How to Use a Charcoal Grill

With just a bit of know-how required, cooking on a charcoal grill pays dividends in delicious flavor. Check out our complete guide to charcoal grilling, from lighting to cooking.

By Elizabeth Harris, Contributing Editor and Christine Rukavena, Book Editor

Learn to use a charcoal grill for smoky summer flavor at home

Grilling is a wonderful way to sizzle your suppers in summertime—and year-round, too. Before you head to your backyard for some fresh-air cooking, refresh your grilling skills with tips for mastering how to BBQ with charcoal.

Expert Tips from the Taste of Home Test Kitchen

  • Before starting the grill, coat the rack with cooking spray for foods that are naturally low in fat, like chicken breasts, lean pork chops, pork, beef and turkey tenderloins, turkey burgers, fish and vegetables.
  • Bring foods to a cool room temperature before grilling. Very cold foods may burn on the outside before the interior is cooked.
  • How to get cool-looking grill marks: Add a little honey to your marinade or sauce. The sugar in the honey caramelizes when grilled and creates the marks. One teaspoon to 1 tablespoon should do the trick, depending on the amount of marinade or sauce.
  • Make a marinade: To add flavor to meat and vegetables or tenderize less-tender cuts of meat, always marinate in the refrigerator in a glass container or resealable plastic bag. If a marinade is also used as a basting or dipping sauce, reserve a portion before adding the raw foods.
  • Use tongs to turn meat instead of a meat fork to avoid piercing and losing juices. Aim for flipping items just once. Also, salting meats after cooking helps retain juices.
  • Brush on thick or sweet sauces during the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking. Baste and turn every few minutes to prevent burning.
  • Use a meat or instant-read thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat and poultry before the recommended cooking time is up.
  • Don't press down on burgers, steaks or other meats—you'll squeeze out those precious juices.
  • Grill perfect steaks: Trim meat to avoid flare-ups, leaving only a thin layer of fat if desired to help maintain juiciness. Pat dry with paper towels before grilling—a dry steak browns better than a moist one. Avoid grilling at too high a temperature, which will char the outside of the steak before the inside reaches the desired doneness. Grill to at least medium-rare, 145°, but don’t overcook.

Charcoal Grilling for Beginners

Yep, there’s a little more to charcoal grilling than turning the knobs on a gas model, but the depth of flavor you’ll get is well worth it. So relax, and learn answers to some common questions.

How Much Charcoal Should I Use? Easy, just spread the briquettes (lumps) in a single layer just a bit beyond where your food will be cooked.

How Do You Light a Charcoal Grill? There are several methods. Pick the one you’re most comfortable with.

1. Pyramid Style

Light your charcoal grill pyramid-style

Arrange briquettes in a pyramid in the grill. Pour lighter fluid over briquettes. Recap the fluid and place away from grill. Light briquettes.

2. Electric Starter

Lighting a charcoal grill with an electric starter.

Arrange briquettes in a pyramid in the grill. Insert electric starter in the middle of coals. Plug starter into an outlet. If using an extension cord, use a heavy-duty one. It will take 8 to 10 minutes for ash to form on coals. At that point, unplug the electric starter and remove from briquettes. The starter will be very hot, so place it out of the way on a heatproof surface. Continue heating briquettes until they are covered with a light gray ash.

3. Chimney Starter

Using newspaper to light a charcoal grill with a chimney starter

Adding briquettes to a chimney starter to light a charcoal grill.

Crumple newspaper or waxed paper and place a chimney starter over the paper in the grill. Fill the chimney starter with briquettes. Light paper. When coals are ready, dump them out of the chimney starter and spread out. The Taste of Home Test Kitchen recommends this method.

How Do You Tell How Hot the Coals Are?

Get a feel for things! Cautiously hold your hand 4 inches over the coals. Start counting the number of seconds you can hold your hand in place before the heat forces you to pull away.

  • If you can hold your hand above the fire for no more than 2 seconds, the heat level is "hot" (about 500°).
  • If you can only hold your hand above the coals for 3 seconds, the heat level is "medium-hot" (about 400°).
  • If you can hold your hand above the coals for no more than 4 seconds, the heat level is "medium" (about 350°).
  • If you can hold your hand above the coals for about 5 seconds, the heat level is "low" (about 300°).

When Do You Use Direct vs. Indirect Heat?

  • Direct Heat: Cooking directly over the flames. The exterior of foods will char quickly, so think small. Petite or thin pieces of meat or vegetables that cook quickly over high temperatures. Direct heat is also great for steaks, chicken breasts, veggies and fish fillets.

  • Indirect: Cooking slightly away from the flames, where temperatures are lower. Here, you should think big! Indirect heat imparts delicious flavor, sometimes over hours of cooking time. Think large pieces of meat, such as ribs, brisket or whole birds.

How to Prepare a Charcoal Grill for Direct Heat

Preparing a charcoal grill for direct heat.

Spread preheated coals in an even layer. Or, for better control, arrange the coals to create a hot zone, a medium zone and a cool zone. Accomplish this by raking coals into a double layer in one third of the grill, a single layer in another third, and by keeping them out of the final third entirely. Use the hot zone for searing, the medium for cooking, and the cool zone for resting food once it’s done cooking.

How to Prepare a Charcoal Grill for Indirect Heat

Preparing a charcoal grill for indirect heat

Bank half of the hot coals on one side of the grill and the other half on the other side. Place a foil drip pan in the center of the grill. Replace the cooking grate and place the meat over the drip pan. Cover and grill according to recipe directions.

How To Grill in Foil Packets

Folding a double thickness of heavy-duty foil over individual servings on the grill

Make individual servings of seasoned meats and vegetables on the grill with foil packets.

To make the packets: Center one serving on a double thickness of heavy foil. Bring sides of foil together and double fold with 1-inch folds, making sure to leave room for heat circulation at the top. Double fold the ends with 1-inch folds. After the foil packets are grilled, open both ends to let the steam escape and then open the top of each packet. Serve food out of packets or spoon onto plates.

How to Grill with Wood Chips

1. Place the soaked wood chips on a large piece of heavy-duty foil.

Centering wood chips on heavy-duty foil.

2. Bring up two edges over the center of chips and fold down twice.

Double-folding edges of foil over wood chips.

3. Fold the side edges over twice.

Sealing foil with double folds over edges

4. Poke holes in top of packet with a knife or long handled fork and place on the grill.

Poking holes in foil packet before placing on grill.

How to Clean a Grill

Clean the food grate with a stiff wire brush after cooking—the residual heat will help remove food residue.

Cleaning a grill grate after cooking while it’s still hot