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For many of us, our first introduction to outdoor cooking was with a good old-fashioned charcoal grill.
From the hallmark rounded shape so many of these grills have, to the smell of the smoke the coals give off, there’s good chance a charcoal grill figures into many of your summer memories.
It might be time to take up the mantle and buy your own grill or replace one your family has been using for years. When it comes to charcoal grills, today’s market has far more options available than ever before.
You can still buy the reliable, round-shaped models that you think of when you hear the phrase “charcoal grill” or take it to the next level with a premium or luxury model.
In this charcoal grill FAQ guide, we’ll break down all of the burning questions you have about charcoal grills, like the differences in cooking on a charcoal vs. gas grill, how to start cooking, how to clean your grill, and more.
At the end, we’ll wrap it all up with a quick conclusion and get you on your way to enjoying smoky, delicious grilling in your own backyard.
Ready? Let’s fire up this charcoal grill FAQ guide!
Be sure to check back on this guide, as we often add questions and update the answers with new articles!
In This Article, We’ll Explore:
Click a topic below to be taken directly to that section.
Why Choose a Charcoal Grill?
For many people, charcoal grills are a bit nostalgic — not to mention they’re pretty straight forward, budget-friendly, and easy to use. And the smoky flavor these grills give to food is hard to beat!
Charcoal Grill vs Gas Grill
Whether you want to opt for a charcoal or gas-powered grill all comes down to your cooking style. If you’re all about push-button convenience and control, go for gas. If you want a simple set-up and smokier flavor with a bit more fuel maintenance, try charcoal. Check out a more in-depth breakdown of this battle in Our Article On Cooking With Charcoal vs. Gas Grills.
What are the Three Main Types of Charcoal Grills?
The three main types of charcoal grills are kettle grills (the round-shaped ones we mentioned earlier), barrel grills (think of a large steel drum cut in half), and ceramic grills (high-end grills made of ceramic, as the name implies).
Kettle grills are typically the smallest and most affordable style of charcoal grills. They’re known for their classic round shape, vented lid, and ease of maintenance. Kettle grills are usually 22 inches in diameter, meaning you can cook 12-15 burgers at a time — perfect for smaller families or cookouts.
Barrel grills are the next step up in both size and price. Their barrel-like shape and larger size (usually around 36 inches long) mean they can cook more food at one time. They’re also great if you want to try your hand at smoking food.
Kamado Grills, also Called Ceramic Grills
Kamado, or ceramic, charcoal grills are typically the most expensive ones you’ll see on the market at around $300-$1200.
They come in a variety of sizes but are most known for their egg-like shape and thick ceramic walls that retain heat like none other. They can reach and retain high temps, giving you more options for what to cook — you can even bake a pizza in one of these bad boys.
Charcoal Grills vs Kamado Smokers
The main difference between your standard kettle grill and a kamado smoker comes down to airflow. Thanks to their vented lids, traditional charcoal grills let a lot of air flow through during cooking. Kamado smokers, however, don’t let as much air in and out.
Due to their high air exchange rate, charcoal grills won’t be as fuel-efficient as a kamado. On the flip side, their metal or steel construction means they’ll get ripping hot — perfect for flame-grilling burgers and steaks. Standard charcoal grills are also typically much more affordable than a kamado grill.
Kamados’ unique design makes them incredibly fuel-efficient. It also offers more options for indirect cooking and tends to result in juicier, more tender food since there isn’t as much air flowing around that could dry it out.
The one (potential) downside? Price. Kamados are more specialized and, therefore, pricier than your standard backyard kettle grill.
How do you Prep a Grill to Start Cooking?
First, empty any old ash out from the bottom of the grill, and make sure your grates are clean. Once your fire is going, it’s a good idea to pre-heat your grill grates and oil them using a rolled-up paper towel dipped in cooking oil to ensure food doesn’t stick.
How do I Start a Charcoal Grill?
To fire up your grill, remove the cooking grate and open any vents to allow air to reach the fire.
If you’re using a charcoal chimney, fill it with charcoal, then place the lighter cubes on the charcoal grate and light them. Next, place your chimney on top of the lighter cubes, wait about 10-15 minutes until the coals at the top of your chimney have started to turn gray, and carefully pour the coals onto your charcoal grate. Next, arrange the coals however you’d like, put the cooking grate on and lid down, and wait another 10-15 minutes for your grill to pre-heat.
If you’re lighting your grill with lighter fluid (something I don’t recommend), arrange the charcoal on top of the charcoal grate, spray the correct amount of fluid onto the (unlit!) coals, and light the fire.
