Summer's Almost Here—Do You Know How to Use Your Charcoal Grill?

Sunny days, smoky sauce, and sear marks—now that's something to get fired up about. Master your cookout game with our tips for perfect charcoal grilling.

You have options when it comes to grilling—with charcoal, electric, and gas among the most popular. Each has its pros and cons, along with its fervent fans and detractors.

Charcoal, the least expensive option, is favored by many for its versatility and the distinctive flavor that charcoal infuses into grilled food. It also delivers high heat and helps food retain moisture while cooking.

On the downside, setting up a charcoal grill can be intimidating: It's hot, it can get messy if you're not prepared, and it's unfamiliar to many home cooks. But with a little know-how, you'll be grilling with confidence all summer long.

Set on going with charcoal? Have we got tips for you! From selecting a grill and accessories, to choosing your charcoal, to cooking and cleaning, we'll guide you from start to sear-marked finish.

The Best Charcoal Grill

Weber Original Kettle 22
Weber Original Kettle 22. Weber-Stephen Products Company

The first thing to consider is your grill. One of our favorites is the Weber Original Kettle ($220;, which is sturdy, reliable, and lasts a lifetime even if you don't treat it exactly right. (I mean, that thing lives outdoors.)

A 22-inch model gives you plenty of grate space so you can cook up bigger proteins—like whole chickens or a few racks of ribs—along with a side of grilled vegetables, toast, or even dessert.

Charcoal Grill Accessories

Weber Charcoal Chimney
Weber Charcoal Chimney. Weber-Stephen Products Company

When you purchase your grill, go ahead and pick up a chimney starter ($28; as well. They're the easiest and tidiest way to get your coals hot without using nasty-smelling, foul-tasting lighter fluid.

Add a pair of long tongs ($18; to your cart, a grill brush ($16; for cleaning those grates, and a long spatula ($10; for turning burgers and fish filets. That trio often comes with the grill but double-check, as you'll use them literally every time you grill. Throw in a pair of heat-safe gloves and your basics are covered.

A few other things that are nice to have on hand are a long-handled lighter for starting coals in the chimney and a big roll of heavy-duty foil. A grill cover ($16; is often sold separately, but it's key to keeping your grill in good shape through summer and beyond.

Choice of Charcoal

In the bottom of the Smokey Joe, unlit charcoal (lump and briquettes) and hickory wood.
David Reber/Flickr

When it comes to charcoal, you can go for briquettes or hardwood lump charcoal, depending on what you're grilling:

  • Briquettes burn longer and more evenly—great for slow-cooking items like chicken wings and thick-cut pork chops.
  • Hardwood lump charcoal provides faster, more intense heat, which is ideal for searing burgers, sausages, and skirt steaks.

If you choose briquettes, beware of bags labeled "matchlight." These are doused with lighter fluid that can compromise the flavor of your food.

Grill Prep

cleaning grates of grill


wakila / Getty Images 

Prepping the grill for cooking is of the utmost importance, no matter what type of grill you have. A proper pre-cooking routine prevents food from sticking, enhances flavor, and deters harmful bacteria.

Grill prep is a three-step process that starts with preheating the grill for 5 to 10 minutes. This alone burns away most stuck-on food bits from your last cookout and destroys bacteria. Don't skimp on this step, because cooking on a cold grill makes proteins bond to the grates, resulting in shredding, tearing, and none of those appetizing sear marks.

Next is a good pre-cook grate-cleaning, because a dirty grill is more prone to flare-ups and smoke, resulting in burning your carefully prepared BBQ favorites. Though counterintuitive, the best time to clean your grates is just before it's time to cook when they're nice and warm. A quick rub with a grate brush removes stubborn remnants, ensuring your grates are clean.

Although it varies with what you're grilling, the last step is a light brush or spray of cooking oil on the grates, which makes flipping and the next cleaning easier. With a hot grill and clean, greased grates, let's get grilling!

Cooking With Charcoal

Pulled Pork on a Charcoal Grill Checking Temperature
Regarding BBQ Inc.

Grilling with charcoal is the kind of thing that takes a few tries to get the hang of. But, like riding a bike, once you learn, you'll never forget.

Once heated up, think of your charcoal grill as a portable, versatile oven and stove. For high heat, sear directly over hot grates just like you would using a hot skillet, and for medium heat, cook to the side of the coals over indirect heat. To create an oven-like environment, just close the lid.

Always use a meat thermometer for more precision and safety. This is especially important on a charcoal grill, where cooking temperatures and heat distribution are imprecise at best.

Best Practices for Cooking With BBQ Sauce

Charcoal Ribs

 Leah Maroney

The best part of a BBQ is, arguably, the BBQ sauce, but its misapplication can ruin a good thing. Use these tips to ensure your charcoal-grilled meal is awesome sauce.

  • Don't apply too early. The sugars in BBQ sauce burn at high heat, imparting a burnt flavor and often, an undesirable, tough texture. Apply sauce during your meat's last 10 minutes of cooking, which allows the meat to caramelize and impart the best flavor.
  • Use a brush or sauce mop to evenly distribute the sauce. Apply about two coats, and don't put too much pressure on the meat during application.
  • Never cook directly over the flame. This applies to sauced meats that cook low and slow. Using a covered grill, place slow-cooking food over indirect heat and limit lifting the lid as much as possible.

How to Deep-Clean Your Charcoal Grill

Charcoal Grill Hood Cleaned with Soap and a Sponge

Simply Recipes / Mike Lang

Once you've got the hang it, you'll want your charcoal grill to last. Regular grate-cleaning between each use is a start, but the best way to keep it grilling longer is to treat your charcoal grill to a deep cleaning a few times a year.

Step 1: Empty Old Charcoal

Hopefully, you emptied your grill of old charcoal and ashes after your last cookout, but if not, do so now.

Step 2: Clean the Inside

First, use a grill brush to scrape any built-up carbon (that black, flaky paint-like material) on the inside of the lid. Next, use a plastic scraper ($1; to remove gunk or buildup from the inside of the grill bowl, paying attention to the blades. 

Step 3: Clean the Outside

If any surface rust has built up around the welded joints, use a commercial grill cleaner or nonacidic oil (such as WD-40) to remove it, and then wash the grill's exterior with a sponge and warm, soapy water.

Step 4: Inspect the Grates

If any superficial grime has accumulated on the grates, do nothing: You can scrape that off with a grill brush as part of your normal grill-prep routine. If the rust is deeper or it looks like the grates have corroded, you may need to replace them.

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