How to Use a Charcoal Grill Like a Pro

how to use a charcoal grill

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It’s safe to say using a charcoal grill takes a hot second to master compared to its counterparts like propane grills. But once you do, there’s truly no going back. The smoky flavor and temperature control are unparalleled.

Below, you’ll find step-by-step instructions for beginners on how to use a charcoal grill. Follow along, check out the video, and you’ll be a pro in no time.

How to Grill with Charcoal for Beginners | Tips for Grilling with Charcoal to get started Today!

What you’ll need

Before we start charcoal grilling, let’s gather the essentials. Rest assured, you don’t need a lot of gear. But there are a few key accessories that’ll make your life a whole lot easier.

1. Charcoal grill

My preferred charcoal grill is a kettle. The 22-inch Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill, to be exact. It’s been one of the most popular kettles on the market for decades.

My favorite features include the One-Touch Cleaning System. Seriously, being able to sweep the debris into a removable ash catcher makes grilling life so much easier.

2. Charcoal

charcoal briquettes burning inside the chimney starter

You’re gonna need charcoal. Now, two types of charcoal are available: lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes. We’ve previously shared a post pitting the two charcoal types against each other.

Hardwood lump charcoal is made by burning natural wood pieces without oxygen until all the chemicals, sap, and moisture are removed. Its pros include no additives, little ash production, quick to light, and burning hotter. But its cons include being pricier, sold in uneven pieces, and burning faster.

Then you’ve got briquettes, which are basically the exact opposite. They’re made from sawdust or leftover wood burnt down similarly to lump, but additives are added.

Personally, I always recommend charcoal briquettes for beginners. They’re easier to use and keep a more consistent temperature, which is crucial when starting your charcoal grill journey.

3. Charcoal chimney

top view of the charcoal chimney starter

This is one of the best inventions for backyard barbecuing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s my favorite gadget. The charcoal chimney or chimney starter makes starting your grill a breeze, saving you a lot of time and effort. It’s also helpful in measuring your briquettes.

4. Lighting materials

lighter cubes on a charcoal grill grates

There are two ways to light your charcoal chimney. First, is a couple of pieces of newspaper rolled up and stuffed on the bottom. The second is Weber wax lighter cubes, which I always use. They’re inexpensive and easy to light. Never (and I repeat, never) use lighter fluid. It’s not meant to be used on food. You’ll also need a good stick lighter.

How to use a charcoal grill

Now you’ve assembled the tools, let’s get grilling.

1. Prepare the grill

Open top vents on a Weber Kettle charcoal grill

First, prepare your kettle grill by fully opening the top and bottom vents. We want all the airflow possible, as airflow and fire equal heat. Take the lid and both grates off the grill.

Then I recommend giving it a clean before starting. Scrape any debris off the sides and remove any loose ash. This is easy with the Weber’s One-Touch system. Once it’s clean, place the grates back and ensure the rods are on top.

2. Light the grill

In the video, I show you both ways to light your charcoal chimney.

The paper way. Grab your chimney, flip it over, and set it on the charcoal grate. Roll up your paper and stick it in the bottom. Flip the chimney back over and fill it with charcoal briquettes. If you’re cooking meat like hamburgers, steak, and chicken breast, you really only need to have your chimney ¾ full. This is exactly how much charcoal to use when smoking different meats.

The lighter cube way. Place your lighter or firestarter cubes in the charcoal grate’s center, and use your lighter to ignite them. Then, place your filled chimney directly over them.

Here, we go into further detail on how to start a charcoal grill, which includes some faster ways if you don’t mind buying toys.

If you want to smoke low and slow, you should learn about the snake method, but we’re sticking to grilling for this guide.

The charcoal chimney takes about 15 to 20 minutes to get lit. I recommend setting a timer so you can use this time wisely to prepare your food, season your meat, prep your brats, or make your hamburger patties.

a person dumping hot charcoals from a chimney starter into a kettle grill

You’ll know your charcoal is ready when there’s no smoke and only flames. The lit charcoal will also start to ash over and have a grey-white color. While wearing a pair of heatproof gloves, grab your charcoal chimney’s handle and dump the contents directly into your kettle grill.

3. Set up your cooking zones

I use my charcoal rake (which I mention below) to even out the hot charcoal and establish my two cooking zones, a.k.a. the hot and cool zones. The hot zone has all the coal and is the direct heat area. I use it for grilling and searing meat like sausages, burgers, and steaks.

The cool zone is the indirect heat area, or what I like to call the safe zone. I like to have it on hand in case of flare-ups because large ones will scorch your food. You can also use it to keep food warm.

charcoal grill set up with direct and indirect heat zones

Cooking in the cool zone allows the meat to slowly come to temperature without exposure to direct heat. Use indirect heat to cook large roasts, ribs, or a whole chicken.

