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How to Use a Charcoal Grill

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Get Ready to Charcoal Grill
A bag of charcoal sitting next to a charcoal grill on a patio.

The first rule of charcoal grilling for beginners and seasoned enthusiasts alike is to be sure to have enough charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal on hand. Check your supply before making other preparations to avoid any inconvenience or disappointment when you’re ready to build the fire.

Both types of charcoal have their advantages. Pillow-shaped charcoal briquettes burn longer and generally cost less than lumps. Irregularly shaped hardwood lump charcoal is quicker to light and creates a higher temperature.

Depending on which method you use for starting the fire, make sure that you have lighter fluid, charcoal starter and a lighter available. Use long-handled metal tongs to arrange the hot coals once they’re ready for grilling. You also need a sturdy grill brush to clean the grill grate before placing your food on to cook.

Getting set up to cook on charcoal grills can be a little dusty and messy. Use thick work gloves or grill mitts when removing the cooking grates and when handling charcoal.

Having enough time is another important part of how to charcoal grill. In addition to cooking time, plan on burning the coals for 15- to 20-minutes before they are ready.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill

Having a good fire is the key for understanding how to use a charcoal grill successfully. To determine how much charcoal you need, consider the cooking area of your grill and how much food you are preparing. Kamado grills typically have a smaller cooking area and need a smaller amount to cover the charcoal grate than what’s necessary for larger kettle grills and barrel grills.

For grilling on high heat using a typical charcoal grill, you'll need about 100 briquettes – the capacity of a standard charcoal chimney.

Whichever method you choose, begin by removing the grilling grate to expose the charcoal grate that sits lower in the grill. Remove any remaining ash. Then open the grill vents to allow plenty of air to reach the fire. Keep the lid off of the grill after igniting the coals until they are covered in ash and ready for cooking, which will take about 10- to 15-minutes.

To use a chimney charcoal starter:

  • Place the empty chimney starter onto the lower grate of the grill.
  • Fill the chimney with charcoal. Use less for a smaller grill or for less heat.
  • Remove the chimney and set lighter cubes onto the grate.
  • Light the accelerant with a utility lighter and place the chimney on top of them.
  • Alternatively, place loosely wadded newspaper under the base of the chimney and light it to get the coals burning.
  • Carefully pour the hot coals onto the grate when the charcoal at the top of the chimney has turned gray with ash.

To use lighter fluid:

  • Arrange the charcoal in a pile or pyramid shape on the charcoal grate.
  • Follow the lighter fluid directions for the proper amounts.
  • Never spray lighter fluid onto a lit fire of hot coals.
  • Spray the lighter fluid onto the stacked coals.
  • Light immediately

To use an electric starter:

  • Arrange the charcoal briquettes in a pile or pyramid shape on the charcoal grate.
  • Insert the heating element of the electric starter into the center of the charcoal pile.
  • Plug the starter into an outlet.

To use instant lighting charcoal:

  • Arrange the charcoal into a pile on the grill.
  • The coals are pre-treated with accelerant, so lighter fluid is not needed.
  • Light the charcoal with a utility lighter.
Grilling with Charcoal

Grilling with charcoal requires a thick, condensed layer of lit coals for even temperatures across the cooking surface. A thin layer creates less heat for a shorter amount of time. 

Grilling directly over the hot coals will sear the outside of the food and make attractive grill marks. Thicker cuts of meat can need more time to be thoroughly cooked. To accomplish this without having the food dry out or become too charred, create a two-zone fire.

To cook with direct heat, arrange the lit coals on roughly half of the charcoal grate for the hot zone. Sear the food over the coals and then move the pieces to cool area for slower indirect cooking. 

  • Regardless of the charcoal arrangement, place the cooking grate into position and close the lid.
  • Ensure the grill vents, or dampers, are open.
  • Wait 10- to 15-minutes as the grill heats up.
  • Clean the grate with a grill brush.
  • Place food onto the cooking grate.

Maintaining the proper temperature level is important to achieve good results. Regulate the airflow and temperature using the vents located at the top and bottom of the grill.

  • To increase the temperature, open the damper beneath the fire.
  • To lower the heat, open the upper damper.
  • If additional heat is needed, add more coals.
How to Put Out a Charcoal Grill
A person adjusting the lower vent on a charcoal grill.

When grilling is complete, you must extinguish the charcoal. Never dispose of used charcoal and ash until it has completely cooled.

The easiest method to extinguish a charcoal fire is to suffocate the hot coals by shutting the lid and closing the vents. It can take up to two days for them to become cold and eliminate the possibility of re-igniting. With this method, any gently used pieces of charcoal can be saved and used for your next cookout.

Hot coals can be sprayed with water from a garden hose but doing this can be messy and create more cleanup time.

Once the coals and ash are cold, remove them from the grill. Wrap the contents in a piece of aluminum foil and throw away with your other trash in a garbage can.

Charcoal Grilling Tips and Techniques
Coals in a charcoal grill arranged for two-zone cooking.

You'll develop your technique as you become more familiar with the bascis of cooking with charcoal grills. Here are a few tips to give you a head-start on becoming a grill master.

  • Placing a drip pan with water in the cool can help regulate temperate and keep food from drying out.
  • For a smoky flavor, soak a handful of wood chips in water for a half hour and place them on top of the hot coals before cooking.
  • A grill surface thermometer will help you monitor the temperature if your grill isn’t equipped with a built-in gauge.
  • To help reduce sticking, dampen a paper towel with vegetable oil and use tongs to glide it along the hot grilling grate before setting food on it. 
  • Smoking and grilling thicker cuts requires longer cooking times. For prolonged cooking, add more charcoal as necessary to maintain the temperature you desire.

Once you learn how to use a charcoal grill, you’ll be tempted to enjoy delicious flavor of smoky chargrilled food frequently. With the right knowledge and grilling accessories, you can stoke the fire anytime you want. If you need a new grill, lump charcoal or other grilling equipment, The Home Depot delivers. Just was when, where and how.