You can also use an electric starter, where you’ll arrange your coals into a pile, insert the heating element of the starter into the center, plug the starter into an outlet, and wait for the coals to light.
Finally, you can also use instant lighting charcoal treated with accelerant and ready for you to light with a lighter as soon as you have them arranged.
You can check out a more in-depth guide here: How To Start A Charcoal Grill
What’s the Best Method for Lighting Charcoal?
Most pros will go for the charcoal chimney, an electric starter, or a torch to avoid the chemical-like taste that lighter fluid or instant lighting charcoal can leave on foods. Charcoal chimneys are especially great if you need to light a lot of coals.
How Much Charcoal should I Use?
The amount of charcoal you’ll need will vary a lot based on your type of grill, the temperature you plan to cook at, and how long you’ll be cooking.
If you require high heat, go for a full Charcoal Chimney of coals. Medium heat will call for ½ to ¾ of a chimney, and low heat should need just ¼ of a chimney to start. A good rule of thumb is to always have extra coals on hand, just in case.
What is the Best Way to Arrange the Coals for Cooking?
The arrangement of your coals should change depending on what and how you’re cooking. If you want to use direct heat for high-heat cooking or thin cuts of meat, spread the coals in a single layer across the bottom grate.
For two-zone cooking, spread the coals over half of the grill and leave the other half empty (this is where you’ll cook with indirect heat).
You can also try unique configurations like coals on both sides with a space in the middle for cooking larger roasts or poultry low and slow, or the “charcoal snake” where you’ll place a few lit coals at the end of a “snake” of unlit coals placed around the edge of the grill. This configuration burns slowly over several hours and smokes your food.
How Hot do Charcoal Grills Get?
Depending on your configuration and how much coal you’re using, your grill should be able to reach temperatures up to 700°F plus easily.
What’s the Difference between Charcoal Briquettes & Lump Charcoal?
Briquettes are compressed manufactured wood by-products that are made with fillers and accelerants that help them light and burn consistently but can leave an off-putting chemical taste behind on your food. On the other hand, lump charcoal has no additives and leaves less ash, and will burn hotter and faster than briquettes.
Is Lump Charcoal more Natural than Briquettes?
Simply put: yes. Nothing is added to lump charcoal, so it offers a clean burn and charcoal grilling in its purest form.
Does Lump Charcoal Burn Hotter than Briquettes?
Yes. Lump charcoal will burn faster and hotter than briquettes but can present some challenges when it comes to maintaining your temperature since it burns quicker.
How should I Store Charcoal?
Keep your charcoal sealed up, away from fire, and somewhere dry where moisture can’t get to it — moisture can make lump charcoal harder to light, and it can completely obliterate briquettes.
Do I Need to Preheat a Charcoal Grill?
Yes! Just like any other type of grill (and your kitchen oven), charcoal grills should be preheated, so food doesn’t stick to the grates or overcook. You should hear a sizzle when you slap those burgers on!
How Long Should it Take my Charcoal Grill to Preheat?
Your grill will technically be preheated when every piece of charcoal is lit, but how long that takes will depend on your grill’s construction and how much charcoal you’re using. Expect 10-15 minutes for most grills. If you have a kamado smoker, try to avoid preheating for longer than 30 minutes, so your grill doesn’t get too hot.
How can I Tell when my Coals are Ready for Cooking?
The coals are ready once they are mostly covered with gray ash. AT that point, they are ready to spread out and start cooking on.
You can also tell that your coals are fired up and ready to go using a wireless thermometer that monitors the interior of the grill. If you like to live dangerously, you can also use the hand test — place your hand palm down about five inches above the charcoal and hold it there.
If you can hold your hand for 11 or more seconds, your grill is at a low heat; eight to 10 seconds means it’s medium-low heat; four to five seconds signifies your grill is at medium-high heat. If you can only hold your hand for one to three seconds, your grill is at high heat.
What Grill Grates are Best?
For a combination of affordability, non-stick properties, and great heat flow, simple stainless-steel grates will be your best bet.
Porcelain-coated grates are a bit pricier but also prone to chipping.
Cast iron grates, while durable and great at retaining heat, are the most expensive and require a lot more maintenance than steel or porcelain-coated grates.
How do you Clean Grill Grates?
Keeping your grill grates clean is essential for proper grilling and delicious-tasting food. To learn how to clean grill grates, check out our in-depth article here: How To Clean Grill Grates – The Ultimate Guide On Grill Grate Cleaning And Care
When Using Charcoal, how do you Cook in Zones?
