Ready to take your grilling skills to the next level? Learn how to use a charcoal grill like a pro and create juicy and flavorful dishes that will have everyone asking for seconds. Our step-by-step guide will help you master the art of charcoal grilling and unleash your inner grill master.

Steaks being placed over charcoal grill.

There’s nothing quite like a grilled steak recipe. The subtle aroma of charcoal adds a layer to meat that is hard to top. But when it comes to grilling, everything from lighting charcoal to learning how to regulate the heat can be a little intimidating. But once you master the proper way to light and manage the heat, you’ll be grilling like a pitmaster in no time. 

Although there are several different styles of grills, each fueled by various heat sources, including charcoal, gas, wood pellets, wood, and electricity. Each source has its pros and cons. 

Charcoal is our go-to choice for most of our recipes on the grill when we want authentic flame-kissed flavor. And that’s one of its biggest pros when grilling over charcoal—that it provides that quintessential backyard barbecue flavor that you can’t get from smoking on gas grills or even pellet smokers.  

Another pro of purchasing a charcoal grill is that the grills are usually less expensive. You can find a standard kettle grill for around $100.

With a charcoal grill, some affordable cuts of meat, and ultimate backyard BBQ tips, you can easily throw an epic BBQ party on a budget. Just be sure to set your grill up in a safe area, away from fences, trees, the house, or any flamable objects.

Lump charcoal embers glowing in a grill.

Different types of charcoal

There are two primary types of charcoal you will find at your local market or grilling store: briquets and lump.

Charcoal briquets look like little black square pillows. They are made of compressed carbonized wood shavings. When choosing briquets, look for bags that are all-natural and made without any binders or fillers. 

Lump charcoal is made of solid chunks of wood that have been carbonized. It can be made from any type of hardwood. If you’re looking for a certain flavor like oak or hickory, check the packaging. 

Both types of charcoal create great barbecue. Briquets burn longer and at a slightly lower temperature than lump charcoal. Lump charcoal burns hotter but produces less ash. Our brand of choice is Cowboy Brand All-Natural Charcoal for both lump and briquets.

Lump charcoal in a charcoal chimney.

Lighting charcoal

You do not need lighter fluid to start charcoal. Lighter fluid is a highly flammable butane liquid that is made to be squirted onto coals so they light quickly. But it has a distinct flavor. If it’s not burned off completely, it can tarnish the flavor of your barbecue. 

The pitmaster preferred method for lighting charcoal is to use a charcoal chimney. This is a cylindrical metal tube with a handle. It has a shelf near the bottom to allow airflow under the coals.

When the chimney is filled with charcoal and fire is introduced beneath it, the fire and oxygen funnel up and around the coals to light them. 

To start the fire, you can use a lighter cube, all-natural firestarter, kindling, crumpled newspaper, or brown paper bags. 

When coals begin to ash over and turn gray, dump them into the charcoal grill and add 10 to 15 more coals.

Firestarters being placed into charcoal to ignite it.

Girl Carnivore Pro TIp

If your charcoal bag is paper, with no plastic, you can tear off the top strip as you use up the charcoal. Form a donut, by twisting the bag and joining the edges to make a doughnut shape. Place this under your charcoal chimney and ignight it for a natural fire starter. It makes use of the bag waste and due to the shape is the perfect chimney starter. This handy trick was taught to us by Chef Michael of Certified Angus Beef.

Controlling charcoal heat

Once the coals are lit, and inside the grill, it’s important to adjust the vents to create the proper grill temperature. 

Most of the amazing grilling recipes by pro pitmsters like Christie Vanover of GirlsCanGrill include instructions that will either tell you to set your temperature based on words like high, medium, or low, or the recipe will indicate actual temperatures. 

To understand the internal temperature of your grill, either install a grill thermometer into the lid or use an external thermometer with a probe that measures ambient grill temps. 

Your grill should have at least two vents. The vent on the bottom is the intake; this is how oxygen flows into the grill to feed the fire. 

The vent on the top is the exhaust. This pulls the air out of the grill. Both need to be open for proper airflow and circulation. You can find these on every charcoal grill from the household favorite Weber, classic drum smokers, all the way up to elite ceramic cookers.

When the vents are open wide, more oxygen enters the grill and feeds the fire, increasing the grill temperature. To lower the grill temperature, reduce the vent hole openings.

