Master the Art of Charcoal Grilling

It all starts with recognizing that nothing  gets past a charcoal grill! Charcoal grilling is lots of fun. Even just watching food cook and listening to the sounds of sizzling steaks or hot crackling coals warms you up! The whole neighborhood also gets filled with that unmistakable aroma. How about creating a variety of great tasty foods? Another big plus!

Whether you want to cook steaks, whole turkeys, brisket, hamburgers, chops, chicken…. you name it, the charcoal fire has an application for that! You want to prepare delicate foods like fish and vegetables? There is a solid place for that on the charcoal grill. Use your favorite smoking wood chips to step it up and enhance the hardwood flavor of your food on a charcoal grill.

Charcoal Briquettes in a pyramidCharcoal Briquettes burning in a pyramid shape

Grilling with charcoal mostly employs the direct grilling method.

In this method, food is placed directly  over the radiant heat source to cook.

The heat conducted through the cooking grid burns grill marks or crosshatches onto the food.

There are numerous grilling tips to be shared in applying this method for fun, flavorful grilling, every time.

It’s only with this method of grilling that food acquires that signature seared ‘charcoal flavor’ also referred to as char-broiled. You can not get that from a bare gas grill.

Charcoal grills generally burn hotter than wood or gas. It’s harder to control heat on a charcoal grill, but there are proven ways of doing it successfully.

Grillspot Tip! – Charcoal grills are generally light and easy to tip over. Place your grill on a flat, level surface and keep an eye out for small children and our furry  friends. Do not leave the grill unattended.

The Best Way to Light a Charcoal Grill

This is how to light a charcoal grill. First off, the fuel used for a charcoal grill is either charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal, also known as char wood  or chunk charcoal.

Grillspot Tip! – Lay sheets of aluminum foil at the base of the grill before placing and lighting the coals to make for easier grill cleaning and disposal of used coals and ash.

You can light the coals directly on the grill, although the best way to do this is by using a charcoal chimney also known as a chimney starter. You can also buy already lit charcoal. Just kidding.

An electric coil starter will light your coals with no mess but that just takes away the fun of lighting a charcoal grill.

Stack the right amount of coals in a pyramid shape in the middle of the grill. This allows for maximum air-flow to enable the coals to burn efficiently, with less smoke.

Spray a light coating of starter or lighter fluid on the charcoal or briquettes, to get them just soaked. Store the lighter fluid away from the lighting grill. With practice, you can light coals without the need of lighter fluid! Plain old newspapers and a little fanning action will do the trick.

Wait a minute for the coals to soak in the fluid. Avoid excess fluid. Some coals are sold ready to light in the bag. There is even no need to open the bag, just strike your match!

Some charcoal briquettes are infused with burning compounds. No lighter fluid needed for self-igniting briquettes!

Grillspot Tip! – After the first use of ‘Instant’, self-igniting or self-starting briquettes, re-seal the bag tightly with clips or better still, tape. The burning compounds will  evaporate from an open bag. The makers do not include a ‘Use by…’ date to let you know how long the coals stay effective in an opened bag. Save yourself some disappointment and dough! Seal that joker up!

Always use a long-neck grill lighter or match to start the fire. Try quickly lighting opposite sides of the charcoal stack. Allow the coals to light and burn for at least 20-30 minutes. Just make sure the coals are hot and glowing before you start grilling. The characteristic ash-gray color that briquettes acquire as they burn is a sure indication that they are ready to use for cooking!

Hot Glowing ashy-gray briquettesHot, glowing, ashy-gray Briquettes

There should be no smoke. If your coals are still smoking, give them away. No, just kidding. Give them a few more minutes to burn or try fanning them gently.

With your gloves on, use some long-handle grilling tongs to evenly spread the hot coals on the grate or firebox. Wait for all the obvious flames to die down before placing your food on the grill.

Be sure to use a grill wire brush to ‘clean’ your hot grid just before grilling. Use your favorite cooking spray away from the flame or lightly oil your cooking grid with a brush or wad of paper towels before placing food items on the grill. This will make your grilled food not stick as much and clean up will be easier. Just making sure.

Now we are getting onto the grilling highway! As you make your way there, here are a few ‘housekeeping’ basics, then we can pick up somespeed. Our first stop is ….

How to Control Temperature on a Charcoal Grill

It’s necessary to learn the best way to control temperature on a charcoal grill. This type of grill does not have a ‘temperature setting’. Use the ventsor dampers on top of the lid and at the bottom of the grill effectively. The words vents and dampers are used interchangeably here because they mean one and the same, and, fulfill the same function. Ok, Ok, let’s stick with umm…. vents.

Some grills have an adjustable firebox. An external handle is used to raise or lower the coals to increase or reduce heat.

To get off to a raving grilling start, make sure that both the top and bottom vents are wide open. The vents at the top of the grill are mainly used to trap or release heat and smoke.

If there is too much heat, here is what you can do. First, with your grilling gloves on and a tapping tool on hand, tap open the vents on top of the lid to allow some heat to escape. Next, close the vents at the bottom to reduce the supply of oxygen. This reduces the fire and also extends the burning time of the coals.

Remember not to keep the bottom vents closed completely or for too long. You risk extinguishing the fire. If you need more heat reverse these steps. Close the top vents and open lower vents a little wider.

