How to Use a Charcoal Grill

A comprehensive guide to setting up and lighting a charcoal grill and cooking your food to juicy perfection.

April 26, 2023

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How to Light a Charcoal Grill
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You can't beat a gas grill for convenience, but when we want the smoky char that only a real fire can provide, we reach right for the charcoal. It's easy to use once you know the basics. If you don't own one, check out our product test containing the best charcoal grills.

What Type of Charcoal Is Best?

When it comes to charcoal, there are two main type: briquettes and lump. The one you choose really depends on what you're making and your overall preference.

Briquettes are engineered from compressed wood and other additives -- they burn longer with a steady temperature. This makes them ideal for long, slow cooking, like smoking a brisket or making pulled pork.

Lump charcoal is made from whole pieces of hardwood. It lights quickly and burns hotter and faster—perfect for burgers, steaks and chops. Because lump charcoal allows you to easily control the heat and cooks food faster, it is considered superior by most grill masters—but try both to see which one you prefer.

How to Set Up a Charcoal Grill

Make sure the grill is in a safe place. Position your grill outside on a flat, solid surface at least 10 feet from structures or anything that could catch fire. Avoid awnings, porches and low-hanging trees—and never grill inside a garage.

Always start with a clean grill. Remove any old charcoal, ash and grease left behind from previous meals. Ashes can block air circulation, which is essential for a fire to burn. Old charcoal absorbs odors that can transfer to food, so we don't recommend reusing it.

Gather the right amount of charcoal. The size and shape of your grill will dictate how much charcoal is needed. Refer to your manufacturer’s guide for specifics. But in general, you'll need just enough charcoal to create an even layer on one-half of your grill.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill with a Chimney Starter

Charcoal chimneys or "chimney starters" make it easy to light either type of charcoal without the use of lighter fluid, which can add a chemical smell and taste to food. To get your coals lit, you'll just need a stick lighter and some old newspapers.

Roll a few sheets of newspaper into rings to fit tightly under the chimney. You'll need enough to burn until the charcoal catches fire. Set the chimney onto your grill grates—this is the safest place to light it. Never place a chimney starter on anything that could catch fire.

Fill it with the amount of charcoal you'll need. Then use a stick lighter to carefully light several sections of the rolled paper. The heat and flames will travel up to the charcoal and gently ignite it.

Allow the coals to burn until they are at least two-thirds covered in white ash and have stopped smoking heavily. This will take about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the amount.

Wearing heat-resistant grilling gloves, carefully pick up the charcoal chimney and remove the cooking grate. It is safest to pour in the charcoal into the grill by tilting the chimney off the side. Never pour the coals toward yourself or lean over them.

Spread the hot coals as desired using heatproof grilling tools. Replace the cooking grate, open the lid vents and cover the grill. Preheat for 15 minutes before cooking.

How to Grill Food On a Charcoal Grill

A two-zone fire is the best way to control the heat. It creates a hot area for direct, high-heat cooking and a cooler one for indirect heat. Use the hot side for searing, marking and crisping. The cooler side is for cooking things through or keeping them warm.

Push the coals to one side. When the coals are ready in your charcoal grill, push them to one side, leaving the other empty.

The side with the charcoal is now the direct-heat zone. Foods are exposed to hot, radiant heat at about 500 degrees F. This is the perfect spot for cooking steaks, burgers and vegetables and crisping up chicken skin or ribs before moving these larger cuts of meat to indirect heat to finish grilling.

The side without charcoal is the indirect-heat zone. Foods are exposed to cooler temperatures—around 225 to 375 degrees F. This is a great place to roast a whole chicken or to finish up seared items that take a little longer to cook through — like bone-in chops, steaks or chicken pieces. When cooking over indirect heat, close the grill's lid to create an oven-like environment.

Flip the food when it unsticks. Don’t move the food around. In general, the fewer times you flip something, the better (once is ideal for most meats). If the meat is stuck to the grill, let it cook more — it will unstick itself when it’s ready for flipping.

Don’t squeeze or flatten meats. Yes, we know that burst of sizzling flame that comes from squishing a burger with spatula is tempting. But you know what is creating that flame burst? Fat. And you know what fat is? Juicy flavor. Don’t squish meat, because you will squeeze out the taste and moisture.

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How to Keep a Charcoal Grill Lit

There could be a few mistakes you’re making if your grill won’t stay lit.

Using slightly wet charcoal: The charcoal should be bone-dry otherwise it’ll fizzle out after it starts.

Not using enough charcoal: Make sure you’re using enough charcoal – read the back of the bag to make sure. If you don’t use enough, you’ll burn through the charcoal too quickly as you’re grilling.

If you are not using a chimney starter to light your grill, there are a few other mistakes you could be making.

Stacking the charcoal incorrectly: Stack the charcoal into a big pile – a pyramid shape – and place a couple starters distributed throughout the pyramid. Do not spread out the charcoal all over the grill, otherwise it’ll burn out quickly.

Starting the grill with closed dampers: the dampers, or vents in the grill, need to be completely open to allow air to flow into the grill and fan the flames as the charcoal preheats.

How to Keep a Charcoal Grill Hot

If you build your charcoal and start your grill correctly, your grill should be set up properly to stay hot for grilling items like steak, fish, veggies, etc. If you do notice the temperature significantly dip, open the dampers completely to allow more air to flow in. If you’re cooking for a longer amount of time – a few hours – you’ll need to add more coals as you burn through what you’re working with. When cooking with the lid closed, you can add a small batch of charcoals directly to the ones that you’re cooking with. Alternatively, for open cooking, add a small batch of coals to the chimney starter just as you started your original coals.

You've built the perfect fire—now it's time to grill the perfect meal!

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