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Charcoal Grilling Tips and Techniques – Secrets for the Best Cookout

What greater way is there to celebrate summer than using a charcoal grill? The smell of searing steak, the feeling of heat radiating off the grill, and the salivating crowd of friends around you all make a charcoal grill essential for summer days.

To make sure you are the king of the grill, you need to know the best charcoal grilling tips. I’ll give you the rundown on setting up, lighting, and using your grill correctly, so you can just worry about the delicious food to come.

It is important to keep in mind that everyone has their own unique differences when it comes to charcoal grilling tips and techniques. When using a charcoal grill there are your base skills, and then there are the personalized details.

Everyone has their own charcoal grill tips they’ve picked up over the years.

Let’s start with the basics, then we can move into some preference-based techniques later.

Fundamental Charcoal Grilling Tips & Techniques

Types of Charcoal | Lighting Techniques

Are you ready to take up your charcoal grilling game?

I hope so because I’m here for just that!

Check out these essential tips and techniques to become a true charcoal grilling master!

Types of Charcoal

Being the king of using a charcoal grill starts long before flipping meat. The first question you need to ask yourself is which type of charcoal to use.

You can find a vast selection of charcoal, but there are three main types to consider when making this ever-important initial decision.

Standard Charcoal Briquettes
Kingsford Self Starting Charcoal Briquettes
Lump Charcoal

You have self-starting briquettes, original briquettes, and the ever-popular lump charcoal.

  • Original briquettes: Original briquettes are the most common, and you’ve probably seen plenty of people lighting them up. Made from a combination of charcoal dust and other ingredients, briquettes burn more evenly and last longer than lump charcoal. They’re also more affordable, making them a popular choice for most backyard grillers. This allows you to focus on the task at hand, cooking some flesh.
  • Self-starting briquettes: are an easy answer to lighting a charcoal grill. If you don’t want to play with lighter fluid, and you don’t own a charcoal chimney, consider buying a bag of these bad boys to get your grill burning. Keep in mind, these coals burn quicker than their original counterparts, and if you need to add more coals to keep cooking, you will have to add original coals instead.
  • Lump Charcoal: Lump charcoal is the answer to purist dreams. A less processed alternative to briquettes, they offer a nice and natural option for grillers. Made from hardwood, lump charcoal burns hotter and faster than other types of charcoal. It’s perfect for searing and high-temperature grilling. It lights easily and it responds well to temperature adjustments. Some drawbacks include its cost (more expensive) and its lack of consistency. but it can be expensive.

It is worth playing around with the different types of charcoal.  Your choice of charcoal can be a defining piece in your overall grilling experience.

Lighting Techniques

Light your grill with either a charcoal chimney, lighter fluid, or the self-starting briquettes mentioned above.

You can also check out several alternate Charcoal Lighting Techniques here.

Hot Coals In A Charcoal Chimney Starter

To use a charcoal chimney, follow these steps:

  1. Start by placing crumpled newspaper in the bottom, underneath the wire rack.
  2. Next, fill the chimney with your charcoal. Place the chimney on the bottom grate of your grill and light the newspaper.
  3. Allow the charcoal to burn until it is white and ashy. That is the tell-tale sign of ready-to-go charcoal.
  4. Carefully dump the charcoal into the grill.

Still unsure of the best way to use a charcoal chimney starter? You can check out my guide Charcoal Chimney Starter Instructions – How to Use a Charcoal Chimney for more info.

In the market for a chimney start? You can see a list of My Top Charcoal Chimney Starter Recommendations here.

If you would rather use lighter fluid, make sure to form a neat pile with your charcoal before lighting it. The more your charcoal briquettes touch each other the quicker they will light.

Follow the instructions on your lighter fluid for the amount to use, and light the charcoal immediately after spraying it onto the charcoal. Never spray lighter fluid onto a flame or hot coals.

To use self-starter briquettes, build a neat pile to increase your overall coal contact.  Light a few of the coals on their edges.

The flame will spread over the rest of the coals. After they have settled down and turned ashy, it is time to spread them out and start cooking.

Preparing the Grill: The Kingpin of Charcoal Grilling Tips & Techniques

Make sure you don’t overlook the importance of a well-prepared grill. Follow these charcoal grilling tips to ensure you get the best quality possible.

  • Clean The Grates: Always scrape the grate off before you drop any food onto your grill. This makes sure you don’t get any leftover bits of burnt food and grease on your meal.
  • Preheat your grill: We get it, patience is not always a virtue. But when it comes to grilling, taking the time to preheat your grill pays off in spades. This simple yet crucial step ensures that your food cooks evenly and reduces the risk of sticking, resulting in mouth-watering, restaurant-quality meals. So resist the urge to rush and let your grill pre-heat properly.
  • Use a Two zone setup: Not all foods are created equal. Use a Two zone fire to make distinct areas to cook different foods. After your coals are lit, spread them out to cover about ½ of the charcoal grate. Placing food directly over the charcoal will cook fast and hot. Over the coals is perfect for food that needs a brief time to cook; steak, corn on the cob, zucchini. You can utilize the side without charcoal to thoroughly cook food after searing it over coals and make sure you don’t end up burning it. The side that is empty of charcoal is also great for slow-cooked foods; like full chicken, pork tenderloin, and potatoes.

Now that you are using a well-prepped charcoal grill, let’s go over some basic temperature controls.

Controlling the Temperature

Oxygen is a charcoal grill’s best friend. Fire needs oxygen to burn. The vents on the top and bottom of your grill allow you to control how much air can circulate throughout. You can utilize these vents to control the temperature. For more information on temperature control, check out this guide on Using Grill Vents Correctly – Controlling Temperature With Vents.

Opening the vents allows more air in, feeding the fire, and raising the temperature.  Closing the vents takes away the oxygen and lowers the temperature. Find a good temperature for your grilling needs by testing this function out.

Make sure not to completely close the vents though. Without enough oxygen, the coals will extinguish, leaving you fruitless in your search for grilled goodies.

Compare grilling to pan frying for a second. You don’t want to always put your stove on high when cooking. There is a delicacy to knowing what temperatures are needed for what foods. The vents are your grill’s version of the temperature knob on your stove; use it accordingly!

A pro charcoal grilling tip is to be aware of how often you open the grill’s lid. When you open the lid, you allow plenty of air in and heat out.

Keep your temperature consistent by only opening the lid when necessary. Flip and check your food, then shut it to keep the temperature at your desired level.

Final Thoughts on Our Charcoal Grilling Tips and Techniques Guide

These are fundamental charcoal grilling tips and techniques. They are the necessities of grilling. But notice that there is some wiggle room in your personal choices when grilling.

Deciding between lump coal and briquettes, for one thing, can make a significant difference in how your food comes out. Your ability to choose and change, experiment and play, alternate and innovate, is part of what makes grilling so enjoyable.

Take time to try new techniques. With so many variables, it’s a shame to confine yourself to the first one you try out! It will be worth it in the long run.

I hope these charcoal grilling tips are helpful for you.

What are your personal charcoal grilling tips and techniques?  Let us know by commenting below!


Pat G.

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DisclosureAt The Grilling Life, I am committed to researching and writing thoughtful, informative and editorially independent reviews of the best products for your outdoor cooking needs.  If you like what I do, you can support me through my chosen links, which earn me a commission.  This allows me to continue sharing with you my love for all things barbecue.  Your support is truly appreciated.

Patrick Ginise

A backyard warrior, certified carnivore, lover of good whiskey, 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!

I have personally tested over 150+ Grills and Smokers and hundreds of grilling thermometers, temperature controllers, grill brushes, grilling tools, fire starters, and other BBQ products.