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.”