grill intake vent and it's controls
Bottom vent / intake damper and control handle.

Also called the bottom vent.

Open this all the way for maximum airflow and the highest heat, and close to reduce the temperature and slow down cooking.

Never fully close this, or no oxygen will be able to keep the fire going. This means a bag of chips for dinner!

Exhaust Damper

Close up of a weber kettle top lid vent

Also called the top vent, and on some models of grill, even a flue or chimney.

The top vent allows combustion gases, heat and smoke to escape at the top of the grill.

The hot air rising and escaping out the top vent also sucks in air – the draft – from the intake damper, creating a current of air from bottom to top, passing over the coals.

And that, in a nutshell, is how the fire is fueled with oxygen.

Hitting Desired Temperature and Keeping it There

Text image for instructions detailing temperature control on charcoal grill

Part of the beauty of grilling is that every grill has its own personality, and so my best advice is to experiment with these two vents, mainly the intake damper, and learn your own specific grill.

They are all slightly different, but the process is the same.

Using a thermometer, get to understand how your grill reacts to small adjustments to the vents, how this affects temperature and cooking conditions.

Managing vents is one of the key things to successful grilling.

My Process for Hitting the Right Temperature on Charcoal Grills

This is my process for hitting and maintaining low to medium temps of 225 – 375 F

  1. Top vent half-open.
  2. Bottom vent half-open.
  3. Place 1/2 to 1 full chimney (50 to 100) of unlit coals onto your charcoal grate.
  4. Fully light 1/4 chimney (25) of coals, and when glowing red hot place onto the unlit coals on the charcoal grate.
  5. Close the lid, and allow the grill to come up to temp.
  6. Use a digital BBQ thermometer to measure the internal temp of the grill.
  7. If the grill begins to settle at a temperature that is below your target temp, open the bottom vent further.
  8. If it begins to creep past your target temp, close the bottom vent a little.
  9. Adjust in small increments until your target temp is hit.
  10. Always adjust by small amounts and wait for a good 10 to 15 minutes to see the actual effects after any vent change.
  11. During the cook, monitor things, and make adjustments as necessary.
    1. If it gets too hot, close the bottom vent 1/8th
    2. If it gets too low, open the bottom vent 1/8th

For hitting med to high temps of 375 F and above:

  1. Top vent FULLY open.
  2. Bottom vent half open
  3. Place 1/2 to 1 full chimney (50 to 100) of unlit coals onto your charcoal grate
  4. Fully light 1/2 to 3/4 chimney (50 to 75) of coals, and when glowing red hot place onto the unlit coals on the charcoal grate.
  5. Follow from step 5 above for hitting lower temps.

As general rules of thumb, depending on your particular grill and how many coals are currently lit:

  • Opening or closing the bottom vent 1/8th will affect a 30 F or so temperature swing.
  • Opening or closing the top vent 1/8th will affect a 10 to 15 F temperature swing.

I highly recommend when cooking, to set the top vent to halfway open for lower heat cooks, or fully open for higher heats, then only adjust the lower vent to control temps. At least until you gain some experience and get used to your grill!

Playing with one vent (the bottom) is manageable for most people, playing with two can be a nightmare juggling act unless you’re sure of the process.

Be Somewhat Relaxed With Grill Temps

Although cooking somewhat demands precision, don’t go too nuts over the accuracy of your grills cooking temperature.

If a recipe calls for a low 250 F heat, anything from 225 to 275 F will suffice.

If a recipe calls for a medium-high 400 F heat, then anything from 375 to 425 F will suffice.

You WILL get pretty much the same results, only the cooking time will be shorter or longer.

Don’t go nuts over pin-point accuracy, the ballpark is good enough. Otherwise, you will be continually tweaking your vents chasing perfection and, in the process, take away some of the fun.

Finally, Add Your Food!

Graphic with text saying how to add food to grill

The big moment has arrived! You got all your tools ready, you set up your grill, you’ve lit it, and you’ve hit and maintained a stable cooking temperature.

It’s time for some food to hit that grill!

But steady on! You’ve one more task before you get cooking.

Oil the Grates Before Adding Food

There’s nothing more heart-breaking than turning a carefully marinated expensive steak only to have all that beautiful seared exterior ripped off, left behind stuck to a poorly prepared grate.

So don’t forget this quick but important final step before adding food:

Grab a small wad of paper towel with tongs, dip it in a little vegetable oil and lightly brush your grill grate up and down to give it a thin non-stick coat.

Oiling grill grates with a paper towel and tongs

You can use an old but very clean paintbrush for this too, but then you’ll have to clean it. I prefer a use-it-and-toss-it paper towel.

Don’t forget your gloves!