The heat emitted by burning coals is measured with a Grill Surface Thermometer. Internal food temperature is measured with a Meat or a Probe Food Thermometer.

Another simple way to ‘control’ heat is by simply opening the lid. Most large grills have a hinged lid. Smaller popular grills have a lid that comes right off. Cover the grill and the fire is toned down. Removing the lid allows more oxygen into the coals thus increasing the fire. Conversely, covering the lid traps more radiant heat to cook faster, the indirect heatway with larger food items. A little heat-balance game going …..

How to Cook on a Charcoal Grill

Grill temperature has to be varied for different food items on a charcoal grill. This is particularly important when you are grilling thin steaks, poultry, fish or seafood.

These food items are cooked on high heat and for a short time.  Usually 30 minutes or less. If they are cooked on low heat  for a long time,  they tend to dry out and lose all their juices. Just monitor the food temperature.

Grill Surface ThermometerGrill Surface Thermometer

Always use a grill thermometer to monitor the temperature of your grill. This helps to avoid ‘charring’ or burning your food. The delicate balance is trying to get the food cooked or ‘done’ without burning.

If you do not have a grill thermometer, place an instant-read food or meat thermometer in one of the top vents to monitor the temperature of the grill.

It’s mostly recommended to use the indirect grilling technique with less heat to prepare larger food items like leg of lamb, poultry, ribs and many roasts, as well. Large foods take longer to cook, hence the need to lower the heat so that the ‘outside’ is not charred or burned, all the while making sure that the ‘inside’ is well cooked. Make sense? Good.

Grilling at the right temperature for specific food items should not be too complicated on a charcoal grill. To avoid the possibility of any type of food poisoning from the grilled food, stay within the recommended temperature range and cooking time. Your food will turn out as flavorful and just the way you want it!

A few years ago, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducted a survey. The findings revealed that ‘only 6 percent of main meal cooks checked hamburgers with a food thermometer!’  It’s important to avoid judging the ‘doneness’ of food solely by looking at its color. The internal food temperature is more important than the color of grilled food.

Food ThermometerFood Thermometer

Looking at the color of food surely helps but should not be the sole deciding factor of whether food items are ready to be removed from the grill.

You will need the whole combined knowledge of food type, grilling time and temperature plus color to let you know that the food item is ready to serve.

In a nutshell, the color can look ‘good and ready’  but the food is not safe. In other cases the color can look ‘raw’ but the food is safe. The fear of raw meat is rife or common among people who like their meats well done. No hard feelings, only juicy steaks!

Most of the meat that is cooked rare or medium-rare is safe to consume based on internal food temperature. Use this temperature to determine if your food type is going to be served rare, medium rare or well-done. Pork, beef, veal and lamb are safe to serve and consume at a safe minimum temperature of 145 °F (65 °C) or higher, that is until it is done  or well-done, for personal preference.

Grillspot Safety Alert! – Always grill poultry until a safe internal temperature of 165 °F (75 °C) is reached. Grill fish and seafood also until fully cooked. The presence and spread of harmful bacteria in half-cooked meats can cause sickness. Harmful bacteria can stay in the body and multiply for months before finally making you sick. Scary.

Judging ‘food readiness’ gets easier over time, with a little more grilling experience. Experienced cooks, grill and pit masters know when their food items are ready. Even then, do what Thermy says, “It’s safe to bite when the temperature is right!”  If you do this successfully your friends and family will be safe and you will be on your way to becoming a grill master!

The USDA issues specific in-depth guidelines on ALL aspects of Food Safety in the relevant sections of their Web site.

Charcoal Grill Cleaning and Storage

Cleaning a grill is important for several reasons. A clean grill works efficiently. A clean grill is not easily susceptible to fire hazards, reminiscent with grills that have food build-up. Cleaning helps prevent our foods from acquiring that ‘grill flavor’ classic with built-up food residue.

After the grilling is complete, this is how to clean a charcoal grill. First, close all the vents on the lid and grill. Then, use a grill wire brush to remove any food that may be stuck on the cooking grid. It is much easier to do this when the cooking grid is still hot. Cover the grill with the lid and let coals burn down gradually. The grill may still be warm 12 hours later.

Grillspot Tip! – Use moist newspapers or paper towels to soak the cooking grid with water and mild detergent to loosen and remove tough dry residue. Lay the papers on the grid and sprinkle or spray some soapy water. Give it some time to soak in.

Do not throw or splash water on hot coals. The gushing steam can cause serious burns. Using a set of tongs, drop the coals into water to be sure all burning embers are out. Pour out all the left over coals and ash into an ash bag, I mean trash bag. Used coals and especially ash that is left to sit in the grill becomes acidic when it gets in contact with water or moisture. This accelerates rusting in the grill.

Alternatively, you can lay sheets of aluminum foil at the base of the grill before placing and lighting the coals to make for easier disposal of used coals and ash. Most charcoal grills have a coal grate or tray for this purpose, but, you know….

Make use of the Grill Cover. Store your grill and left over charcoal in a dry place. By following these basic charcoal grilling ideas and grilling tips, everyone can have fun and enjoy a great tasty meal prepared outdoors.

No matter what you do, always be sure to read and follow cooking guidelines and other safety and ‘how-to’ instructions.

Following instructions will greatly reduce the chances of burning your foodhandseyebrows or house when grilling with charcoal. If it’s not your house, well….

Do you have any grilling questions? Get answers to your burning questions.

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