Want to try your hand at charcoal grilling, but don’t know where to start? Learn the basics in this charcoal grill guide for beginners.
When the warm weather arrives, it’s time to bring the kitchen outdoors.
While gas grills are a popular (and convenient) option for home cooks, some would argue that gas grills just don’t give that nostalgic smoky BBQ flavour.
A charcoal grill can be a great addition to your cooking arsenal, but if you’ve never used one before they can also be intimidating! So today we’re going to break down the steps to getting started, so you can begin grilling with confidence.
Now, I'm not a grilling expert. I'm just sharing what I've learned over the years. I was introduced to charcoal grilling at the Weber Grill Academy in 2017, and I've been picking up tips here and there ever since.
There were many things that I wish I had known when I was just getting started with grilling, so I wanted to create a resource on charcoal grilling for beginners.
This blog post is long, so feel free to use these jump navigation links below to read the sections that interest you the most.
This guide is meant for absolute beginners. For the weekend warriors who want to throw some burgers on the barbecue, or maybe grill up a nice steak. If this sounds like you, keep reading.
Here's a list of all the equipment and tools that you can use to start charcoal grilling at home. You don't have to buy everything on this list, but I tried to include anything that I generally find helpful when I'm grilling in my backyard.
- Charcoal (Lump or Briquettes)
- Charcoal Chimney Starter (Weber and Napoleon make good ones)
- Charcoal Grill (Kettle Grill or a Portable Grill)
- Newspaper or Wax Starters (Cubes, Squares or Bundles)
- Multi-Purpose Lighter (get one with a long metal wand)
- Grill gloves for heat protection
- Long Grill Tongs (I like to use one pair for raw chicken and another for cooked chicken to avoid cross contamination)
- Basting Brush (a pastry brush or a silicone basting brush)
- Long handle spatula (also called a turner, used for flipping burgers etc.)
- Instant read thermometer (I'm partial to my classic Thermapen, essential for cooking chicken to safe temperature)
- Charcoal rake (to move your charcoal around)
- Something to clean your grill with (like a wooden scraper or a stainless steel coil brush). You've probably heard by now that those popular wire brushes can be dangerous. I don't use them.
⬛ Choosing Your Charcoal
There are two main types of charcoal to choose from: natural hardwood lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes.
Both are made from wood which is heated in an oxygen-poor environment until it turns into the high-carbon product that we know as charcoal. However, there are some key differences between the two types.
Hardwood Lump Charcoal
Hardwood lump charcoal is a natural product that has no additives – it’s just charcoal made from pieces of hardwood. Lump charcoal burns “cleaner” as it tends to produces less ash (the white flecks that fly in the air when you cook) than briquettes due to the lack of additional ingredients.
Since this type of charcoal isn’t formed into a consistent shape, every bag will have a variety of different sized pieces. This means that you can’t pack them into a charcoal chimney as easily.
Lump charcoal heats up quickly and gets very hot in a kettle grill but may not last as long as briquettes. Since it does retain a tiny bit of wood that hasn’t turned into carbon, that can add smoky flavour to your food (without having to add wood chips to the grill).
If you have a fancy ceramic grill, this is the only kind of charcoal that you can use as anything else will contaminate the grill permanently.
Lump charcoal can be purchased online, at barbecue speciality stores, or at most hardware stores (at least during the summer months). I bought the Maple Leaf Hardwood Lump Charcoal from Canadian Tire.
Briquettes are uniform lumps made of charcoal and "other ingredients". Now, what those ingredients are actually varies from brand to brand, but most of them include ingredients like compressed sawdust, coal, and starch.
Since most briquettes aren’t a pure product, they are cheaper to make than natural hardwood lump charcoal, which makes them cheaper to purchase as well.
That being said, there are some better quality briquettes out there that are made with compressed hardwood charcoal, and those will cost a bit more.
While some grilling purists will turn their nose up at briquettes, there are some benefits to using them.
They can be easier to use for beginners due to their uniform size and shape. They also burn more consistently and may be easier to use for any foods that need to be cooked long and slow.
You can fit about 80-100 briquettes in a chimney starter, which will last 60-90 minutes in a regular kettle grill.
(I have a small portable charcoal grill, so mine doesn't hold that much.)
One of the most popular brands of briquettes is Kingsford, but I prefer the Weber Briquettes, which are made from hardwood char fines held together by a vegetable starch binder.
You can get the Weber Briquettes from Home Depot, and you should be able to find briquettes in general at most grocery stores and hardwares during the summer months.
Just be sure not to buy the type of briquettes that are pre-coated with lighter fluid. You don’t want to use lighter fluid in any form as it adds a terrible flavour to your food.
To learn more you can check out this article about charcoal by Bon Appetit.
🔥 Lighting your Charcoal
Now that you’ve got your charcoal, it’s time to light it up! There is more than one way to do this, but the easiest method (in my opinion) is to use a charcoal chimney starter.