You’re going to need those hands to eat your delicious grilled food soon. So any time you’re working near the hot surface of the grill, don a pair of quality heatproof gloves to protect yourself.

During the Cook

If you’re cooking hot n fast using direct heat, don’t stray too far from the grill. That food’s going to need frequent turning (every minute or so) to get a good sear and to prevent overcooking on one side.

If cooking with indirect heat, place food on the side with no coals directly beneath and close the lid.

Try not to peak too often as you will lose valuable heat and upset the stable temperature every time you open the lid.

Instead, get your thermometers in place so that you can monitor the temperature without having to look inside.

When is Food Finished? Cook to Temperature, not Time

You can find all kinds of guides to “how long it takes to cook (fill in the blank)”

But, as we’ve noted earlier, no two grills are the same. And external factors like air temperature and humidity will always affect cooking time as well.

So while time can be a rough guide, always rely on a good quality instant-read meat thermometer to know exactly when to remove food from the grill.

This is especially important when it comes to large joints and whole birds where the outer appearance of the food is absolutely no indicator of the internal doneness.

With burgers, sausages, fish, shrimp, and veggies, you can generally eyeball it. If it looks done, it probably is.

But for larger cuts, or If you’re in any doubt, just stick in that thermometer. This is not only your guarantee of delicious, still moist and tender meat but also your insurance against food poisoning.

I like to keep a print-out of the AmazingRibs.com food temperature guide stuck to the side of my fridge in the kitchen.

It’s a handy quick reference and removes the guesswork from grilling, is magnetic so stays put easily, and saves me having to reach for google (and I stopped asking Alexa…because answers vary!)

When to Remove Food, Resting and Carryover Cooking

Text image detailing when food is ready to remove from grill

Whether cooking in an oven or on the grill, all foods will continue to rise in temperature by a few degrees after they’re removed from the BBQ.

So unless you want a significant jaw workout, this means you need to take food off the heat BEFORE it hits optimal internal temperature.

For thin or small pieces of meat (including steaks):

Watch that thermometer and remove the meat from the grill when the temperature is 5°F below your target.

For large cuts, roasts, whole birds, and ribs:

Remove when the thermometer reads 10°F below target.

Then cover food lightly with foil and let it rest for 5-15 minutes for small cuts, and anything from 30 minutes to 2 hours+ for very large cuts.

Meat resting in foil on a wooden chopping board

During this resting period which sounds so relaxing, a lot is going on!

First of all, the food is still cooking and rising in temperature. This is called “carryover cooking,” and if you don’t realize it’s going to happen, you will overcook your food time and time again.

What happens is, even though you may have read an internal temperature of 125 F for your steak, that is ONLY at the center. The surface of the steak has been in contact with a heat source over 500 degrees Fahrenheit if you seared it.

So the center is 125 F, the surface could be 400 F+

When you rest the meat, the temperature across the food equalizes. The surface cools, but some of that heat makes its way inside, further cooking the insides and raising its temperature.

So if you want a medium-rare 130 F steak, take it off the grill at 125 F and it rises to 130 F while it’s resting, due to carryover cooking.

Obvious when you think about it, but surprising when I first learned it. So remember this fact and never serve overdone steaks again 🙂

How to Top Up Fuel During a Long Cook

There’s a reason why every good grill-master is never far from their grill during a cook. It needs watching!

Unlike gas, a charcoal fire has the potential to fizzle out if not topped up regularly. I don’t want to scare you, but after following all the advice we’ve given here and setting up a beautiful grill, the last thing you want to do is let the fire go out!

It’s not just that it will delay chow time. Worse, it will mess with the quality of your food, which, partially cooked, will cool down and then be cooked again. Don’t let it happen!

The single most reliable sign your charcoal needs topping up:

The grill temperature is dropping, and opening vents to increase the heat doesn’t work. Then it’s almost a surety you’ve run out of fuel.

Thermopro tp20 meat thermometer in use clipped to a Weber kettle
I was cooking at 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Temp was dropping, I opened vents and it did not climb. I was out of fuel!

In many (or most) grills, you can simply open the lid to check on the fuel. But some grills have the fuel hidden away beneath deflector plates (kamado grills, for example), meaning you need to remove the food, grates and deflectors before you can visually see the charcoal.

So opening vents and seeing if the temperature rises is the best – and only – way to check without much effort.

You always need to stay ahead of the fire. If the cook’s been going a while, just start a new chimney of coals so you’re ready to top up the grill before the heat drops off.

No chimney? Add small amounts of new fuel and tuck them in with the old.

Dumping a load on top of an existing fire will only temporarily reduce the heat until the new coals light and establish.

Your goal is always to maintain a stable heat with as few ups and downs of temperature as possible.

