by Mike Thayer
How much charcoal should I use? How long does charcoal stay hot? What kind of grill should I buy? Which is better, gas or charcoal? Do I put the lid on or leave it off? Are those wood pellets any good?
These are all great questions. Whether you’re new to grilling or are looking to expand on your grilling expertise, you’re reading the right source. The answers are here.
Any kind of grill is better than no grill. A grill can be a piece of scrap metal and two cinder blocks standing over a small pile of charcoal, or it can be the latest stainless steel propane gas model with infra-red heat for searing and two side burners. Grills vary greatly in size, shape, fuel source, cost and most importantly, the ability to deliver flavor.
That last reason - flavor - is why I’m a charcoal grill enthusiast and this ‘how to‘ grilling book is written with that in mind. Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of useful information, recipes and tips from this book if you’re a gas griller, but I’m here to tell you, charcoal grills deliver better flavor every time. Don’t get me wrong, gas grills have their place, but along with the great flavor charcoal delivers, charcoal has other advantages like the flexibility of using it to give big steaks that high heat sear, or using it to cook ribs low and slow. Another advantage charcoal grills have over gas is that you can easily add wood to the fire, putting another layer of flavor on that great looking piece of meat. You can add wood to a gas grill, but you’re pretty much restricted to using wood chips and you have to keep those chips away from the gas burners, almost forcing you to buy one of those gas grill accessories - the wood chip box. In my experience, the gas grill and those little wood chip boxes just don’t measure up to the flavors you can add using a charcoal grill setup. Here are some more advantages to the charcoal grill:
You may have noticed, I left out electric grills in that breakdown. That’s because electric grills suck. Don’t buy one. They don’t deliver the heat they promise, you’re restricted to where you can plug it in and like the gas grill, they don’t deliver any flavor. Durability with electric grills is also an issue. I used to have an electric grill, I converted it over to charcoal after the element burned out.
“What about smokers?” you ask. This book focuses on grilling, smoking is a whole different level of backyard-cooking-meat-with-fire-experience. I’ll be covering smokers, pit BBQ and those green egg shaped contraptions in my next book. Yep, you read that right, a teaser for a second book.
So now that I’ve covered the advantages and disadvantages of the two main grill types and you now know that charcoal is the way to go, let’s talk about the charcoal grill setup.
You can start your charcoal several ways, you can use lighter fluid, you can buy those ‘Match Light’ briquettes, or you can do what I think is the best way to go and that’s fire up your charcoal using a charcoal chimney. I don’t like lighter fluid for several reasons. I don’t like to store it, I don’t like running out, the smell can get on your hands and clothes, and inexperienced grillers tend to put too much on or start grilling over charcoals that aren’t really ready yet, giving your food that nasty fuel taste. Those ‘Match Light’ briquettes are OK, they’re very convenient, but they are more expensive and like the traditional charcoal/lighter fluid starting method, can put a fuel taste on your food if cooked over before the coals are really ready. Avoid the fuel taste risk completely and start your charcoal by using a charcoal chimney.
Charcoal chimneys are fairly inexpensive and all you need are a few sheets of newspaper to get those charcoals heated up. They’re easy to use:
Step 1: Turn the chimney upside down, crinkle up about three double-wide sheets of old newspaper into three softball sized rounds and stuff them into the bottom of the chimney.
Step 2: Turn the chimney right-side up and fill with the amount of charcoal you need. TIP: If you’re only grilling like eight burgers, depending on your grill size, you don’t need to fill the chimney to the top, try half-full, even less for small portable type grills.
Step 3: Ideally, you’ve got your charcoal chimney placed where your coals are eventually going to be placed for grilling, the bottom of the grill, cooking grate off. Light the newspaper, stay in one spot with your flame, count to 10 and watch for smoke to come out of the top of the chimney. Holding the starter flame (butane wands with the flame setting on high work great for this) in one place on the newspaper ensures the newspaper gets lit and stays lit. Lighting the newspaper in more than one spot can prematurely flame out the newspaper before the coals catch that fire.
Step 4: Check your chimney after about 2 minutes, it should be building up heat. Depending on conditions like the quality of your charcoal, how much of it you put in the chimney and if it’s windy or not, your coals should be ready in 10 - 15 minutes.
Step 5: When you see an orange glow coming from the bottom of the chimney, flames coming out the top and the edges of some of the coals starting to turn gray, your charcoal is ready. Because you’re not using lighter fluid, you don’t have to worry about a fuel taste, these coals are just about ready to cook with!
Step 6: Using a grilling mitt, dump your coals into the grill. Place your chimney somewhere ‘heat safe’ to let it cool down, these babies stay hot for a bit after dumping the coals.
Step 7: Place the cooking grate on the grill to get it heated up, about five minutes is all it takes, then you’re ready to throw the meat on!
TIP: On windy days, lightly coat the newspaper with some cooking spray before stuffing it in the charcoal chimney. This will extend the burn time of the paper and prevent those little ashes from blowing around.
