Any master of the patio will tell you that charcoal grilling is the only way to hit that oh-so-appetizing mix of smoky, woody flavor that takes your meats to another level. It isn’t as easy or as predictable as gas cooking, but it’s worth the effort for that full flavor and enjoying the genuine outdoor cooking experience.
If you haven’t yet made the leap to charcoal or want to learn more about how to heat, grill, and smoke better than ever then you’ve come to the right place! We’ll give you the scoop on everything from firing to grilling to smoking so that you can start sizzling delicious eats for your next big summer cookout.
First and foremost, you’re going to need a clean charcoal grill. Any pile up of ash can make managing the fire much trickier. Your vents also need to be in good shape — that means no rust or corrosion. You’re going to be touching a lot of hot things so fireproof gloves and long tongs are also necessities. Then you need a charcoal starter, whatever brand works best for you. Above all, you’re going to need patience and practice. Mastery of the grill doesn’t happen overnight.
Whenever you go out to grill, start by emptying any old ash and cleaning the grates with a stiff, bristled wire brush. An easy step that people don’t always remember is to oil the grill. Wad up a piece of paper towel, dip it into some cooking oil with your tongs, and run it over the grates until it’s all greased up. Now you’re ready to start cooking!
Lighting & Firing
It takes 10-15 minutes for charcoal to hit the right temperature. Charcoal that’s ready for grilling will have an ashy, white coating, and will run very hot. Once your charcoal reaches this point, spread it out into an even layer. For a medium heat fire, spread one layer of charcoal. For high heat, light and spread two layers.
You should preheat your grates before you throw any meat on top. When your coals are fired to the right temperature, put on the grates and let them warm up for a few minutes before adding any food — this way none of it will stick to the metal.
Now it’s time to get the food sizzling. The most important thing to keep in mind here is temperature control. If there’s too much heat, open up the vents to let it escape until you’re happy with the temperature. Use a grill thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature at all times.
Lamb, ribs, and roasts should be cooked on lower heat (250-350 °F) for a longer time, preferably with a process called indirect grilling. This is as simple as putting a lid on the grill so that all the meat cooks evenly — use a metal drip pan or aluminum baking pan to collect any dripping fats or juices.
If grilling is a competitive sport, then smoking is the Olympics of the charcoal cooking world. You shouldn’t take this leap until you have a complete mastery of your grill. Luckily, many of the same practices apply; it just takes a little more effort and a lot more time.
To start, you’re going to light your coals and pour them to the side of the grate. Use a charcoal basket if you want to keep them nice and packed. If you want to hit that perfect smoky flavor then add some hardwood to the mix. Use hickory, mesquite, or oak for a bold, hearty flavor (best for beef and pork). Use apple or cherry wood for a milder taste (best for pork and chicken).
Put a disposable foil pan on the other side of the grate and add two to three cups of water. The water will help keep a low temperature, which is absolutely key to a good smoke. This will also add some moisture to the food. Wait 30 minutes to an hour for the water to heat before adding the food. Once you’re done, cover up the grill and get ready to wait and wait and wait a little longer. Smoking is an art of patience. Only lift the lid when you need to add more coals. Once your meat has hit an internal temperature of 225-240 °F, it’ll be good to eat!
You’ve got the basics, you’ve got the tools, and hopefully you’ve got some great meat in mind. Kick off your grilling adventures with a classic – perfectly grilled steak.
Practice makes perfect so take every opportunity to get outside, enjoy the sunshine, and bask in the sweet smells of a charcoal fire as you cook for friends and family all summer long.