Whether you’re hosting the big family reunion or a casual backyard dinner, nothing brings hungry folks together like the smell of charcoal at a summer cookout. In some regards, grilling is the easiest cooking method imaginable: food plus fire equals savory charred morsels. But a perfect picnic requires more than just knowing how to flip the burgers. No matter if you’re a blue-ribbon barbecue boss or a rotisserie rookie, these steps will help you get the most out of your charcoal grill.
1. START WITH A CLEAN SLATE.
Always begin with a quick clean-up from the previous grilling session. First, clear out the powdery ash that accumulates in the bottom of the grill. Depending on the model of your grill, you may be able to sweep these ashes out through a vent or trap-door, or you may have a removable tray that can be emptied directly into the trash. Then use a grill-safe coil brush or pumice stone (wire brushes can be hazardous) to remove any charred food remains from the cooking grid.
2. MAKE A PLAN.
Before you reach for the lighter, take a few minutes to craft a game plan for your grilling session. Consider what types of food you’re making, how many people you’re cooking for, and how long you’ll need the coals to stay hot. Those factors affect how much charcoal you should use, how the coals should be configured, and how long it will take the grill to reach cooking temperature.
3. USE BRIQUETTES FOR A QUICK FIRE ...
American grills use two main types of charcoal: pre-treated briquettes and natural lump charcoal. Briquettes, the more popular option, include small amounts of flammable additives (like sodium nitrate) to improve how they burn. But those same elements can give your food unwanted acrid flavors if the coating hasn’t entirely burned off, so make sure the coals are covered in a light gray ash before you start cooking. Also, if you start before they’re completely covered in ash, your grill will continue to heat up while you cook, and things can easily get way too hot. Ideally, briquettes won’t impart any flavor on their own, so if you prefer a classic smoky taste, you’ll need to add extra wood chips. In the U.S., Kingsford is the most popular brand of briquette, and can be found at nearly any grocery or hardware store.
4. ... OR TRY HARDWOOD LUMP CHARCOAL FOR A SMOKIER FLAVOR.
Purists sometimes prefer natural lump charcoal, made from aged hardwood. With no additives and irregular-shaped pieces, the hardwood variety generally heats up faster and hotter, but requires a bit more care when managing the fire. The advantage is that lump charcoal can give food a delicious natural smoky flavor, with no need for extra chips. The brands Royal Oak and Cowboy are nearly ubiquitous, but true specialists should check out Doug Hanthorn’s Lump Charcoal Database, which reviews and ranks nearly 100 different types of hardwood charcoal.
5. USE A CHIMNEY STARTER FOR A FOOLPROOF FIRE.
Lighting the coals can be a stumbling block for novice grillers, especially in windy or humid conditions. No matter which charcoal you’re using, the most reliable method is to use a chimney starter, a large metal cylinder that sits directly atop the cooking grid. Place a starter (like crumpled newspaper or paraffin cubes) in the lower chamber, fill the upper chamber with charcoal, then use a long-handled lighter to ignite the starter. After 20 to 30 minutes, once the top coals are covered in ash, use protective gloves to remove the cooking grid and pour the coals into the bottom of the grill and place the starter somewhere safe to cool. Best of all, chimney starters are cheap—grab one at your local hardware store for about $20.
6. GO LIGHT ON THE LIGHTER FLUID.
Sure, there’s a cheap thrill to be had in using lighter fluid to create a fireball in your grill. But too much lighter fluid can leave your food with a gross chemical taste, defeating the point of grilling entirely. If you’re using a chimney starter, you can forget the fluid—thermodynamics will do the rest. In lieu of a chimney, a splash of lighter fluid will help get those coals glowing, but restrain yourself from soaking the whole pile in the stuff. Squirt just a bit of lighter fluid onto a few briquettes (making sure that the briquettes don’t already have lighter fluid in them), wait a couple minutes, then light them. Then put the rest of the pile around the now-lit coals. Now be patient while those nasty chemicals burn off; again, you’re waiting for the coals to be covered in a light layer of ash before introducing food.
7. KNOW THE HEAT BEFORE YOU EAT.
Grilling is all about heat, but not all heat is created equal. Most grilling mainstays, including burgers, hot dogs, steaks, boneless chicken, and vegetables, benefit from direct heat—placing the food right above the glowing coals. Denser meat like ribs or whole chickens do better away from the heart of the fire, so the meat can slowly roast without the exterior burning to a crisp. But fear not, multitasking chef—your trustworthy grill can easily accommodate multiple cooking zones simultaneously. To create a basic two-zone fire, simply pile the coals on one side of the grill, with the opposite side being devoid of any coals. Indirect heat on the vacant side is great not only for slow-roasting but also for keeping finished food warm before it’s plated. For even more precision, consider a three-zone fire or one of these additional configuration suggestions from Weber.
8. GO WITH THE (AIR)FLOW.
Fire needs oxygen, and lit charcoal is no exception. While the coals are heating, keep both the upper and lower vents fully open to draw air through the grill and ensure the flames don’t dwindle. Once the charcoal is ready, leave the lower vent open but utilize the upper one to control temperature: wide open for maximum heat, partially closed for a cooler, longer roast. If you’re smoking meat or fish, close the top vent entirely to trap flavors inside, but be careful to not accidentally kill the flame.
9. LEARN THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE.
Oversized grilling implements are popular, but a standard metal spatula and tongs are more than enough to manage burgers, dogs, corn, and other staples. Smaller items may fall through the cooking grid, though, so consider using skewers or a grill basket to keep your mushrooms, peppers, or other veggies in place. Metal baskets also work great for fish (which can also be cooked on a cedar plank or even directly atop a bed of citrus slices), and a pizza stone opens up endless Italian possibilities. Perhaps the most underrated tool in the grillmaster’s arsenal, however, is the basting brush: A few extra coats of sauce—when applied at the right time—can make the difference between a succulent success or a dried-out disappointment.
10. KEEP THE FIRE ROARING.
An all-day party or multicourse dinner may well require more fuel than your grill can hold at once. If it looks like your guests’ appetites are going to outlast the fire, be proactive and add additional charcoal while the coal bed is still hot (use tongs or heatproof gloves to protect your hands). Don’t wait until the coals have burned down to ash and embers or you’ll be back to step one with hungry mouths waiting.
11. MAXIMIZE YOUR COOKING POWER.
On the other hand, if you’re grilling for yourself or a small group, your fire may last longer than the meal requires. It’s perfectly safe to let the coals burn out inside the grill (under supervision), but to be more strategic, consider grilling extra food to store and use later that week. For instance, a few mixed-vegetable kebabs refrigerated overnight can be tossed with your favorite leafy greens for an effortless salad the next day.
All images courtesy of iStock.