How to Cook Anything on a Charcoal Grill

So, you've decided be a charcoal grill person. You put in the work: found the perfect grill for you, swore off lighter fluid, and figured out how to maintain it. Great job, adult! Now it's time to learn how to cook on that sucker.

For advice on how to cook pretty much everything (well, not EVERYthing, but you get it), we could have asked any number of dads. But then we remembered a long lineage of burned burgers and dry chicken and decided to hit up Meathead Goldwyn, certified BBQ whisperer and bestselling author of Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, one of the all-time best grilling books ever written. He offered up techniques, tips, and one admittedly, um, unexpected method for keeping your fish flaky.

Master the reverse sear and you will master the grill

Most of us learn to grill from our parents. And most of our parents learned from their parents. And for most of that charcoal-stained lineage, they’ve been doing it wrong.  

"All the old rules about searing (your meat) first are wrong. And ‘put the meat down and don’t flip it’ is wrong,” says Meathead.

According to the bestselling author, there are three essentials of charcoal grilling. The first is establishing a two-zone system, wherein the coals are divided up at the base of the grill, creating one cooler zone for convection heating (basically turning your charcoal grill into an oven) and an ultra-hot zone for fast cooking and searing. The second is using a digital thermometer, which are cheap and can ensure you’re not overcooking. The third is mastering the reverse sear. That's going to require some explanation.

Essentially, reverse searing bucks convention by embracing convection. Using the two-zone system, you start cooking the meat on the cooler side to ensure it heats up evenly. Then, at the last minute, you finish it on the hot side. It’s the exact opposite of what people have been doing for centuries. And it's what Meathead recommends for pretty much any cut of meat thicker than an inch, be it beef, poultry, goat, lamb, or anything else (see, we didn't lie with that headline).

“It’s what I call redneck sous vide,” says Meathead. “Contrary to everything you’ve been told, you start cooking on the indirect, cool zone, not in the hot zone. You gently warm the meat… on the indirect side, it’s convection, warm air. There’s not a lot of energy in warm air.  But when you move it over the coals, you’re exposing it to infrared radiation. It’s like putting it under the broiler."

To further fly in the face of tradition, Meathead says you should be flipping the meat regularly on the high heat in order to brown it evenly.

“If you sear (the meat) first, you’re putting the energy in the surface and it starts to work its way down," he continues. "(When you don't reverse sear), you get a brown layer on the surface, just below the surface you get a tan layer. Just below that you get a pink layer, and finally in the middle you’re medium rare. If you start it indirect it’ll be the same color and temperature throughout. Then if you put it on radiant heat at the end with the lid off and flip flip flip flip flip flip flip, you’ll get that gorgeous dark sear and it won’t overcook the interior.”

It’s not as complicated as it sounds. For a more detailed look at how to master it, check out this guide from Meathead himself.

Move chicken around to get perfectly crispy skin

BBQ chicken is a staple of grilling. It’s also often a tragedy. Because a fear of undercooked chicken is as engrained in humans as fear of clowns and commitment, wannabe grillmasters tend to throw poultry on high heat until the pieces are bone dry. Weirdly, the skin stays flappy and gross.

The reverse sear method Meathead preaches helps solve those problems and makes the skin a star rather than a peel-away afterthought.

“Start the chicken indirect, bring it up to 150 (degrees), then move it over to the hot coals and watch it like a hawk,” he says. “Rotate, turn it, flip flip flip: get that skin golden brown and delicious and serve it with a brown. It looks like fried chicken if you do it right.”

Another sin is the giving in to the temptation to cut the chicken to see if it’s done. Taking the presence of pink juices to mean a bird’s undercooked is another age-old bit of misinformation. Still, you don’t want to mess around when it comes to chicken. Using a thermometer here is essential both in safety and avoiding cutting it open for no reason, thereby drying out the interior.

“You can’t tell if chicken is done by cutting into it and looking at the juices. Cookbooks often say ‘if the juices run clear, the chicken is done.’ That’s not true,” says Mr. Head. “Often the juices are still pink, and I know that’s a mental block for a lot of people. If that chicken is 160-165, it is safe, even if the juices are a little pink. A good digital thermometer will tell you that.”

Size definitely matters with steak

The desired temperature of a steak changes from eater to eater. The combination of a thermometer and reverse searing can help ensure that the internal temperature is consistent and accurate. But to really nail it, you have to transfer it over to the high heat zone at the right time, generally when the steak is about 10 degrees from the target temp.

“Let’s say we’re going for a steak, and 130 degrees is ideal medium rare, you’re going to take it up to about 120 degrees using your digital thermometer, then move it directly over the coals,” Meathead says.

But given the disparity between cuts of beef, Meathead emphasizes that the reverse-sear should be reserved for cuts that are 1in thick or bigger.

“If it’s a skinny steak like a skirt steak you can’t reverse sear. You need to cook that over direct heat,” he says. “As soon as its seared, it’s cooked throughout. In fact, chances are it’s overcooked.”

Be patient with the burgers, and ease up on the salt

Burgers are one of the most common cookout casualties, largely because there is so much conflicting wisdom about how to work with them. If they’re thin, cook them over high heat relatively quickly. If they’re thick, go low heat and finish off over the coals. Then get them the hell off the grill.

“A thin burger, a quarter pounder, you have to cook hot and fast. Anything under an inch, reverse sear doesn’t work well," says Meathead. "But a (big) steak burger, that’s half a pound, it’s gonna be an inch, inch and a half thick, a reverse sear’s gonna work great.”

Then there’s the meatball effect: The tendency for a thick burger to suddenly ball up into a thick, uneven globe once it hits the heat... well, once it hits the high heat. There's a scientific reason that happens.