A charcoal chimney is a metal cylinder with a handle that has small holes throughout it for ventilation and a wire rack inside.
Most of the big grilling brands have a good chimney starter in their product line-up. Be careful with inexpensive ones though – they can have very sharp edges.
We’re going to use the chimney to heat up a whole bunch of charcoal at once. Once it’s hot enough, we’ll dump it into our grill.
Note: There is no need to use lighter fluid with this method. In general, it's best to avoid ever cooking with lighter fluid as it makes food taste bad.
There are many things you can use to start your fire, but the most common is crumpled up newspaper.
Alternatively, you can use wax cubes, squares or little bundles of wood ribbons covered in wax to start your fire.
I use the Xtraflame firestarters which are squares made from recycled wax and wood fibres. These starters are non-toxic, Canadian made, and one square is usually enough to heat up the entire chimney.
I bought mine at Walmart but you can also buy these firestarters online, or at Canadian Tire.
Step 1: Fill the chimney
If using a kettle grill, make sure the vents on the bottom are completely open. Next, remove the top grate (the cooking grate) and set it aside.
Place your chimney upside down over your bottom grill grate (the charcoal grate), and loosely stuff the bottom crumpled up newspaper (if using). If you're using the wax starters, you can skip this step.
Then flip the chimney over and fill it with charcoal. Filling it about ¾ full is sufficient for foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, sausages, and steaks. You can fill it completely if you have a lot of food to cook, or need to cook something that takes more time.
Step 2: Ignite the coals
Next you’re going to light the coals.
Use a barbecue lighter or a long candle lighter to set the newspaper on fire, if using.
If you're using wax cubes, squares or bundles, set one on the charcoal grate (again, that's the bottom grate in your grill) and light it, then place the filled chimney directly on top of it.
The heat will rise up through the chimney and evenly heat the charcoal from the bottom up. It takes about 15-20 minutes for all of the coals to get white-hot and "ashed-over" (covered with a grey powdery film). Wait for any flames to subside as well.
Once the coals have properly heated up, they can be poured onto the bottom grate of your charcoal grill. Then you'll replace the cooking grill (use tongs or wear a grilling glove), and put on the lid (with the vents open). Leave the lids closed so the grill can heat up.
Important Safety Note: You may want to invest in a grill glove to avoid burning yourself when you dump the coals into the grill. Pour the charcoal out in front of you, away from your body, making sure your face isn't directly over the grill. Once the chimney is empty, put it somewhere safe where kids and pets can't touch it.
Step 3: Arrange the Coals for Direct or Indirect Heat
There are two methods of grilling, whether it's on a gas or charcoal grill, that everyone needs to know about.
The first is grilling over direct heat and the second is grilling over indirect heat.
To cook over direct heat, you need to cook directly over the hot charcoals. This can be done in a single-zone or two-zone set up (more on this in a moment).
To cook over indirect heat, you need a spot on the grill grate that doesn't have any charcoal under it. This spot is still hot (in the same way that a convection oven is hot), but since there are no coals under it you get a gentler method of cooking that is better suited to items that need more time to cook.
Burgers, hot dogs, sausages, shrimp, steaks and some vegetables (asparagus) can be cooked over direct heat. For example, a 1" thick t-bone steak should take about 6-8 minutes to cook over direct heat.
Vegetable that need a longer time to cook (like potatoes) or larger cuts of meat (like a whole chicken) should be cooked on indirect heat for at least some of the cooking time.
The basic rule is if what you are cooking is going to take more than 20 minutes, you'll probably want to cook it over indirect heat after searing it.
Most of the time though, you'll want to have both options available to you, so you'll need a two-zone fire.
How to Create a Two-Zone Fire
To create this, simply pour your hot charcoal over half of the grill grates, on one side. Use a charcoal rake or a long pair of tongs to create an even pile.
Anything you cook directly over the charcoal will be cooked with direct heat, which is great for searing foods, getting char, or building up a nice crust. The piled up charcoal will stay hotter longer, too.
On the empty side, you'll be able to cook foods more slowly and gently. This is great for anything that doesn't cook very quickly, but it also gives you a "safe" zone to move your food to in case you get a flare up on the direct heat side.
If you grill is big enough, you can set up direct heat on both the sides of your grill and leave a strip down the middle for indirect heat cooking. This is called a three-zone fire.
Once your charcoal is set up, put your cooking grate back on then put on the lid. Your lid has a vent, and this should be left wide open. Also, make sure the vent is over the indirect heat half of the grill.
Leave the lid closed for about 10 minutes to allow the grill to get up to temperature.
Note: If you want just one zone of direct heat on your grill, spread the hot charcoal out into a single layer across the entire charcoal grate.
Step 4: Clean your grill
If you're using a brand new grill, you won't have anything to scape off. But as you cook with your grill you will find that food begins to build up on the grates.
Wait for your grill to get really hot and then scrape the burnt food off with a wooden scraper (don't use a brush with metal bristles as they can come off and get into your food).
You can learn more about how to clean your grilling grates in this article from Napoleon.
