There’s something undeniably alluring, inherent, and perhaps even primordial about cooking outdoors on a charcoal grill. And it’s not just the smoky flavor that we find appealing, it’s the whole process: pouring out and piling up the charcoal briquettes, striking the match to create fire, waiting (impatiently) for the briquettes to turn ashen gray, and finally the sight and sound of sizzling meat. Simply put, cooking on a charcoal grill is irresistible.
So, with the outdoor grilling season upon us, I thought I’d share eight tips for getting the most out of your charcoal grill this summer.
It’s not difficult to select the right grill. The most important thing you can do is think about what you want to cook and how you want to cook it. If all you want to do is grill a few hot dogs and hamburgers at the campsite, there’s no sense in getting carried away. Buy an inexpensive grill and use some common sense in preparing that food. If that’s where you are now, but you want to, say, move on to grilling seafood or smoking brisket, you’re going to need a grill that has the capacity to take you where you want to go.
The most important thing for making more sophisticated food on any grill is that you need the ability to control the heat source. For charcoal grills, that means plenty of space for fuel and the means to either quickly add more charcoal, raise and lower the cooking surface, or a grill body that permits you to mound the charcoal up on one side for indirect cooking.
Get the Ash Out
Before adding new charcoal, remove the cooking grate and the charcoal grate to gain access to the very bottom of the grill. Scoop out all the ash dust that’s left over from the last time you grilled. This is important because a thick layer of ash can block air vents and prevent the grill from maintaining an even, consistent cooking temperature.
And it’s best to put the old ash into a tightly covered metal bucket, just in case there are any smoldering embers, which could possibly start a fire. And if the ash dust has gotten damp and is stuck to the bottom of the grill, scrape it out with a garden trowel.
Clean the Cooking Grate
No one wants to hear this, but to keep your grill looking and working great, it’s important to clean the cooking grate after every use. As soon as the grate is cool enough to handle, lift it from the grill and set it into a shallow tub of warm, soapy water. Allow the grate to soak for 20 minutes or so, then scrub both sides with a non-scratch, soap-filled scrubbing pad. I prefer synthetic pads over a wire brush because they don’t leave behind metal bristles.
Although it’s not as effective as soaking, you can clean the grate while it’s still on the grill using a long-handled grill brush. But again, use a nylon-bristle brush or a bristle-less stainless steel grill brush, not a wire brush.
Light the Charcoal
There are two basic ways to light charcoal briquettes: the traditional method or a chimney starter. Both techniques work well, but the chimney gets the charcoals ready for cooking a bit quicker. Regardless of which method you use, before striking the match open all the vents to allow sufficient airflow.
For the traditional method, remove the cooking grate and pour the briquettes onto the charcoal grate. If you’re cooking burgers, hot dogs, fish and veggies, 20 or so briquettes is usually adequate; double that amount if you’re searing steaks and chops.
Stack the briquettes into a pyramid shape, squirt on some lighter fluid, and then immediately light the briquettes. Warning: Never squirt lighter fluid onto flaming charcoal. Wait until the briquettes are mostly gray, which should take 10 or 15 minutes, then spread them out into an even layer.
If using a chimney starter, begin by tearing three or four sheets of newspaper into 2- to 3-inches-wide strips. (Narrow strips burn quicker than large sheets of paper.) Loosely crumple up the strips and stuff them into the cavity on the underside of the chimney. Set the chimney on the charcoal grate and pour charcoal briquettes into the chimney’s upper chamber. Fill it about halfway if cooking burgers and dogs, and all the way if grilling steaks.
Strike a match and light the newspaper. As the newspaper burns, and air flows up and through the chimney, the fire will quickly spread throughout the charcoal. When the briquettes at the top of the chimney begin to turn gray, the charcoals are ready. Put on an oven mitt, and then carefully lift up the chimney and dump the hot coals onto the charcoal grate. Spread them out and you’re ready to start grilling.
Charcoal briquettes are designed to burn for about an hour or so. If you want to cook longer than that, simply add more briquettes to the fire; just be sure to do add them while the coals are still hot.
Oil Up the Grate
Once the charcoal is ready, set the cooking grate on the grill and then wait about five minutes for the grate to become hot. If you set food down onto a cold grate, it’ll stick. And then, right before you place the food on the grate, wipe down the surface of the cooking grate with a paper towel soaked in vegetable oil. That, too, will keep food from sticking. Hold the oil-soaked paper with tongs to prevent burning your fingers.
Direct vs. In-Direct Grilling
The direct method of grilling is when there’s an even layer of hot briquettes covering the entire charcoal grate. This method is popular because it creates a large cooking surface for lots of food, and it maintains a even temperature for long periods of time.
For in-direct grilling (also called two-zone cooking), only half of the charcoal grate is covered with hot coals, leaving the other half empty. As a result, you have a high-temp area for quickly searing meats, and a slightly cooler section for slow cooking.
Fiery, frightening flare-ups are the bane of every backyard chef. And while it might be impossible to avoid flare-ups entirely, there are ways to reduce them dramatically:
- Keep the grate clean of all sticky sauces, burnt food residue and caked-on grease. All can contribute to flare-ups.
- Trim away excess fat from steaks and chops.
- Avoid using oily marinades and sauces.
- Keep the lid open when searing fatty foods.
- Block the grill from high winds, which can blow through the cooking grate, fueling flare-ups.
- Don’t overcrowd the grill with food. That way, if a flare-up occurs, you’ll see it quickly and be able to move or lift off the food.
- Don’t spray water onto flare-ups; you could get burned by hot, greasy spatters. Plus, water will dampened the hot briquettes, lower the cooking temperature and, in extreme cases, extinguish the coals.
If your grill has a tight-fitting cover or hinged lid, then you can use it to slowly smoke meats and fish. Traditional charcoal grilling is done at high temperatures in the 450º to 550º F range. But to infuse meats and fish with rich, smoky flavor, the grill only needs to be 200º to 250º F.
To maintain low temps, you only need a handful of briquettes. Once the briquettes are ready, push them to one side and place beside them a foil pan of water. As the water heats up, it evaporates moisture into the air inside the grill, which helps maintain a consistent temperature and it keeps food from drying out.
And to add a delicate wood-smoke flavor to meat or fish, soak hickory or mesquite chips in water for about 20 minutes. Then spread a thin layer of the saturated chips directly on top of the hot coals. And when smoking food, be sure to keep the lid closed and the vents partially opened.
Often when you’re done grilling there’s still plenty of life left in the charcoal briquettes. If ignored, they’ll simply burn out and turn entirely to ash dust. However, if immediately after cooking you close the lid and shut all the vents, the briquettes will suffocate and smother from lack of air.
Then, the next time you’re ready to grill, simply tap the charcoal grate with a BBQ tool. All the ash will fall away, revealing smaller, but still perfectly good charcoal briquettes that are ready to be fired up once again.