Girl Carnivore Pro Tip

It’s important to learn how to adjust and control the airflow on your grill and is the biggest component of controling your heat. Fire needs two things, fuel and air. Not only can you control the heat of the fire through the airflow, it’s important to understand how elevation and weather can influence how much air you need to feed your fuel to maintain even heat.

Infograph explaining 2 zone heat.

Direct vs. indirect heat

When setting up a charcoal grill, using the two-zone grilling method is a pitmaster’s secret to success. 

The two zones are direct heat and indirect heat. 

The direct heat zone is when your coals are directly under the grill grate. This is a standard setup that’s used for cooking foods hot and fast like grilled flank steaks, hamburgers and hot dogs

Some foods, like smoked pork butt cook better at lower temperatures for longer periods of time, which is when the indirect zone comes in handy. 

To create an indirect heat zone, push the coals to one side of the grill. Now, the side with the coals is the direct heat zone. The side without coals under the grate is the indirect heat zone. 

The indirect heat zone is also ideal if you want to turn your charcoal grill into a smoker. 

Place the food over the indirect heat, adjust your vents, add a wood chunk or two and now you can make a perfect smoked brisket without having to invest in an expensive smoker.

Steak in cast iron on a grill.

Shutting down a charcoal grill

Once you’re done cooking on your charcoal grill, close down all the vents to suffocate the oxygen and extinguish the fire. Be sure to clean the grill grates after each use by brushing off any residue with a grill-safe brush.

If you often cook on charcoal, consider getting an aluminum can just for ash disposal. Once the grill has cooled, usually overnight, be sure to dump the ash bucket or remove it from the grill. Proper grilling safety will not only prolong the life of your grill, but it can also help prevent fire hazards.

Don’t forget to clean your grill between cooks, so it will be ready for your next barbecue party.

Best recipes for a charcoal grill

FAQs

How do I control the temperature on a charcoal grill?

Getting to know your grill is the key step to mastering how to grill with charcoal. You can control the heat by adjusting the airflow with opening or closing the vents on the top and bottom of the grill. More air increases the heat, while less air lowers the temperature.

How long does it take for charcoal to heat up?

It typically takes about 15-20 minutes for charcoal in a chimney to be just about ashed over and ready to cook with. At this stage, the flame will be minimimal but the coals ready to cook on. It’s best to cook on charcoal that does not have flames leaping off it, but rather slow and steady heat from hot embers.

Should I leave the grill lid open or closed when grilling with charcoal?

Once the coals are lit, allow the grill to preheat with the grill grate on for 5 to 10 mintues with the lid closed and the air vents opened. When ready to cook, for high-heat fast cooks, keep the lid open to allow the most air circulation. If the coals get too hot and flare-ups occure, you can place the lid, with the vents closed on the grill to choke out the fire.
For low and slow cooking, such as smoking, close the lid and adjust your air vents to maintain a consistent temperature and maximize smoke flavor.

How much charcoal should I use?

How much charcoal to use is an open ended question that comes down to the quality of the charocal, what you’re cooking and the grill size. But, a general guideline is 30-50 briquets, or one charcoal chimney full. Remember, it’s easy to add more charcoal if needed rather than trying to cool down a fire that’s too hot. Start with less and add more as necessary to keep an even heat.

When should I add more charcoal and how often when grilling?

For most fast cooks, under an hour, you will not need to add more charcoal to your grill. This can depend on the heat of the grill, how well your grill holds heat, and the quality of your charcoal. For longer cooks, you may need to add add fresh coals to keep an even heat, especially on longer smoker recipes. We recommend investing in a good grill probe so you can learn how your grill holds heat and know accurately when to add more charcoal.

Can I use wood chips or chunks with a charcoal grill?

Yes! Add your smoking wood to the grill and allow the smoke to burn clean before adding your food. This adds an additional smokey layer to your food. But be careful not to add too much smoke, as it can taste acrid. Use wood chips for quick cooking items, or replace them every 30 to 45 mintues with fresh. And use only a few wood chunks with longer smoking recipes that have time to absorb more flavor.

Parts of this article were originally written by Christie Vanover of GirlsCanGrill.com. This article originally appeared on Food Drink Life.

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Well, Hey, Y’all.

Kita is a multi-talented individual, boasting numerous accomplishments such as being an award-winning recipe developer, world-traveled professional photographer, and journalist. As the lead creative force behind Girl Carnivoreยฎ, she is widely recognized as an authority on all things meat.

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