How to Use a Charcoal Grill: Super Easy Guide

Summertime or not, there is no denying the hard-to-resist craving for that unique flavor of good ole BBQ.

There’s a particular hint of authenticity that’s detectable in the taste and smell of charcoal-grilled meat, that modern gas grills cannot recreate.

Learning the art of charcoal grilling does not need to be complicated at all. It’s low-effort, high impact! Here are some easy steps to get you started.

How Do You Start a Charcoal Grill?

coals on fire

Before you light a charcoal grill, you need charcoal (a choice between briquettes or lump charcoal), fire starter (a choice between lighter fluid, chimney starter, and electric starter), protective BBQ gloves, tongs, newspaper, and of course, any grill of your choice.

First, remove the cooking grate from your grill. The bottom part is where you are going to place your coals. Make sure that it is clean.

Next, open the vents at the bottom of the grill to facilitate airflow for the fire to burn. Keep in mind that in the process of cooking, you should partially close the vents to control the temperature.

It’s now time to choose between charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal. Briquettes have a more even shape and light a fire quickly and easily. Lump or hardwood charcoal, is roughly shaped and creates less ash. It responsible for that smoky flavor, but its fire dies out fast.

Now, there are ways to start your fire. The best charcoal starters are: lighter fluid, chimney starter, or electric starter.

If you want to use lighter fluid

Spread your coals evenly on the grill. Once you have your coals ready, pour lighter fluid all over them.

After this, you should wait for about 3 minutes for it to soak in to prevent it from burning off the coal instantly. Then, add a little bit of lighter fluid for the coals to light more quickly.

Get a lighter or a match and light your charcoal. Let it burn for about 10 minutes. Once the turns gray and you notice a glowing red in the center, you are ready to cook.

The waiting part is crucial because if you start grilling too early, your food is going to taste like lighter fluid.

If you want to use a charcoal chimney starter


Put some slightly crumpled newspaper on the lower compartment of the chimney. Fill the chimney with charcoal in the upper chamber until it is about three-quarters full.

It is now time to light the newspapers with a match. You will have to wait 15-20 minutes for the charcoal to burn, at which point you can now transfer the contents of the chimney into the grill.

If you want to use an electric starter

Turn the electric starter on, then touch its tip to the charcoals. Keep it there and wait for a bit. Once the coal starts to glow, pull it back slightly away but keep pointing it at the same spot for about a minute or so. By then, you should’ve lit your fire.

Like the chimney starter, this method of starting a fire does not require any chemical fuel.

How Do You Cook With It?

Now that you have your charcoal lit and ready, you should lightly coat your grill grates with oil to prevent the meat from sticking to it. After prepping your grill, test for its heat output to know if you need to add more coals to the grill.

To assess the heating power, place your hand a few inches from the grill grates for as long as you can tolerate the heat.

If your hand lasted for no more than 3 seconds, you could classify it as high heat. Five up to seven seconds means that you have a medium to low heat grill. Any longer than that is a sign that you need to add more coals to the grill to make the fire stronger.

There are three ways you can arrange your lit coals, and it depends on what and how much food you are trying to cook:

Direct heat

bbq thin meat

If you are only going to do high-heat searing, or if you need to cook lots of food in a short amount of time, this method is the most effective.

The direct heat method involves evenly spreading charcoal throughout the grill after lighting them up. Meaning, you get an even and intense heat distribution wherever you place your food. This heat cooks them very quickly, too.

Direct heat is perfect for burger patties, bacon, smokey sausages, and thin strips of meat.

Two-zone indirect heat

two-zone flames

A common mistake in charcoal grilling and cooking, in general, is the exposure of meat to direct high heat throughout the cooking process. That causes them only to cook or even burn the outside of the flesh, leaving the inside raw.

When your coals are ready and hot enough to start cooking, use tongs to gather them on only one side of the grill. You will establish a “hot zone” so that when cooking, one side is always hotter than the other.

This arrangement creates a temperature gradient between the two halves of your grill, called the direct heat zone and the indirect heat zone.

The magic of the side without coal, however, is that it heats up more gently and slowly, through indirect heat. This is useful for evenly cooking the meat – the kind of slow cooking that reaches into its core.

The combination of the two “zones” in the grill provides you with more control over the cooking pattern of your meat without being too technical about it. Think about it: it’s just a basic charcoal grill, yet you managed to have a thermoregulatory strategy.

After heating for a long time on the low heat zone, you can now finish off by transferring the meat to the high heat zone to make it crispy.

Two-zone direct heat

two zone heat

High heat searing and moderate heat can coexist in one grill with this method.

Similar to the previous two-zone grilling, this one also creates a temperature difference between the two halves of your grill. Except, with this technique, you still place charcoals on the other side (albeit fewer) instead of leaving it empty.

By doing this, you have made a high heat zone and a moderate heat zone on your grill. Two-zone can be useful when you plan to cook different kinds of food simultaneously, like searing vegetables and grilling hotdogs.

