While the debate comparing charcoal grills with gas grills smolders indefinitely, there is no wrong answer when tender meat cutlets are sizzling to perfection over an outdoor flame. However, for grilling purists, the mystical variability of charcoal grills continues to lure them back to achieve the perfect heat, the perfect smoke and the perfect results.

Humidity, wind and ambient temperature each play a role in the performance of charcoal. Only experiment, and experience, will provide clues on how to account for these factors. But for charcoal beginners, there are a few time-tested practices to respect:

Keep Charcoal Grills’ Grates Clean

Every aspect of charcoal grilling success starts with air flow. Oxygen-rich air is pulled into the cooking chamber via lower air vents through the gap between the vents and the coal grate. The air fuels the thermal properties of the coals, filtering through the food, and is then ejected through upper vents.

For the system to work, the vents must work. Before starting any grilling session, ensure upper and lower vents are cleared of debris and be certain that old ash has been removed from the bottom of the grill.

Clean the grill after each use. Wait until the grill has cooled down, around 10 minutes after turning it off, then follow up with a grill brush. That will remove a lot of the leftover food. By cleaning them each time you use them, charcoal grills will always be ready when you’re in the mood for grilling.

Pick Your Coals

The more traditional charcoal briquettes often have chemicals that are unhealthy. There are often things like binding agents in the traditional kinds of charcoal briquettes that might get into the food. Charcoal made of natural wood is a better bet. These come from carbon that has been left over naturally from wood that has been baked.

You may also want to add wood chips to your coals. They add a nice, smoky wood flavor to your food. Some of the recommended woods are birch, hickory, cherry, apple and mesquite woods. Be sure that you aren’t using anything processed, such as plywood, because that can contain chemicals which are toxic.

Decide on Briquette Arrangement

Every expert in charcoal grills will gravitate to their preferred technique for heating coals.  For beginners, a few standard arrangements include:

  • Start with a 7×7 arrangement of coals and build upward to a point. The pyramid should be centered over the lower heating vents. Apply a layer of lighter fluid halfway through the build to ensure internal coals will heat. Apply a final layer of fluid before igniting the structure. Coals will heat moderately fast, with a very hot, centrally located heat source that can be helpful depending on your selected cuisine.
  • This option uses a ring of coals placed few briquettes wide and stacked about 8-inches tall. Again, center the ring around the lower air vents. Fluid can be applied once the volcano is complete. This option maximizes airflow through the grill and will provide quick, evenly heated coals.
  • The layer technique uses a blanket of charcoal covering most of the grate and stacked a few briquettes thick. This solution provides slow, gradually developing heat with minimal airflow and hot spots. Layering provides low heat for foods that need a hint of grilling before the coals are fully radiant.

Light the Coals

Lighter fluid is the most convenient way to get charcoal grills ready. You can even buy coals that are presoaked with the proper amount of lighter fluid to avoid nasty blowups or unlit coals.

However, lighter fluid can often leave a less-than-desirable flavor on your food. If you want a purer flavor, you can light charcoal grills with a chimney starter. A chimney starter is a cylinder that holds briquettes on top and kindling such as newspaper underneath. Light the kindling, and it will catch the coals. After about 20-30 minutes, you can dump the coals into the grill.

Spread the Coals

Once the coals are hot, there are more options for cooking. Spread the coals evenly across the grate for normal heat to cook hamburgers, hot dogs and pork chops. For surf-and-turf, spread two-thirds of the coals to one side of the grate for cooking steak, and maintain one-third of the coals to the opposite side for gentle heating of seafood. Finally, for slow cook ribs, pack all coals to one side of the grill and place your ribs away from direct heat, allowing them to delicately cook in the indirect heat while absorbing flavor-rich smokiness.

Cook with Care

Charcoal grills aren’t generally for first-time cooks. They need to be watched constantly, and charcoal grills do not have temperature controls.

Do not be impatient and try to start cooking the meat while the flames are still flaring up. Handling meat at this time can be dangerous. Wait until the flames have died down and the charcoals have a dusting of ash and are glowing red underneath.

To change the amount of heat, you’ll have to open and close the lower vents, controlling the air flow into the system. But don’t close them for too long because you could extinguish the coals completely.

Unlike an oven, it can be difficult to know when your food is safe for eating.  To make sure that any meats are thoroughly cooked, you’ll need to have a thermometer handy.

Allowing your food to cook thoroughly, without burning, is the key to delicious grilled food. A good way to achieve this is through using a cover that fits tightly over the top of the grill.

Always wear oven mitts while working on hot, charcoal grills, even when using tongs and other long reach tools. This cuts down on the possibility of painful accidents.

When you are through grilling, put the top of the grill down and make sure the vents are shut. This will smother the fire quicker and will help avoid accidents.

Your time and effort will be rewarded. There’s very distinct charcoal flavor and smell that is produced by charcoal barbecues that comes up in food. The explanation by Martha Stewart is that the drippings that fall from the food go onto the heated coals and produce an appetizing aroma.

Charcoal grilling is an art.  And a science.  While practice will not always make perfect, it will make a plethora of mouth-watering meals throughout the learning process.

Contact us today for personal assistance selecting the perfect outdoor grill for your home.