Once your grates are clean, put the lid back on for a while to bring the temperature back up before you start cooking.
🥩 Charcoal Grilling Basics
Ok! Our charcoal is HOT, our zones are set up, the grill is clean, and we're ready to cook. Now what?
I recommend that you start learning how to cook simple things on your grill first. This way, you'll start to understand how long things take to cook and the way the temperature fluctuates.
Hot dogs, vegetables, sausages and steaks are all great places to start. I'll leave some links below to some easy recipes that you can try.
When it comes to the actual cooking, there are three more important basics that we need to cover.
Leaving the Lid On
Learning how to cook on a charcoal grill can be an exercise in frustration if you're impatient. Give yourself lots of time to make your meal, especially at the beginning when you're learning how long things take to cook.
While it can be very tempting to keep opening the lid to see how your food is doing, this will make the process even longer.
Every time you open the lid, you're releasing the heat and dropping the overall temperature significantly. So, try to cook with the lid closed as much as possible.
You can use the damper (round vent) on the lid to adjust the temperature of the grill if needed (open is hotter, closed is cooler).
Also, try not to move your food around too much. This will help with even cooking and will give you the best grill marks.
Greasing the Grate vs Greasing the Food
Another thing to consider is if you're going to oil your grill grates, oil your food, or avoid oiling anything at all.
Technically, if you sear your food properly it won't stick to the grates.
If you're trying to flip something (like a chicken thigh) and you find that it's sticking to the grate, wait. Much like searing chicken in a frying pan, if you try to move it too soon it will stick. Once it has properly seared, it will release itself from the cooking grate.
That being said, I still find it easier to oil the food or the grates.
If I'm grilling vegetables, for example, I'll brush on some oil and season it with salt and pepper before putting it on the grill. But if I'm grilling a marinated steak, I'll grease the cooking grate instead. You'll figure out what works for you once you start cooking.
If you do want to oil your grate, you can fold up a coffee filter and dip it into an oil with a high-smoke point (canola, peanut, vegetable, grapeseed etc). Then use a long pair of tongs to hold the folded up filter and rub it onto the grates.
I used to do this with paper towel, which works but can sometimes leave lint behind. The coffee filter works really well and it's more durable too.
Put the Charcoal Out When You're Done
When you're done grilling, close the vents and put the lid on. This will cut off the oxygen flow to the fire, smothering it.
Let the ash and remaining unburnt coals cool down for 48 hours. This ensures that there are no live embers left.
If you need to cool down your coals faster, use tongs to gently place them in a metal bucket of water. Do not pour water on your grill.
Once your ash and coals are completely cool, you can wrap them in tin foil and put them in a non-combustible outdoor trashcan. Check with your city to find out if you can put used cooled charcoal in your city-provided trash receptacle.
Like most things, a little common sense goes a long way. But for the sake of keeping everyone safe, here are some important safety reminders that you need to keep in mind when grilling.
- Never grill indoors! Not inside of your house, your garage, or in a vehicle or tent. Charcoal gives off carbon monoxide, which is odourless and deadly.
- Do not place your grill against an exterior wall of your house or garage. You can burn your house down this way.
- Similarly, you shouldn't use a charcoal or gas grill on an apartment or condo balcony, unless your building specifically says it's safe to do so.
- Never leave a lit grill unattended, especially if there are children or pets around.
- Use caution when grilling in windy weather. Sparks from the charcoal can blow around and ignite dry grass, leaves etc.
- Never pour lighter fluid on lit coals as this can cause a huge flare up. There is no reason for you to need lighter fluid when you're charcoal grilling at all.
- Don't spray water on a flare-up. Move the food to an indirect heat zone instead.
- Learn how to put out a grease fire. Keep a box of baking soda near by and never try to extinguish a grease fire with water!
- Don't pour water on your charcoal to put it out. This can damage your grill, and creates hot steam that you could burn you.
- Always follow your grill's manufacturers safety instructions, including the kind of surface to place your grill on. Grilling on a wooden deck might not be ideal.
📖 Charcoal Grilling Recipes
Here are a few charcoal grilling recipes for beginners that you might like to try. If you make any of these, let me know how they turn out!
🙋🏽 Frequently Asked Questions
It takes about 15-20 minutes for the charcoal to get white hot and ashed-over in a chimney.
Leave the lid open while you sear each side over direct heat, then move the patties to indirect heat and put the lid down.
Yes, any unburned charcoal or briquettes that are still black should still be combustible. However, you may have some difficulty lighting old charcoal in a chimney starter if you fill it with just used charcoal. Try adding partially used charcoal on top of fresh charcoal in your chimney. You can learn more in this article from Cooks Illustrated about reusing charcoal.
I hope you found this charcoal grill guide for beginners useful! If you have any tips to add, please share them in the comments below!
This guide to charcoal grilling for beginners was originally published in on June 29, 2019 by a guest writer. It has since been completely re-written and re-published by Shareba with new information and photographs.