Everything You Need to Know About Owning a Charcoal Grill
Purchasing a charcoal grill -- a real one, not some cheap hunk of tin you’ll use once then leave to rust -- doesn't mean you're buying a simple cooking apparatus. It’s a commitment. Choosing to cook on charcoal over gas means you’re pledging to learn a very specific and intensive set of skills. You’re committing to learning how to control heat, how to maintain the grill itself, and how to make your purchase last. Basically, it’s like owning a pet. But instead of pooping in the house, it gives you burgers. No pet does that. Unless it’s a monkey, which poops in the house and cooks.
“Gas grills are so user-friendly and easy, but charcoal grills are worth the effort. They reward more patience and skill,” says 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. “They require just a little more effort and thoughtfulness.”
The man himself took time -- while smoking a brisket, naturally -- to break down the basics of owning a charcoal grill for beginners. Here’s everything you need to know about owning a charcoal grill.
Buying the best charcoal grill
Charcoal grills come in all shapes and sizes. There’s the classic kettle grill of backyard BBQs of yore. There are kitschy ones shaped like tool boxes and robots, expensive Big Green Eggs, and high-tech wonders. Meathead and his crew have tested (and reviewed) pretty much all of them. At the end of the day, it turns out that all the bells and whistles mean nothing if the thing doesn’t have two essential qualities: good air control and enough surface area to divide coals into a “two-zone cooking system.”
Controlling the air is all about ventilation. A grill with exhaust and intake vents the bottom and top helps promote airflow, and are essentials in choosing a grill at any price.
“When you’re burning charcoal, there are two essentials: charcoal and oxygen. You need them both in balance. You can control temperature by controlling airflow,” says Meathead. “It’s one of the reasons the good old-fashioned Webber kettle has been so popular since 1950. The lid seals pretty well, you’ve got the intake vents on the bottom and the exhaust vents on top, and you can control airflow. There are some pretty good designs on the market, but they leak like a sieve. If you can’t control the airflow, you can’t control the temperature. And it’s controlling temperature that makes you a good cook.”
The second element, a two-zone cooking system, basically means having enough room to divide coals up, creating a hotter section for searing and a cooler section to promote convection cooking. This basically turns the grill into an oven, complete with a broiler off to the side for finishing meats off. It's essential in evenly cooking things, a great equalizer across all price points and one that gives an inexpensive kettle an advantage over its luxurious egg-shaped brethren. If there’s only room for one pile of charcoal, you should continue shopping.
Grilling accessories can be really, really fun. There are so many ways to trick a grill out, it's a wonder Xzibit hasn't signed with HGTV. But at the end of the day, you don’t need a ton of gadgets to grill well. You just need the basics: tongs, a spatula, some grill gloves if you’re feeling frisky, and a wire brush to clean.
But perhaps the most important tool in a griller’s arsenal is the chimney starter, which is like a giant coffee can with a handle. You pack the bottom with paper, load charcoal on top, and light the sucker for the perfect burn, which eliminates the need for lighter fluid (more on that shortly).
Meathead also strongly recommends getting a digital thermometer for food, plus a thermostat for the grill itself. Because a charcoal grill essentially works like an oven, it’s important to keep the temperature inside consistent when the lid’s on, and most built-in temperature gauges can be off by more than 20 degrees. And old-school meat thermometers are often unreliable, which can result in undercooked chicken and overcooked steaks.
“This is 2018. You can get a digital thermometer for $30 that will tell you precisely the temperature of your steak in five seconds,” says Meathead. “That old dial thermometer in your drawer takes 20 seconds to read and it can be off by 20 degrees. A [digital] meat thermometer will get you exactly what you want.”
Choosing the best charcoal for grilling
Meathead swears by charcoal briquettes, and as long as they’re not the kind that’s hit with self-starter, he’s not picky. After all, as a great poet once put it, compressed sawdust with natural binding agents is compressed sawdust with binding agents.
“When it comes to briquettes, just get whatever’s on sale,” Meathead says.
There’s also lump charcoal, those big bags of burnt wood that look like they were gathered from a forest fire. Meathead says they have their purpose, that they’re no substitute of briquettes: Some lump charcoal manufacturers use discarded lumber, which is loaded with impurities, and he says he’s found hunks of metal in bags.