Cooking in zones on a charcoal grill requires you to arrange your coals on one side of the grill and leave the other side empty. From there, you can follow the general guidelines for zone grilling that we lay out in this article: Zone Grilling Methods – The Most Essential Skill To Master Your Grill
What is the Difference between Direct & Indirect Cooking?
With direct cooking, food is placed directly over the flame and cooked with the heat rising up from it. When you use indirect cooking, the food is placed away from the fire and cooked with the convection heat within the grill. To learn more about indirect grilling check out our guide here: What Is Indirect Grilling – Why And How To Grill With Indirect Heat
How do you do Indirect Cooking with a Charcoal Grill?
To use indirect cooking on a charcoal grill you’ll need to create a barrier between the heat and the food. Some models of grills will have this barrier built in, while others will require you to add a heat deflector or a water pan. Check out our Guide On Indirect Cooking to learn more!
How do you Control the Temperature on a Charcoal Grill?
You can control the temperature in your charcoal grill in two ways: either by adjusting the amount of coal you put in or by adjusting airflow using the grill’s vents. Not sure how to use grill vents? We’ve got a guide for that here: Using Grill Vents Correctly – Controlling Temperature With Vents
Can you Smoke Meat on a Charcoal Grill?
Definitely! Smoking meat on a charcoal grill is fairly simple once you’re familiar with indirect cooking. You’ll essentially get the grill heated to a low temperature, add wood chips or chunks onto the coals, put your food on the grill away from the coals, and put the cover back on, and let your food smoke.
How do you Use Wood Chunks or Chips with Charcoal?
As mentioned above, all you have to do to use wood chunks or chips on a charcoal grill is add them directly onto the lit coals. You can also mix the chips and coals together before you light them. Either way, you’ll get that delicious wood-fired taste in your food! Just be careful not to overdo it. Too much smoke can ruin the taste of barbeque.
Can I Use Wood Pellets Instead of Wood Chips for Smoking Food?
We don’t recommend this. Since wood pellets are essentially compressed pieces of sawdust, they’ll burn quickly without adding much flavor or smoke to your food. If you were to use wood pellets, you’d have to add more to your grill almost constantly, so save yourself the hassle and use wood chips.
If I am Cooking Slow & Low, how do I Add Charcoal?
Your grill may have a small door on the bottom or hinged cooking grates that allow you to add more charcoal quickly. If not, you’ll want to use a long pair of tongs and heat-resistant gloves to fuel your charcoal fire quickly and safely.
Can I Use a Charcoal Grill Inside?
No! Charcoal grills can emit small embers and sparks that would be a recipe for a house fire if you were grilling inside. Charcoal grilling also produces carbon monoxide, which is incredibly dangerous if it’s trapped inside without anywhere to flow to. Keep your house and your health intact and keep the grill outside.
How Far from my Home should I Place my Charcoal Grill?
Since charcoal grills can give off embers, as we mentioned above, you’ll want to keep your grill at least 10 feet from any structure — not just your house but also overhangs, railings, and sheds.
How can I Stop Embers from Flying out of the Grill Onto my Wood Deck?
If you’re grilling on a wooden deck, the embers that charcoal grills can give off can be a major safety hazard. You can shield your deck and give yourself some peace of mind with a Grill Mat, which goes under your grill to protect the surface you’re grilling on from heat and stray sparks.
How Long does it Take for Coals to Completely Cool Off after Cooking?
If you correctly (and safely!) snuff out your grill’s fire by closing all the vents and stopping the airflow, it could take around 12 to 48 hours for the coals to cool completely.
How do I Put out a Charcoal Grill?
To extinguish your grill, suffocate the fire by closing the lid and any vents in the grill. Once you’ve done that, your safest bet is to wait until the coals have completely cooled before throwing them out.
Resist the urge to spray your coals with water, as that can get messy and creates lye that’s corrosive for both your grill and for the skin of anyone who comes in contact with it.
What if I have Charcoal Left when I’m Done Cooking?
If you have charcoal leftover after grilling, you can leave the unused coals in the grill for your next cooking session, but you’ll need to add more coals — charcoal is like a used car in that it can work if it’s already been used, but it won’t last as long. You can find instructions on fueling your grill with partially used charcoal by reading Can You Reuse Charcoal?
How should I Dispose of Used Charcoal & Ash?
If you used charcoal briquettes, once your grill is cool you can wrap any remaining coals and ash in aluminum foil and toss them in the trash. If you have lump charcoal ash on your hands, you can also add it to a compost bin to create a rich plant fertilizer or mix it with water and hydrated lime (not the fruit!) to make a pest-preventing plant spray.