Arranging your coals matters
This may sound trivial to somebody new to grilling and even to some ‘experienced‘ grillers…… How you stack your coals, matters! Do NOT spread your charcoal out evenly. That’s right, you read that correctly, do NOT lay the coals out evenly. Doing so kills the life span of the heat. Your fire simply won’t last as long. Another reason not to spread your charcoal out evenly is flare ups. If you get flare ups - and you will - especially if you’re doing burgers, you’ll have no ‘cool spot’ on the grill for the meat to escape to. Flare ups with no escape often lead to burnt food, or food that’s crispy on the outside and not done on the inside.
Center Stack: You can stack your coals higher in the middle of the grill, a pyramid or mountain shaped pile, creating a center stage hot spot for searing. The center stack arrangement of coals concentrates all the high heat and possible flare ups in the middle, leaving all the sides of the grill at a lower temperature. No big flare ups everywhere on your grill, there’s plenty of space on all sides for your meats to escape to. Sear your meats in the hot spot, let them finish cooking or keep them warm in the lower temp side areas. This stack style works best in Weber kettle grills, or other circular shaped grills.
Back Stack: You can stack the bulk of your coals in the back of the grill, leaving the front of the grill only sparsely covered with coals. This keeps the high heat and the flare ups in the back of the grill, away from you, making the turning and flipping of meats a little easier. The low temp front of the grill gives your meats a place to escape to in the event of a flare up. You can also use this space to finish cook meats or keep them warm. If you’re new to charcoal grilling, this might be the way to go. This method and the Left/Right Stack highlighted next, also work well when party grilling, when guests arrive and eat at various times. It allows you to cook and ‘hold’ the good grilled eats.
Left/Right Stack: This is my preferred method of stacking coals. I personally like to have a hot side of the grill and a “Keep it warm” side. I stack my coals tall on the left for giving meats that really good sear. On the right, I have just enough coals to cook meats through or keep warm. This arrangement works especially well in square, rectangular shaped or shallow basin grills. The same thing can be done on gas grills with two burners. High or medium flame is used on one side, low flame or even no flame is used on the other side.
As you gain experience in grilling, how you stack your coals (or use your burners if you’re a gas griller) becomes a personal preference thing. The key is having a hot section and a warm section on your grill, some people call this ‘zone grilling‘ or ‘zone cooking.’ Here’s an added plus to using one of the three stack styles mentioned above: Having your coals ‘stacked’ rather than evenly laid out really comes in handy when you’re grilling two or three different kinds of meat for dinner. You’ll be praised by family and friends for your grilling prowess because you had a hot spot and a lower temp area on your grill. I’ll provide details on that later in the book as well as stacking your coals for indirect heat zone cooking such as for smoking and real BBQ.
“Mike, how much charcoal should I use and how long is it going to stay hot?” Most people use way more charcoal than they really need to. If you’re grilling for one or two people and using a smaller, portable type grill, try a quarter chimney of charcoal. This will provide more than enough fire for grilling four cheeseburgers, a dozen hot dogs and then smores if you want for dessert! I use a half-chimney amount quite a bit, satisfying the hunger needs of my three boys and I usually have enough heat leftover after doing steaks or chicken to do some lower and slower cooking like a dessert pizza. Having guests over for a party? Fire up two chimneys. On a Weber kettle grill that will get you through a box of frozen ¼ pound hamburger patties (40 count) and 36 hot dogs. You can toast the buns too! If conditions are right (not too much wind) and you stacked your coals well, you can cook for hours. I’ve gone back to my grill the next day after grilling to clean the charcoal ashes out and have carelessly burned myself. A good grill and quality charcoal can really retain some heat so be careful.
My preferred brand of charcoal is Kingsford and I buy the competition briquettes when it’s available. They tend to burn a little hotter and a little longer. I like briquettes because they also deliver a more consistent burn vs. lump coal which comes in different shapes and sizes, doesn’t stack as well and perhaps most importantly, quality lump coal tends to run a bit higher in price. Pro-lump coal enthusiasts say it provides better flavor, but if that’s the case, then you might as well just throw the real wood log on the fire.
Wood: You can really add a whole other dimension of flavor by using wood in your grilling. Fruit woods are excellent for adding some sweetness to meats, and all woods suitable for grilling give you that nice smoke ring of flavor that is craved by grill masters, weekend grillers and food enthusiasts alike. Some woods are better with certain meats than others, experiment with different woods and have fun with it. Below is a list of the more commonly used woods. You can use logs to grill or smoke with exclusively, or mix them with charcoal briquettes or lump coal. I like to use a combination of charcoal briquettes and wood logs when grilling low and slow for bigger cuts of meat, and a combination of charcoal and wood chunks when grilling thinner cuts over direct heat, lid-on preparations.