It looks cool, but at the end of the day, he says, lump charcoal chunks burn terribly.
“There’s a cult around lump charcoal because it’s wood that’s been carbonized. It’s not sawdust that’s held together with cornstarch or binders, which [people] for some reason think is dangerous,” says Meathead. “The thing I love about briquettes is that each one is the same shape and size. It’s a measured, controlled amount. I sometimes sit down and say, ‘I don’t need a lot of heat, I only need 40 briquettes.’ It’s like controlling an oven. You get these big old hunks, you don’t know how much heat you’re going to generate.”
One more thing: Charcoal is pretty much flavorless once it starts burning. If you want some wood smoke flavor, you can add chips of nut, fruit, or hardwood. But don't soak them beforehand. That's just a myth that slows the smoking down.
How to start a charcoal grill
Look, if you don’t want to use that aforementioned chimney, you can go with lighter fluid. It’ll make a big fiery “fwoooooosh,” and you’ll definitely get some sort of caveman satisfaction. But for the love of god, let it burn off, lest the fumes make their way into the food.
You know what makes that caveman sense tingle more? Starting a fire without fluid. If there’s no chimney (which, again, is the best way to go) you can always build a campfire-style pyramid in the grill to get the coals going. Or paraffin cubes. Regardless of your ignition method, once your charcoal's ignited, wait for it to smolder. Sometimes this means just being patient, or doing some frantic fanning until they're ready. But make sure, either way, that they're looking uniform.
“Don’t start cooking until the charcoal has a white layer of ash around it. That means its ready. It’s burned off its impurities, and it’s ready,” says Meathead.
Well, that was easy. But seriously, put the lighter fluid away.
Controlling the heat
Once the charcoal’s started, throw the lid up top with the exhaust and intake vents open. This basically turns your grill into an oven. But it also means that you need to keep an eye on the thermostat -- again, get a good one and don’t trust the built-in -- so it doesn’t turn into an incinerator. Unlike in gas grills, the temp here is much more difficult to control. But if the heat gets too high, you can use the vents to turn it down.
“Shut down the intake supply [of oxygen]. Not the exhaust. Keep the exhaust open as much as you can,” says Meathead. “If you want to cool the fire down, you starve the charcoal by closing the intake. It’s not the best: It’ll create dirty smoke. But if you shut down your intake for 10-15 minutes, it’ll cool down.”
With experience, Meathead says, you’ll eventually become a master of heat. And because briquettes can essentially be divided up into individual energy units, you can figure out how many it will take to hit a certain temperature.
Just, you know, don’t get impatient and douse a super-hot grill with water for a cool down.
How to clean a charcoal grill
Once you’re done grilling, each section of a charcoal grill needs to be cleaned up, lest the thing get coated with impurities that will pollute future cookouts. That starts with the grates, which collect grease and carbon that can ruin further meals.
“Grease will build up on the underside of the grates and carbon on the upper side,” says Meathead. “You want to keep the upper side clean. You don’t want to put food on greasy grates (which will smoke). It’s not the same as wood smoke. Wood smoke is an aphrodisiac. Grease smoke is not appetizing.”
A good bristle brush can do the trick, though Meathead cautions that cheaper versions can shed wire, which can end up in burgers or other foods later, landing an unlucky eater in the hospital. In a pinch, he even has a simple hack that will leave a grill squeaky clean.
“You know what really works well? A big ol’ wad of aluminum foil,” he says. “Wad it up and put on a heavy-duty glove -- I’m a big fan of leather welders’ gloves -- and you can scrub down a hot grill grate, get all the carbon and grease off of there.”
You should also be sure to clear the ashes, scooping them from the bottom (Meathead recommends cutting the bottom out of an empty milk gallon for a makeshift scoop). After that, be sure to scrape the layers of carbon off the dome, which can otherwise build up and snow down on future meals like some sort of gross-tasting pepper. A putty knife gets the job done the quickest.
Once it's clean and cool, cover the grill, store it, and repeat throughout grilling season. Over time, you’ll have mastered charcoal. Who knows, perhaps someday you’ll even get a great nickname. But probably not a best-selling cookbook.