Charcoal grilling is gas grilling’s cool older cousin. The practice produces more flavorful food, but it’s also finicky and difficult to master. If you’re just starting out on your charcoal barbecue journey, expect some trial-and-error and mistakes until you understand your grill and the techniques that produce great barbecue.
Read on for our five top charcoal barbecue tips and tricks, and don’t forget to enjoy the process while you’re at it!
1. Don’t Rush Through Readying the Coals
The longest, hardest part of charcoal grilling is getting the coals ready. We occasionally hear of people using lighter fluid to get their coals going, but we strongly advise against this. Remember that anything and everything you put in or on the coals will flavor your food—and who likes chicken that tastes like chemicals?
A chimney starter will be your best bet for clean coal lighting. Pack the bottom of the chimney with newspaper or another fire starter, top it with your choice of coals and light your bottom layer. You can expect this process to take anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of your chimney, climate, and other factors.
Coals should be completely gray-colored before being added to your grill base. Finally, make sure to wear heat-resistant gloves before grabbing the ultra-hot chimney!
2. Don’t Overdo the Charcoal
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to charcoal barbecue. Make all decisions based on what you’ll be cooking that day, including how much charcoal you will use.
If you’re looking to cook a large cut of steak, you’ll need high heat. In this instance, you may want to fill your chimney completely. Medium heat will do the trick if you’re cooking chicken, fish, or other lean and flaky proteins. Low-and-slow cooking pork shoulder, brisket, and some types of vegetables will require less charcoal still or about half a chimney’s worth.
3. Create Zones in Your Grill Space
The best way to distribute heat in your charcoal grill is to place about ¾ of the coals on one side of the grill and ¼ on the other. This way, you can use the two grilling “zones” to ensure no piece of meat is over or undercooked. It also allows you to keep items warm while others finish cooking.
Once you’ve added your charcoal to the grill in a placement you’re happy with, put on your grill lid for about 10 minutes to allow it to “preheat.” This should be done before any food hits the grates! Listen for a sizzle when the first pieces of food hit the grate. Your grill might not be hot enough if you don’t hear it. If your food is sticking to the grates, that’s another sign that the grill wasn’t hot enough when you added your food.
As you cook your meat, consider the differences the two zones will make. Heating meat directly will cook it faster, while items cooking on the cooler side of the grill will take longer and result in a more tender final product.
4. Control Temperature with Airflow
You have the power to control your barbecue’s heat! Dampers, or the vents on the side of your grill, allow cooks to adjust the airflow to the charcoal. More air intake provides the fire with oxygen, allowing it to grow and produce additional heat. On the flip side, less air intake creates a smaller fire and decreased heat.
5. Snuff Safely
When you’re done cooking, don’t throw water on the fire or leave it to burn out slowly. Simply shut all your grill’s dampers and place the lid on top to safely snuff out your fire. Unburned charcoal can be reused in future barbecues, and ashes should be safely discarded at least 24 hours after grilling to prevent accidental fires.
How Should I Select My Charcoal?
There are two main types of charcoal—briquettes and charcoal lumps. Both have pros and cons.
Briquettes are simpler for beginner grillers, plus they’re cheaper and easy to find at most major retailers and online. They also burn for a long time, so they’re a good choice for extended grilling projects.
Charcoal lumps are irregularly shaped real pieces of hardwood (whereas briquettes are packed with sawdust and binders), so they are a bit more difficult to work with but produce a purer smokey flavor. They also produce less ash and burn both hotter and faster.
We recommend beginners stick with briquettes until they feel confident with their grilling technique.
When Is It Better to Grill Over Gas Than Charcoal?
As mentioned earlier, charcoal barbecue imbues food with a smoky flavor that can’t be replicated by gas. Still, there are instances in which we’d recommend sticking with gas grilling.
First, gas grilling is quicker and more convenient than charcoal grilling, making it easier to tackle on a weeknight. It’s also much easier to clean up at the end of dinner.
Second, if you’re hosting guests and still getting the hang of charcoal barbecue, it might be best to stick with gas grilling. This type of grilling will ensure a more consistent final product for your guests, at least until you become a charcoal pro.
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Finally, if you’re in the Lake Placid, New York area and looking for someone else to do the barbecuing for you, consider picking up a meal at Smoke Signals BBQ. Our team of expert pitmasters has mastered the art of charcoal barbecue grilling!
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