Apple and Cherry woods: Probably the most popular of all the fruit woods, both giving off a mild sweetness. Excellent for poultry and pork, with cherry being particularly good when grilling or smoking ham.
Hickory: The most popular wood for smoking meats, delivering a strong flavor. Don’t overdo it if you haven’t grilled with it before and use with the bigger cuts of meat, it can be overpowering. Good for all meats, but better with beef and lamb.
Mesquite: The trendy wood right now. It burns hotter and faster than hickory so it’s an excellent choice for the weekend griller. It delivers a nice, lightly sweet flavor. Good for all meats, fish, vegetables, especially good with ribs.
Oak: The second most popular all purpose wood. Like hickory, it delivers a strong smoky flavor but not as overpowering. It’s good with beef, fish and pork butt.
Pecan: Doesn’t burn as hot as other woods, delivering a more subtle smoky flavor. Excellent for all meats, good with just about anything you want to grill or smoke. On a personal note, if I had to grab just one type of wood, this would be it - pecan is my go-to.
Other woods to consider: You really can’t go wrong with just about any fruit wood, most of them are mild and sweet. Citrus woods are all good, don‘t hesitate to use them. Peach, pear and mulberry all deliver another dimension of flavor. Maple, birch and ash are nice changes of pace and even seasoned grape vines or lilac branches are nice flavor enhancements for the grill.
Woods to AVOID: Anything in the Pine family (terrible flavor, burns too fast and hot), walnut (heavy, bitter smoke flavor, can be used with other woods but why bother…), elm, cypress, redwood.
TIP: The best smoke comes from the coals of the wood, so when grilling, let the log or logs burn down. Wood in smokers is a different story.
Wood chips and chunks: Wood chips and chunks are great because not everybody has a big backyard to store a cord of wood in. You can store a smaller size bag of wood chips or chunks on an apartment balcony, you can mix chips/chunks in with charcoal briquettes and they are readily available most anywhere grills and grill accessories are sold. Many of the wood flavors previously mentioned are available, apple, cherry, oak, hickory, mesquite and my personal favorite, pecan. TIP: If you're a gas griller, go with the wood chips, this is what those smoker box accessories are designed for. If you're a charcoal griller, then go with the chunks, throw a couple chunks on your pile of charcoal. DO NOT SOAK either fuel type in water! Soaked wood can smother your fire and reduce heat. Besides, you want clean smoke in your cook, a good smoke is thin, blue and almost invisible, this is what puts quality flavor in your food. Soaking wood, wet wood, generates a thick, white smoke and that's not a good smoke, or a good taste for your food. White smoke is a bitter smoke, wait for a clean smoke before putting your food on the grill.
Wood pellets: I love these things. They are truly versatile, add another layer of flavor and they’re so easy to use. They are an excellent addition to charcoal briquettes, or mixing with wood logs, kicking that great taste level up another notch. You can add a handful, or two depending on how heavy you like smoke flavor. Pellets last longer than wood chips - another plus - but also like wood chips, you’re not going to want to try and cook with pellets as your lone fuel source (you'll burn through them too quickly) in a typical patio grill setup if you‘re just doing a couple burgers or hot dogs. They‘re best used in a mixed fuel source preparation. TIP: If you only have one type of log wood to grill or smoke with, say, oak, pick up some apple wood pellets to add to the fire. Layers of flavor! I really like this mix when grilling pork, cherry is excellent as well.
Venting: No, I’m not talking about being able to rant at someone about how bad your day went……. I’m talking about giving your charcoal grill set up a chance to breathe. This is believe it or not one of the most under performed but vital task in grilling. It impacts the heat, the level of smoke (and hence affecting the flavor of the food), and the burn time. Whether you are using charcoal, wood, or a mix of fuel types, don’t forget to vent your grill properly. You’re creating a fire, and fires need to breathe. Vents are your friend. Most grills have at least two sets of vents. There’s typically a set in the lid and a set, if not two, in the base. The vents in the base are essential for letting your fire breathe, the vent in the lid is there for two reasons, to regulate smoke and to work as a draw. Opening that lid vent lets the hot air escape, allowing the lower vents to draw in the cooler outside air with fresh oxygen for the coals to breathe. I’ve seen guys grilling with all the vents closed and they wonder why their fire never really got hot enough, the food took longer to cook and in some cases, the fire prematurely burned out. They didn’t let the coals breathe, the only oxygen the fire got was when the lid was off or opened. If there’s no wind and you’re just grilling burgers and hot dogs, leave your vents wide open. I personally like to leave the lid off in that case until it’s time to melt the cheese for the burgers. If it’s windy, you want to shut your vents a bit, perhaps nearly closed all the way depending on just how windy it is, but never completely closed. If you want a little more smoky flavor on whatever you’re grilling, shut the lid vent a bit. If it’s raining and you don‘t have the luxury of being in a covered area, you may want to close that lid vent a bit. If it’s raining a lot, get out the umbrella. If you don’t have an umbrella, it sucks to be you.