Additional Tips

Here are some things you can do to make your grilling experience a better one!

How to deal with flare-ups

flames on grill

Sometimes, fires from the charcoal can grow, causing your food to get burnt. These are called flare-ups, and they make your food taste bad.

It is essential not to use water to attempt to put out the flame because it worsens the flare-ups, further destroying your precious food.

The best thing to do is to move the food out of there until the flame dies. You may also close the lid and the vents to deprive the fire of oxygen, thus killing it.

How to make your grill multi-purpose

lots of food on grill

If you want to make your charcoal grill act like an oven, closing the lid (but leaving the vents open for oxygen) effectively traps heat inside. This method is good for roasting a whole chicken or any large piece of meat. The convection caused by the pseudo-oven penetrates the chicken to the bone, evenly cooking it. Who would’ve thought you cook with charcoal?

If you want to try smoking, you should add a water pan. The water will add moisture to the atmosphere and protect your meat from direct heat by absorbing some of the heat. Smoking for a long time is sure to dry out the flesh, so by adding moisture inside the grill, you prevent that from happening.

One of the good things about owning a charcoal grill: you can use it for cooking anything however you like.

Avoid using water to extinguish a fire.

Water might seem harmless, but combine it with a hot grill, and you have a recipe for danger. It is crucial to avoid splashing water on an actively hot grill.

Attempting to extinguish a grill with water is never a good idea. It can cause cracks in your grill, worsen the fire, produce lots of steam, and disseminate ash on your food.

Also, since there are burning fuel and oil present in your charcoal grill, and these compounds are lighter than water, water, therefore, cannot wet these liquids to cool them. If you throw water on a grease fire, the force of the water would just disperse these lighter fluids on the surroundings, spreading the fire.

You should always wait for the grill to cool down completely before cleaning it with water.

Useful tools to have

bbq tongs

A spatula or some tongs are useful for flipping the food to expose the other side to the fire. You do this thing to make sure your food thoroughly cooks.

You may also get a quick read or instant-read thermometer if you want to have temperature control. The ideal temperature for indirect cooking is around 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything close to that number is considered perfect for almost all food.

The thickness of certain types of meat, like chicken, makes it tricky to determine if they’re cooked on the inside already. You have to monitor the internal temperature using a thermometer to make sure you don’t end up eating raw chicken or cold burgers grilled for an insufficient amount of time.

For food you want to overcook slightly, you can also use your thermometer to check them from time to time how well done it is, helping you avoid severe overcooking to the point of inedibility.

Do You Open or Close the Vents on a Charcoal Grill?

grill showing vents

The vents on a grill play a massive role in temperature control because they serve as the entryway for the oxygen coming from the surroundings. Oxygen is crucial to keep the fire burning: without it, the fire would die.

There are two types of vents on a charcoal grill: top vents and bottom vents. The top vents are on the lid. The bottom vents are at the bottom of the grill where the coal is.

The bottom part of the grill is responsible for continuous production of fire: that’s where the fuel and charcoal is. Eventually, the oxygen in that part of the grill gets consumed upon burning, so it needs replacing. The purpose of the bottom vents is to let oxygen inside, making more fire, therefore making the grill hotter.

If you want your charcoal grill to reach a higher temperature, keep the bottom vent open. If you’re going to decrease the heat, you should partially close the vents to make it harder for the fire to get oxygen, discouraging it from burning any more.

Completely close all the vents if you want to decrease the fire by a significant amount. Blocking the vents causes a severe lack of oxygen, which causes the light to die slowly.

The top vents, however, located on the lid, vent out hot air and smoke from the top part of the grill. It’s best just to leave them open and stick to using the bottom vents to control the temperature.

How Do You Clean It?

charcoal grill

To keep your charcoal grill’s performance as good as when you first bought it, you need to put elbow grease into its maintenance.

Before each grilling season, you should do a thorough cleaning routine on your grill. Consistent cleaning helps with the longevity of its parts.

The first thing to do to clean your smoker grill is to scrub the grill grates using a long-handled, stiff-bristle grill brush. If you do not have a brush, a crumpled ball of Aluminum foil held with tongs will do.

After scrubbing, put some vegetable oil on a folded paper towel and rub it against the grate, preventing food from sticking the next time you cook and also protects from rust.

Take out all the ashes from the bottom of the grill. If there is too much ash present, the vents will be blocked, and you will have a hard time controlling the temperature.

Once you remove the ash, clean the inside of the cook box with soap, water, and a brush. Place the charcoal grate back into the grill when you’ve done the cleaning and drying the inside.

Close the lid, then clean the outside of the grill using soap and water. Dry it with a cloth and make sure to protect it with a weather-resistant cover when not in use to prevent rust and keep it from looking old.

After every grilling session, though, it’s a smart move to immediately scrub the grill grates with a brush while still fresh and warm. It is easier to remove the food particles and grease that have stuck to the grill before they cool and harden.

We recommend getting a new grill brush every grilling season if you often grill since it slowly becomes worn out with more usage.

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