Once you create your zones, carefully place your grate on top, then add the lid, placing the grill vent on the cool side. The idea is that the heat slowly travels through the grill to the opposite side and comes out of the cool zone.

Once you add the lid, let the grill sit for about 5 minutes until it reaches around 400 degrees. This will kill bacteria or germs and cook off any leftover food from your last grill.

4. Clean and season the grate

After 5 minutes, it’s time to clean the grate. There are also a couple of ways to do this. Use the wood grill scraper mentioned below or a ball of aluminum foil wedged between long tongs. I don’t recommend using a wire brush to clean off the grate, as little pieces often stick to the grate and adhere to your food.

a person holding tongs with oil covered paper towel seasoning the charcoal grill grates

Now, you’re going to take some olive or canola oil (any oil with a high smoke point) and place it on a paper towel. Use your tongs to wipe this over the grill grate to oil it up. This prevents food from sticking to it.

5. Temperature control

Here’s everything you need to know about controlling your charcoal grill’s temperature. But I have a pro tip for you. I use a black marker to make full, half, and quarter marks on my bottom grill vent. You can do the same on the top, but I like lots of airflow, so I typically always keep it open fully.

This helps you control the airflow once you graduate to low and slow cooks. More airflow equals a hotter charcoal grill. So, for regular grilling, I leave the vents wide open.

a steak with an instant read thermometer inside over a direct heat zone on a charcoal grill

Use an instant-read thermometer to check your meat’s temperature. This is FoodSafety’s safe minimum internal temperature chart. But essentially, steaks and roasts should be at least 145°F, and chicken should reach 165°F.

6. Put out the grill

Congrats, you’ve successfully cooked on your charcoal grill! Now, follow these steps to put out your charcoal grill safely.

  • Close the lid and the air vents to cut off the oxygen supply. Ensure they’re fully closed, as even the tiniest amount of air can keep the charcoal burning.
  • When the grill is cool, use the Weber’s ash catchment system to remove the ash. Use tongs or heatproof gloves to place any remaining charcoal in a separate bucket.
  • Dump the ash in a bucket of water mixed with baking soda or salt, which helps soak up the grease. Let this cool before wrapping it in aluminum foil and dumping it in the trash.
  • You can reuse charcoal for smoking. Carefully dump the coals into a lidded metal container for reuse. 

Helpful tips on using a charcoal grill

To help you get the most out of your charcoal grill, check out these extra tips:

  • Don’t overfill your chimney starter. ¾ full will easily get you through most grills.
  • It’s also important to wait until the charcoal becomes grey-white. If the charcoal isn’t ready, this will directly impact your grilling.
  • Only turn the food once halfway through. The fewer times you lift the lid, the better. Plus, one flip helps give your meat those perfect grilled marks.
  • Control the heat by using the vents and keeping the lid on. Heat escapes whenever you lift the lid, which we don’t want.
  • Don’t squish or flatten your meat; you’re squeezing out all the flavor and drying it out!

Extra charcoal grill accessories

In the beginning, I listed my must-have charcoal grill essentials. But here are some extra accessories I personally use and recommend:

1. Charcoal rake

charcoal rake moving burning charcoal briquettes

This isn’t necessary, but I love to use my charcoal rake. It helps to clean out old ash easily and is excellent for moving around charcoal so I can get my two cooking zones more even.

2. Wire brush

wire brush cleaning ash inside a charcoal kettle grill

I don’t actually use my wire brush on the grate itself. I use it to clean up the ash and scrape out any grease leftover from my last cook.

3. Charcoal canoe paddle

Okay, that’s not the technical term. I think you’ll find it’s called a wood grill scraper. But this handy gadget is excellent for scraping the grate.

4. Long-handled tools

a person holding tongs over a kettle grill

A long-handled spatula and tongs help reach across the grill so you can keep your hand away from the fire. I like to have two sets of tongs on hand: one for raw meat and one for cooked.

5. Instant-read thermometer

a person checking a steak internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer

An instant-read thermometer takes one less stress off your plate – uncooked food. Here are the thermometer brands we recommend.

6. Heatproof gloves

Heatproof BBQ gloves are designed to withstand high temperatures. I recommend them for all types of smoking, but they’re particularly handy for charcoal grills. They keep your hands safe and protect against burns. These are the best insulated BBQ gloves on the market right now.

Get grillin’

Now you know how to use a charcoal grill, it’s time to put your new skills into practice. Have fun experimenting with the lighting methods and temperature control until you find what works for you.

I have no doubt you’ll quickly be a charcoal grill expert. If you’re searching for what to make on your kettle grill, start simple with some steaks before progressing to low and slow cooks.

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