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Last Updated on October 12, 2021
Outdoor cooking on a charcoal grill is more challenging than preparing a meal on a gas or electric grill. You need to know how to light the grill correctly and control the heat level depending on which meat types you have on the cooking grates. However, mastering these grilling techniques can be a hugely rewarding experience.
Charcoal grilling provides you with the opportunity to socialize with friends and family while preparing delicious meals. The charcoal fuel also offers unmatched smoky flavors that you can’t achieve with other grill types.
It’s tempting to tip coals into the firebox, spray on lighter fluid, and toss a match on top. But this will not provide optimal results. It’s best not to use lighter fluid as this can impart a chemical taste to your food and may also create potentially dangerous flare ups.
A measured method is to place your coals into the top of a charcoal chimney and add some newspaper to the cylinder’s bottom. After lighting the paper, in approximately 10 minutes, you should see a thin layer of ash appear on the charcoal surface.
You can now gently pour the coals into the firebox, ensuring a level amount is in each area. Following this process means there will be an even heat distribution over the entire cooking surface.
If you plan to use a combination of direct and indirect heat when grilling, you can push the coals onto one side of the firebox and leave the other side empty. You now have a two-zone heating grill. This setup is ideal when preparing meats and vegetables simultaneously, as you can use the indirect heat for veggies while meats cook over the hot coals.
2. Create a Non-Stick Grilling Surface
Some outdoor cooking enthusiasts rub olive oil on the cooking grates to prevent meats from sticking to the grill. However, if the liquid drips onto the hot charcoal, this can cause flare ups that could char your meat. A natural method for creating a non-stick grill is to cut a potato in half and rub the grill with each piece to produce a non-adhesive surface.
One of the most crucial charcoal grilling tips is to preheat your grill. If you place a steak on a cold grill, the meat will take longer to cook through, potentially drying the texture and making it tough to chew. Allowing your grill to heat to the desired temperature enables you to reduce the cooking time for superior grilling results.
Many charcoal grills have a built-in lid thermometer, but you can also purchase a standalone model that can determine the heat level without the risk of burning your hands. While preheating your grill, this is an excellent time to remove your meat from the fridge and allow it to warm to room temperature. Placing cold meats on a grill can prevent them from cooking evenly.
While it is best to marinate and season meats overnight, you can also allow them to soak in a tasty sauce for 30 minutes before going onto the grill. If you prefer to use a dry rub, make sure you cover both sides and the ends to ensure a consistent flavor throughout your meal.
4. Learn Vent Control
When using a gas or electric grill, you can control the internal cooking chamber temperature by turning a dial. Adjusting the heat on a charcoal grill requires considerably more skill, and you need to know how to use the integrated grill vents.
There is usually a lower and upper vent. The bottom aperture allows more oxygen to enter the grill, and the upper vent allows heat and smoke to escape. When heating your grill, you can open the bottom vent while keeping the top aperture closed. When you get within 50°F of the target temperature, close the bottom vent and allow the warming process to slow.
If the heat level is too high after around 15-20 minutes, you can partially open the top vent for 5 minutes. Then close the opening and wait until the temperature reaches a plateau. You may need to repeat these processes while grilling to maintain a steady cooking temperature.
Learning how to use your charcoal grill vents to adjust the temperature can be challenging, but it becomes easier to control the heat level with experience.
5. Leave Your Food Alone
Possibly the greatest mistake made by outdoor cooking enthusiasts is moving food around the grill more often than necessary. The aim is to cook your meat evenly and have a consistent flavor and texture throughout. However, by continually flipping your meats, it is difficult to know if each side receives the same amount of heat.
One of the most effective charcoal grilling tips is to place your meat on the cooking grates, close the lid, and trust your grill to provide a consistent cooking experience. It’s good practice to turn your meats only once or twice during grilling. If you lift the lid more often than this, heat and smoke escape from the cooking chamber and make it more challenging to get your desired results.
6. Experiment With the Robatayaki Technique
It’s fun to try different grilling styles, and experimenting also helps keep your meals varied and interesting. The Robatayaki method involves skewering meats, vegetables, and fish and grilling them slowly over charcoal. This traditional Japanese technique is an excellent way to build layers of flavor for appetizing results.
7. Charcoal Grill for Presentation
The priority when using your charcoal grill is to prepare a tasty melt-in-the-mouth meal. But this doesn’t mean you can’t step up your grilling game to impress your guests. You can add restaurant-quality sear marks by placing your meats at a 45° angle to the cooking grates. For a cross-hatch pattern, sear your food at a 45° angle and then rotate the meat 90° and sear again.
8. Let Your Meat Rest
When your meat is ready to serve, place it on a cutting board for 3-4 minutes. This resting time allows juices to settle and provide a moist and succulent texture throughout every morsel. It can be tempting to eat your meat straight off the grill, but the improved flavors as a result of this waiting time are worth the extra few minutes.
It can take a bit of practice to get used to performing these steps when using a charcoal grill. However, over time they become second nature, and you’ll be grilling like a pro in no time.