Mastering Your Charcoal Grill. Ashy charcoal glows at bottom of grill.

Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors


Raw steak with rosemary being prepared.

Grilling is much more than just the preparation of food. To some, it is an art form. With that in mind, people are aspiring to become masters of their grills and get the art form as close to perfection as possible. Here are tips that you can incorporate to master your grill.

Lighter fluid, or not?

Flame-grilled vegetables cook with flames on all sides.

The charm of grilled food is without a doubt the smoky flavor you get with that first bite of the burger or steak you have just spent working to get just right. However, if you have chosen to use lighter fluid it is a sure bet that you have just robbed yourself of that smoke flavor in favor of a mouthful of chemical flavor.

The process of lighting coals with lighter fluid involves soaking the briquettes with the fluid so they'll burn. The problem with this method is that most people do not let the coals soak long enough and the lighter fluid burns off long before the coals are lit. That, of course, leads to adding more lighter fluid to get the desired effect of lighting the briquettes. Of course, all that lighter fluid ends up going straight into the food. The match light bags aren't much better because you can still smell the fluid when you light the bag.

The solution is to use a method that allows just for the taste of the smoke and nothing else. There are several products on the market that you can use to light charcoal. A quick look on the shelves of your favorite outdoor store will show you the possibilities. However, the most efficient, and easiest to use of these methods, is using a charcoal chimney starter. These starters are easily found at any store that carries grills and accessories and are far, far better than lighting a grill with lighter fluid.

Are the coals ready?

Charcoal heats up as the black turns to gray.

How do you know if the coals are ready to throw the steaks onto the grill? This one tip is often the most overlooked. It would seem to reason that once the coals have burned down that it would be time to add the food. That thinking is wrong because at this point the coals are still heating up which means the temperature is still rising which makes it is difficult to control the heat used to cook. Fortunately, it is easy to know when the coals are ready to go. Once you get the coals sufficiently lit leave them alone. Visit with your guests, play with the kids, or go work on your side dishes. After twenty minutes or so go back and check your coals. If they have burnt down, have a gray ash look to them, and you have that beautiful heat glow going then you know it is time to begin. From there you can control the heat with the venting system on your grill.


Man puts lid on grill to allow it to pre-heat.

The most common mistake most make when grilling is not letting the grill surface heat sufficiently. If you followed the tip concerning the readiness of the coal, then you know that this tip will naturally follow that one. Once the coals are ready to go you should shut the lid to your pit and continue with other parts of your cookout until the grates are sufficiently heated. Second only to the smoky taste of a perfectly grilled burger are those beautiful grill marks you get from grilling. Now, this tip isn't just for the pure aesthetics of your food there is a reason you want the grates heated. Grates that are underheated tend to make the food stick to them and that isn't good when you get ready to flip that burger. Also, the hotter the grates the better sear you get. Searing is the initial process that traps the juices inside the meat and allows your food not to be dry when done.

Direct and indirect heat

Raw meat on grill is beginning to cook.

Common thinking is that when the coals are ready you should spread them along the length of the pit. You could still do it that way, but a better way is to make two separate surfaces on your grill. One surface will be for direct heat, the other for indirect.

Once the coals are ready you will want to push them all to one side of your pit. Of course, you will need to use something that will not burn or melt when you are dealing with the hot coals. When you have all the coals to one side replace the grates and you now have direct heat. To get a good sear, you will place the meat directly above the coals.

When you have achieved your sear then you move the meat to the other side of the pit and let it finish cooking over the indirect heat. Indirect heat is also good for grilling sides like corn on the cob.

Is it done?

Steaks are done and ready to be taken off.

You have done everything right up to this point and now you are ready to pull those mouth-watering steaks off the grill and wow your guests. How do you know when to pull everything off the grill for that perfect taste? Don't even think about slicing that meat open to see if it is done to your liking. When you do that all those precious juices you seared inside the meat are now residing on the coal bed. The proper way to check for doneness is with a food thermometer. A little bit of research will reveal what the proper cooked temperature is for the dish you are grilling.

Which grill to buy?

Man flips burgers with metal spatula.

As far as grilling goes, whether you're making BBQ or just steaks and burgers for regular outdoor cooking, we recommend the Weber Original Kettle Charcoal Grill. It's a classic portable grill and tough to beat on the price-to-flavor ratio. If you want to get a little fancy, you can step it up to the Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill, which is a portable charcoal grill that is functionally the same as the non-deluxe kettle grill but has a few extra features that make it easier to use and maintain. Both grills are ideal for tailgating. We recommend using with Kingsford charcoal briquettes for a classic combo that's tough to beat. If you want to start small, checkout the Weber Jumbo Joe Charcoal Grill for their entry-level model.

If you really want to get fancy and don't mind dropping some dough, check out the Kamado grills. They're based on an ancient Chinese cooking technique that dates back over 3,000 years. We recommend the Char-Griller E16620 Akorn Kamado Cooker or the E06614 Akorn Jr. if you want to keep the investment low. (However, you may be buying replacement parts within the year.) If you want to go all in on this, check out the Kamado Joe KJ23RHC Classic II or the Vision Grills Kamado Pro Ceramic. We recommend shying away from the Big Green Egg as it seems most of their product innovation budget over the years has gone to marketing.

If you want to jump over to the dark side and buy a gas grill (don't do it!), there are plenty of stainless steel options to choose from like the Char-Broil 463377319 or the Weber 66000001 Genesis II S-310 Natural Gas Grill (which also has a liquid propane version). The Weber is definitely more heavy-duty than the Char-Broil and has more square inches of cooking space, but you pay for it on price. Both come with tabletops to the side and are ideal for backyard cooking. The Char-Broil has cast iron grates and the Weber has a fully stainless steel cooking grate.

If you're really into barbecue, Royal Gourmet makes a charcoal BBQ grill with an offset smoker. This 800 square inch charcoal grill is easy on clean-up and has a nice price. Char-Broil makes a similar product with its American Gourmet Offset Smoker, Deluxe, but we recommend the Royal Gourmet instead.

If you want to mix it up a little more, you could go with a hibachi-style grill like the Blackstone Griddle Station or the Lodge Cast Iron Sportsman's Grill. The Sportsman is ideal for charcoal grilling while the Blackstone is more your classic griddle.

Make sure to pick-up a grill cover that's appropriate for whatever grill you buy if you want to extend the life of your product. And don't forget the grilling tools as well; you don't want to have your new grill fired up with all your food on it then realize you forgot to buy the tools. That plastic spatula you have in the kitchen will not save you.

Final Thoughts on Charcoal Grills

Vegetables and meat are lined up side-by-side over heat.

Like many art forms, there isn't one right way to do things. What works for one might not work for another. However, there are ways to enhance what you already know and do to perfect your grilling. These tips scratch the surface of all the things you can do to become the master of your grill.


Looking for more on Charcoal Grills and other outdoor adventures? Try these:

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Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors

June 19, 2019 — Konnichi wa