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6 Tips for Great Charcoal Grilling

Brush up on your grilling technique and know-how to create the perfect fire
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Published: April 16, 2014
charcoal grilling tips
Photo by Thinkstock.com
Sure, gas grills have convenience in their corner, but there’s nothing quite like the flavor, aroma, and ceremony of cooking over a charcoal fire and eating the tasty results. In fact, this old-fashioned technique is suddenly hot again. For a refresher course, read on.

1. Charcoal comes in two basic forms – briquettes and lump. Classic pillow-shaped briquettes are made from recycled wood scraps that have been charred, pulverized, combined with ground coal, starch binders, and other fillers, and then compressed into briquettes. Because the shapes are uniform, briquettes burn evenly and consistently for a long period, but they leave a lot of ash (the additives) behind. An all-natural alternative is lump charcoal – recycled hardwood charred in a kiln, resulting in pure carbon with no additives. These irregularly-shaped pieces (hence the name “lump”) burn hotter, cleaner and with more wood-smoke flavor than briquettes, but can be tricky to regulate.

2. To light, skip the petroleum-based lighter fluids and instant-lighting briquettes – they can impart an off, chemical taste. Instead opt for a cylindrical, metal chimney lighter that holds charcoal in the top and crumpled newspaper in the base. Light the newspaper with a match, which will in turn ignite the coals above. Other methods: wax-coated sawdust cubes placed among the charcoal in the base of a grill and lit with a match, or an electric coil positioned within the pile of coals until they’re lit.
charcoal grill chimney tips
Charcoal Chimney
3. To judge the temperature of a charcoal fire, carefully place your hand palm-side down about 5 inches above the cooking grate. If you can hold it there 2–4 seconds, the fire is hot; 5–7 seconds, the fire is medium; 8–10 seconds, the fire is low.

Wait until the coals are completely covered with white ash and glowing red before cooking, usually about 15–20 minutes after lighting.

5. When cooking foods like brisket, ribs and pork shoulder at low temperatures over long periods, you’ll need to replenish the coals, but lifting the lid throws off cooking times. Instead, place a full load of unlit charcoal in the base of the grill. Then light about 20 additional briquettes in a chimney lighter and, when covered with ash, spread them evenly over the unlit briquettes. The fuel will light gradually and should last 6–8 hours at 225–250° temperatures.

6. After 60 years, the iconic round charcoal kettle is still as popular as ever. But there are lots of other charcoal-fueled units worth checking out. Especially convenient are grills with a push-button, gas-assist feature to ignite the coals. Kamados, which originated 3,000 years ago in Asia, are made of heat-retaining ceramics, and they yield moist and tasty results. Some gas grills even offer the ability to cook with charcoal using an optional conversion pan that holds coals while protecting the gas burner.


• “Weber’s Charcoal Grilling: The Art of Cooking with Live Fire,” by Jamie Purviance, Sunset Books, 2007
• “Big Green Egg Cookbook,” by Lisa Readie Mayer and Sara Levy, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2010
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