How Often should I Clean out the Ashes?
You should clean the ash out of your charcoal grill before every cook. This keeps the airflow going and clear of clogs that can impact the temperature.
Leftover ash naturally attracts moisture which can cause corrosion. Cleaning out leftover ash also reduces the risk of moisture coming in contact with the ash and creating that corrosive lye we mentioned earlier.
How Often should I Clean my Charcoal Grill?
You should do a simple cleaning of your grill after every use. It’s best to do so after cooking while the grill is still warm. Just take a grill brush and scrape off any leftover food and grease from the grates. Leftover gunk can be damaging to your grill and if not cleaned properly, can be damaging to your health.
Depending on how often you use your grill, you should do a deep cleaning once every 6 months to a year where you break down the grill and scrape and wash away any leftover grease, carbon, and other carcinogenic deposits that have built up.
How do I Clean a Charcoal Grill?
First, wipe the inside of your lid down with paper towels, soap, and water when it’s still warm to prevent grease and smoke build-up. Once you’ve emptied the ashes from the body of your grill, clean it with dish soap and steel wool to remove any residue.
To finish up the cleaning process, be sure the grill grates are clean (you can learn more on that reading my article How To Clean Grill Grates), wipe down the outside of the grill’s lid and bowl with soap or glass cleaner, and empty the ash catcher.
My Charcoal Won’t Stay Lit. What is Wrong?
If your charcoal doesn’t stay lit, it could be because it’s not dry, you’re not giving it enough airflow, it’s arranged flat instead of stacked, your grill’s vents are closed, or it’s humid outside. If you’re adding wood to your fire, wet or low-quality wood can also lead your charcoal to burn out.
Charcoal Grilling Tools & Accessory must Haves
To have a successful and relaxing charcoal grilling experience, there are a few accessories we highly recommend.
Charcoal Chimney Starter
A charcoal chimney starter is a must-have for getting your coals lit quickly. Learn more about these tools and check out our roundup of some of the best charcoal chimneys here: The 10 Best Charcoal Chimney Starters Reviews And Buyer Guides
To handle the chimney full of hot goals, grates, lid, and body of your charcoal grill, you’ll want heat-resistant gloves to keep your hands safe. If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to buying gloves, we have a list of the best ones to help you out here: Best Heat Resistant Gloves For Grilling
This is a no-brainer — to place and flip your food and triumphantly pull them off the grill when it’s done cooking, you’ll need some Trusty Grilling Tools.
A Good Grill Brush
A grill brush is essential for cleaning your grill grates — read up on our list of the best bristle-free grill brushes here: Best Bristle Free Grill Brushes
A Charcoal Grill Cover
Covering your grill when it’s not in use will help keep it clean and protected from things like snow, dust, dirt, pollen, tree sap, water spots, and other natural messes. You can even show your team spirit by getting a Grill Cover With Your Favorite Sports Teams Logo On It!
A Charcoal Grilling Guide
If you’re new to charcoal grilling, a guidebook is a great way to learn tips and tricks, recipes, and how to use your grill like a pro. We recommend This Charcoal Grilling Guide.
Bonus Charcoal Grill Tips & Techniques
If you’re looking for more charcoal grilling info, you’ve come to the right place! Check out our Charcoal Grill Tips & Techniques Guide on some of the easiest grilling tips and techniques you can use today to level up your cooking game instantly.
Charcoal Grill FAQ Final Thoughts
If you’re new to charcoal grilling or simply want to take it back to basics with a taste of nostalgia, I hope our charcoal grill FAQ guide has helped answer your burning questions! In our opinion, there’s nothing quite like firing up one of these classic grills and enjoying that hallmark smoky taste on a beautiful summer day (or winter – grilling is a year-round sport in our book!).
If you have any questions about the info we covered here or want to learn more about charcoal grilling, drop us an email or a comment in the section below. We’ll do our best to reply with an answer, and you might even find your question added to an updated version of this guide!
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A backyard warrior, certified carnivore, lover of good whiskey, self-proclaimed grill master and I’m Living The Grilling Life!
I have a passion for cooking with live fire and smoke, no matter the weather. I’m a real person just like you, who loves outdoor cooking and BBQ. Food, fun, and time spent with family and friends are what it’s all about! It is my mission to take my passion and knowledge for outdoor cooking and all things BBQ and share this expertise in techniques and grilling equipment with you. In other words, Living The Grilling Life!