The Low Down on Flare-Ups

Text image discussing flare ups on grills

A flare up is a sudden surge of large, intensely hot, often out of control and definitely unwanted flames on your grill. We’re not talking small, localised flames licking up from the coals due to the odd bit of fat dripping fat here. We’re talking: “Whoah! Get out of there! The grill is actually on fire!” style flare ups!

Most seasoned grillers have been there, and it’s not a pretty thing. It can be downright scary too as you frantically try to dampen the flames while trying to recall if your home insurance is up to date.

Here are the top 4 reasons for flare-ups:

  1. Too much fat on the meat. When heated, fat will melt and drip down on to the flames. Yup, there’s your inferno. Keeping the lid open to dampen the heat will help and trim that fat before grilling…better for your waistline too!
  2. Too much marinade. Sweet and/or oily marinades, in particular, can burn and flare-up. It’s best to pat dry the meat with paper towels before adding it to the grill. If you’re sad to lose all that great flavor, set some aside earlier that you can boil up to kill bacteria, then brush onto the meat just before serving or use as a sauce at the table.
  3. High wind. Pretty obvious, this one. Wind will fan the flames and create more fire than you’d bargained for. If it’s windy out, try to steer your grill into a sheltered spot before you light it.
  4. A dirty grill. The first thing I said right at the start of this guide was: “Always start with a clean grill.” I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to clean your grill well after every cook. Old stuck-on food will only lead to bad things…burnt smell, sticky grill and flare-ups.

What Should you do if You Have a Flare-up?

Close the lid and the top and bottom dampers. Starving the fire of oxygen is a quick way to put out the flames.

Do NOT use water. Oil and fire don’t mix. We learned it in school and it’s still true today. Suffocating the fire is your best bet.

And, of course, remove all people and objects from the immediate vicinity until you have the situation back in control.

Then go re-read this article because clearly, if you had a flare-up, you didn’t follow all our advice!!

Closing Down the Grill When Cooking is Done

Text image with instructions on how to close down the grill when cooking is finished.

We have an article dedicated to putting out your charcoal grill once a cook is finished, but the basic details are as follows:

Once you’re done cooking and ready to sink your teeth into whatever deliciousness you’ve just grilled up, take a moment to fully close the bottom intake vent to shut down the fire.

This way, you will not continue to burn good coals and may be able to use some whole pieces again for your next cook.

Leave the top vent just slightly open to allow smoke and heat to escape and go enjoy your food.

Clean the grates while still warm!

I know it’s difficult to tear yourself away from the party, but it’s highly recommended to clean the grill while it’s still warm, and any residual food is still soft and scrubbable.

So give the grill time to cool but not go cold and then get in there with a good grill brush and scrub all those grates down.

close up of grill grates being scrubbed with a brush

You can empty the ash pan only if it’s stone cold. You don’t want to risk even the smallest ember still being live. Remember that home insurance. I usually leave emptying the ash until the next day, or even the next cook.

Finally, once the grill is cooled and the grates are cleaned, close the top vent too to prevent rain, natural debris, and curious bugs getting in.

If you don’t plan on using your grill for a while (whaaaat?), leave both vents just a tiny bit open to allow some airflow that will help prevent fungal growth.

If you’re putting it into storage, use a good quality weatherproof cover but only after the grill is totally cold.

How to Grill with Charcoal: That was a Lot to Digest!

We’ve tapped into our collective grilling experience and wisdom here to share with you everything from soup to nuts, and coals to steaks when it comes to how to grill with charcoal. This is basically your charcoal grilling 101 reference manual right here!

Whether you’re brand-new to grilling or consider yourself a master, there’s always something new to learn, and small adjustments to your methods can yield great results.

But the best teacher of all is your own grill. Keep at it. Try different fuels, different fuel starters, different coal configurations, and different vent settings.

At the end of the day, no one size fits all.

You will need to digest all this information and then figure out how it will best work for you, and what your own preferences are.

We hope our guide on how to use a charcoal grill has been helpful, and we wish you many happy cooks!

We’d love to hear about your own experiences at the pit. What methods worked best for you? Do you have a trick or tip to share with our grilling community? We all love a good grilling story, so please share. And we’d appreciate your sharing this post with others.

Thanks for stopping by!

 

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4 Comments

Damian

Really useful article – loads of stuff I sort of thought I half knew and now realise that whilst I was on the right track, there is still so much to learn! And you learn by doing, so I’m off to get started. I have recommended this read to a number of my bbq friends – very informative.

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Mark Jenner (Author)

Thanks, Damian! Always nice to have positive feedback. And sounds like you;re about to grill more, which is always a winner in my book! 🙂

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niriksha

I’m grilling for the first time. Your site was ever so helpful. Thank you so much for the great advice!

Reply

Mark Jenner (Author)

Thank you, and good luck 🙂

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