“You’re squeezing out the juice. Hot temps gets (the meat’s) undies in a bunch,” says Meathead. “Get that burger on the indirect size and warm it gently and it won’t change in size. Bring it up to about 145 and it’s not going to shrink much at all. Them move it on top of the coals, lift the lid, let it face the charcoal until the surface starts to bubble and brown, flip it, then get it out.”

Salt can also throw a burger’s physical properties into disarray when mixed into the meat. Other spices massaged into a burger pre-cooking are fine, but salt should only be sprinkled atop a burger, not mixed in.  

“Salt messes with the protein structure, and if you mix salt into the ground beef, it’ll compact it and you’ll get a golf ball,” Meathead says." Salt behaves differently than anything else, but it does alter protein. Garlic and pepper doesn’t. But if you mix salt into the meat, you’re asking for it to dry out.”

Don’t be afraid to stick a thermometer in a brat

People are terrified of undercooked brats, viewing them as tubes of pestilence and famine. They compensate by going nuclear on them and serving them as gross, charred logs. It’s a travesty.

High heat is actually a brat’s enemy, since it chars the outside while hiding an undercooked inside. On charcoal, brats should be relegated to the cooler side of the grill, or the outside rim. And if you really want to maximize the flavor, opt for a digital thermometer. It might make the grill look like a urology-based horror movie on SyFy, but it will result in the best brats you can serve.  

“Most people way overcook their brats, and as a result the casings are tough and it’s dry in the center. If you take a thermometer and stick it in the end, you will be shocked at how quickly it reaches 155,” says Meathead. “You don’t have to overcook it: all the bugs are dead at 155 degrees. Nobody’s home. Thermometer, thermometer, thermometer, thermometer… I can’t say it enough times. If you have a digital thermometer, you don’t need to cook it to 156 (degrees). You don’t need to take it to 170. At 155, you’re safe. Take it home.”

Treat pork like steak

If your cut is thicker than an inch, reverse sear that hog. For smaller cuts like chops, you’re good to go high heat. Basically treat chops and pork steaks like a beef steak when grilling on charcoal.

That, surprisingly, applies to the temp. The long-held belief that pink, juicy pork is a deadly indulgence has been proven false (the USDA even reduced the suggested temperature to 145 degrees. But you can go lower. And it can change the way you view pork.

“If you have never had a pork chop at 135, you’ve never had pork, You’ve just had cardboard called pork,” Meathead says. “It’s just absolutely tender and juicy and flavorful. It’s a treat.”

Treat your grill like an oven when making roasts

Once you master a charcoal grill, you have more control over the temp than you'd actually believe (check out Meathead's advice on temp control here). You can basically turn the thing into an oven. If you have time, that means you can make a masterful roast with way more flavor and texture than you can in a regular oven.

“I do a massive prime rib for Christmas," Meathead regales us. "Dinner’s at 7, I gotta start cooking at 2 or 3. I start it on the indirect side at 225. It takes forever to get up to 120 or 125, then I move it over directly to the hot side and roll it around. It’s Christmas Day, it’s freezing cold, I’m standing out there. I roll it, quarter of a turn. Roll it, quarter of a turn. I bring it in, it’s got this incredible crust. Cut into it, bumper to bumper it’s pink. It’s gorgeous.”

Hit veggies with high heat

Inevitably, you're going to have to grill a vegetable. It's just part of being an adult. And while all veggies are different, most should all be prepared over the hot coals and splashed with a little oil to keep them from shriveling.

“Hot and fast, tender and juicy," says Meathead. "Reverse sear isn’t necessary. Hit them with a little oil or vinegar -- Italian salad dressing is always a nice thing.”

There's also the issue of thinner-sliced veggies or sprigs of asparagus falling through the grates. Some folks opt to throw a cookie cooling rack on the grill. Meathead says to just expect a little collateral damage, but to make sure that you lay things out perpendicular to the openings in the grill.

“You have to go across the grates. Asparagus... there’s always one guy who commits suicide and falls through the grate," he says.

The secret ingredient for fish is actually… a sandwich spread

You can grill pretty much any sort of seafood, and getting into all of them would make this article waaay too long (here's a handy guide, courtesy of celebrity chef Seamus Mullen). Rest assured that lobster is delicious halved and grilled, and that clams are great with a little smoke.

Fish, too, are all over the board for both texture and flavor. But generally, you can expect them to be flaky. Meathead recommends setting them on the cooler side of the grill and eyeballing them for flakiness. Some folks use wooden planks for a little flavor (think cedar plank salmon), though what you're basically doing is preventing the heat from the grill from getting on the wood and using hot air to cook the fish.

Putting the fish directly on the grill is a great way to get a ton of flavor out of a filet or steak, but given the flakiness of the meat, it also tends to stick directly to the grill, leaving a shredded carcass where your delicious meat once existed.
Meathead has found a solution, one that admittedly needs to be sold pretty hard. But he swears by it.

"In my world, brown is beautiful. Brown is flavor. so I like to expose my fish to as much heat as possible and sear it. Problem is, fish sticks to the grill. Here’s the million dollar trick: mayonnaise," He says. "Now, I learned when I published this that there are people who are grossed out by mayonnaise. It’s just oil and egg, but mostly oil. If you put mayonnaise all over the fish — if you want to mix in herbs or make tartar sauce, go ahead — but mayonnaise doesn’t stick to the metal as easily. Most of it melts off.”

Honestly, at this point we're prone to follow Meathead down any hickory-scented rabbit hole. Bring on the sandwich spread.

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Andy Kryza is a senior editor at Thrillist and now a disciple of the reverse sear. Follow him to redneck sous vide parties @apkryza.