How to Grill with Charcoal: Your Ultimate Guide

Learn the basics of charcoal grilling to get perfect results every time.

If you want perfectly grilled meats, seafood, or veggies with that smoky grilled-over-charcoal flavor, learn the basics of how to grill with charcoal to get the best results. Here are our top tips, plus great recipes to get you on your way.

food on charcoal grill
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How to Prep the Grill

Just like you spend time preparing your meat with marinades and rubs, take the time to get the grill ready. If your grates are dirty from the last cookout, it's more likely that your food will stick and have "off" flavors. The best way to prep your grill before cooking is to clean it really well after cooking or just before cooking, when the grates are hot. If you grill regularly, give it a good scrub with those long handled brushes and some elbow grease before it has a chance to cool down. Not grilling that often? Give it a good scrub once the grill has fully preheated and remnants from the last grill session should scrape right off.

How to Light Charcoal

You can use lighter fluid to help get the charcoal started, or a simple chimney starter that doesn't require lighter fluid. Here's how it works: A chimney starter is a hollow metal cylinder with holes at both ends. This is an easy way to evenly and quickly light charcoal and takes minimum skill to use. Simply crumple newspaper at the bottom of the chimney, place the coals on top. Remove the top grate from your grill and place the chimney starter on the lower grate. Light the paper with a match or long-handled lighter, and let the chimney do the work. After about 10 to 15 minutes the coals will be hot and covered with grey ash. Empty them into your grill, spread them out, and close the grill lid until the temperature is hot enough for what you're grilling.

Try this recipe: London Broil II

Starting with hot coals is the trick to cooking up this London Broil II. If you choose to use a real London Broil (versus the flank steak called for in the recipe), recipe reviewer Jillian suggests increasing the marinating time to make sure it's perfectly tender.

closeup of sliced flank steak cooked medium, with a juicy-looking pink center

Grill Over the Right Temperature

Charcoal grills take 20 to 30 minutes to properly warm up. Once you distribute your coals, cover the grill and let the grates heat up. But without those fancy knobs on a gas grill, how will you know what temperature you're working with? Hold your hand about six inches above the grate. If you can leave it there for six or seven seconds, it's medium heat. Four to five seconds is medium-high. And if you can only keep it there for one or two seconds? You've reached high heat, baby!

Try this recipe: Grilled Pork Loin Chops

Allrecipes home cook ScorpioGG says this recipe is "easy to prepare" with a tangy-sweet sauce. A charcoal grill preheated to medium heat will ensure your pork chops are cooked evenly without drying out.

Grilled Pork Loin Chops
Photo by kjhattery.

Indirect vs. Direct Heat Grilling

You can create different cooking "zones" on a charcoal grill, which is great for searing, cooking, and keeping food warm. After the charcoal is lit, don't cover the entire grill with the briquettes. Create a "hot zone" or direct heating area on one end of the grill by evenly distributing the coals under half of the grill. This is the perfect spot for searing meat and getting beautiful hatch-marks. Then move to a "cool zone" or indirect heat with fewer or no briquettes to finish cooking. This will prevent flare-ups and cook food more evenly. If you leave it over direct heat for too long, you often end up with a burnt exterior and raw interior. Plus, if you are grilling a large cut of meat (like a leg of lamb), cooking over the indirect heat with the lid on will create the same effect as using an oven.

Try this recipe: Cherry Bomb Chicken

Watch the video to see Chef John demonstrate how to start this top-rated grilled chicken recipe over direct heat to get grill marks, and then move it to indirect heat to finish cooking.

How to Use Vents

Charcoal grills often come with a small vent on the top of the lid and the bottom of the grill. It's not just for decoration or letting all those delicious cooking smells out and about to tease your neighbors. These vents are there to control how much oxygen gets to your coals, in turn controlling how hot or cool your grill will run. Too little oxygen (closed vents), and your flames may die out. Too much oxygen (vents open all the way) and you might have a flare-up. Adjust the vents so you have a perfect balance of air movement and control your heat.

Try this recipe: Grilled Salmon II

Use your vents to get a nice, even heat to cook this top-rated grilled salmon recipe, flavored with an Asian-style sweet/savory marinade.

grilled salmon
Photo by KGora.

How to Prevent Flare-Ups

Though occasional flames are quite impressive, the reality is that too much fire is a great way to ruin your food. The outside of your food will be burnt, the inside raw, and an unpleasant layer of soot will be left all over your grilled food. Flare-ups are usually caused by fat dripping into the coals. Trimming excess fat can help lessen flare-ups, but you also risk losing delicious flavor (so long well-marbled steak!). If you're finding you are getting a lot of flare-ups, try moving your food to a cooler spot on the grill (indirect heat) or closing the lid and vents to choke it out completely.

Try this recipe: Grilled Delmonico Steaks

Don't lose a perfectly marbled steak to flare-ups. When cooking steaks, start over direct heat to get beautiful grill marks, but move them over to indirect heat to finish cooking to the perfect degree of doneness.

Grilled Delmonico Steaks
Photo by KGora.

How and When to Apply BBQ Sauce

Now is not the time to skimp on the BBQ sauce. A good sauce while grilling will help to lock in moisture and add tons of flavor. However, if you're using a sweet sauce (hello brown sugar and molasses!), wait to brush it on until the middle and end of cooking to prevent it from burning. Make sure to have some sauce set aside that is just for the grill and one just for serving, so you don't cross-contaminate raw and ready-to-eat food.

Try this recipe: Prize-Winning Baby Back Ribs

Watch the video to see how to grill spice-rubbed baby back ribs over indirect heat, and how to brush on the barbeque sauce at the end before a quick final grill to finish them off.

How to Grill With Wood Chips

If you're ready to take your grilling game up a notch, infuse your meats with smokier flavor by adding wood to your charcoal. You can use chunks of wood (like hickory for savory, mesquite for tang, or apple for sweet) when smoking or wood chips right on top of the coals for grilling. Always soak your wood chips first, so that they smolder instead of burn.

Try this recipe: Cherry Wood-Smoked Chicken Breast Quesadillas with Pico de Gallo

Soaked cherry hardwood chips add a unique flavor to these easy chicken quesadillas. Make a double batch of the chicken to eat later in the week (stuffed into quesadillas or served with potato salad or slathered in barbecue sauce).

Cherry Wood-Smoked Chicken Breast Quesadillas with Pico de Gallo by bd.weld
Photo by bd.weld.

How to Add More Charcoal to the Fire

If you're still in a grilling frenzy but the briquettes are losing steam, don't add unlit charcoal to the grill. This can produce a lot of acrid-tasting smoke and a quick rise in temperature, which may burn the food already on the grill. Instead, light a few more briquettes in your chimney and add them to the direct heat side of the grill to keep you going.

Try this recipe: Best Hamburger Ever

The Best Hamburger Ever is perfect for summer grilling and gets added flavor from a charcoal grill. Onions, herbs, cheese, and a few surprise ingredients are mixed right into the ground beef, so every bite is packed with flavor — including a hint of smoke.

Best Hamburger Ever

More to Explore: Check out our collection of BBQ & Grilling Recipes.

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