Charcoal Grilling Tips - The Basics of Great Barbecue
There's an abundance of charcoal
grilling tips, for beginners right through to stuff for the
expert grillers. Here are some of the very basics. Generally,
the more you practice, the better you'll get... and besides,
we've rarely tasted a BBQ meal we didn't enjoy - it's not just
the food, but also the company!
Direct vs. Indirect Grilling
This article may contain affiliate links. When you purchase through links on this site, I may earn a
small commission at no extra cost to you.
- Direct grilling is the 'traditional' way of BBQ that most
of us are used to. Food is grilled right over the coals, where the heat
cooks the food through. Burgers, steaks, fish fillets, and any other
type of food that doesn't take that long to cook is typically grilled
this way. Put the lid down on the BBQ to trap the heat inside the
unit and cook the food even faster (you can still turn the food to
cook it evenly and to get the grill marks).
- Indirect grilling is simply using convection heat to cook
the food. The charcoal is lit the same way as you normally would, but
once the coals are ready, push them to the sides, leaving a space in
the middle. Put the food in the middle where there are no coals directly
underneath, then close the lid of the barbecue. Use indirect grilling
for food items that take longer to cook (and are thus more prone to
burning before cooking through). This includes stuff like roasts or
other thick cuts of meat.
Setting Up The Grill
Get a temperature gauge.
It's worth the investment! Even if your BBQ doesn't come with one, you can buy one and
install it yourself.
- If you don't have a temperature gauge, use the 'hand'
method. Be very, very careful not to burn yourself! Hold
your hand over the coals at the same height the cooking grate
would be. Count the number of seconds you can hold your hand
there before you have to pull away.
- 2 seconds is considered high heat
- 3 seconds is considered medium-high heat
- 4 seconds is considered medium heat
- 5 seconds is considered low heat.
- Use spacing or the vents to regulate the temperature.
More air-flow = hotter temperatures. You can also raise the
cooking grate to cook at a lower temperature, or spread the
- Know when to add more charcoal. It doesn't
matter how much air-flow the BBQ gets, if you don't
have enough charcoal it won't get hot enough. If you're
grilling something that takes a longer time, check the
temperature periodically and add more charcoal as needed.
Outside temperature and temperature of the food
will affect cooking times. The colder it is, the more
charcoal you may need. The colder your food, the longer
it will take to cook. And if it's windy outside, it will
help to boost the temperature of your barbecue.
- Use natural lump charcoal
if you need to cook at high temperatures. It burns hotter than charcoal briquettes.
Flavor, Smoking, and Marinades
Experiment with various wood chips
for great smoky flavours.
There are so many types of BBQ wood chips
that will add distinct flavour to all sorts of foods. Soak the chips
in water for about an hour prior to use. Shake off the excess water,
then toss the chips on top of the hot coals. Cover the barbecue. The
smoke from the chips will circulate and give the food an extra
delicious flavour boost.
- Don't use treated lumber! That probably sounds funny, but we've
seen our neighbours do it. Treated or painted lumber used in construction
will release toxins when burned... and chemical-infused food probably
isn't what you had in mind for a nice BBQ meal.
- Experiment with herbs. Just like with wood chips, soak some
fresh herbs in water for a few minutes, then toss them on top of the
hot coals. Put the lid down on the BBQ.
- Marinades are great for flavour, but use them wisely.
Here are some tips on BBQ marinades.
Remember that marinades with sugar or fat can cause flare-ups (and
burn your food) if it drips onto the coals. Never leave your BBQ
unattended when using marinades!
Cooking the Food
- Keep the juices in the food by turning it with tongs.
Don't stab it with a fork to turn, or the juices will run out and may cause
- Likewise, don't press the food into the grill when cooking.
This also makes the juices run out.
- Go ahead and flip the food... just not too much. Flipping
the food will help it cook more evenly and also add those yummy-looking
grill marks. Just don't flip it too much - the tendency is to either
squeeze food with tongs or press the food into the cooking grate
after flipping, both of which causes juices to run out.
Meat is ready to flip when you can gently and easily tug it loose.
If you have to pull at it, then it's not time to flip yet.
In some cases, it's not necessary to flip food - check the
recipe. Stuff like fish, which cooks fast, often doesn't need flipping...
nor do roasts that cook for hours in indirect heat.
- Let meat 'rest' before cutting or slicing. Once you remove
the meat from the BBQ, let it sit out and cover it loosely with tinfoil.
This gives the juices a chance to redistribute throughout the meat.
Much more flavourful this way!
Get a meat thermometer
and learn how to use it. It's the
easiest way to make sure food is cooked to a safe temperature... plus
it will help to prevent food from being overcooked, too.
- Experiment! Barbecues aren't just for meat. Try
fruit, pizza, breads, and desserts. One
of our favourite treats is also one of the easiest: cut fresh peaches in half,
remove the stone in the middle, sprinkle with brown sugar, and grill for a
couple of minutes. Yum! (messy, but delicious)
- Buy a decent barbecue. Don't go for the cheapest you
can find, or you'll be replacing it shortly. No need to buy the
most expensive either, just get a good-quality BBQ from a maker
with a good reputation. We use the Big Green Egg
as well as the Weber Charcoal Grill.
- Likewise, buy a good-quality cooking grate. The type
with the thin bars rust through easily and you'll just end up
having to replace them. Look for a grate with thicker stainless-steel
bars (ours has lasted 7 years so far!).
- Keep your charcoal stored in a dry area. Wet charcoal
will smoke like crazy, making your eyes burn, provoke coughing fits,
and trigger the neighbours to come check up on you!
- Maintain your grill. Clean the cooking grate regularly
and store it out of the elements. Cover your BBQ
when not in use. Keep BBQ tongs and other tools cleaned and stored appropriately.
Doing the little things will help make your BBQ and the parts last longer.
Clean the cooking grate when it's hot. Start up your
barbecue as usual, then when the grate is hot, give it a good
scrub with the grill brush.
The bits and pieces of charred food will come off easier when the grate is hot.
- Oil the grate with tongs. Don't try to gingerly grease
the grate with your hand! Pour a little oil on a paper towel, grasp
the towel with the tongs, and rub it over the grate.
These charcoal grilling tips are just the beginning (we also
have more BBQ tips on safety). There are
all sorts of things to learn about the 'art of barbecue', but it's
not really necessary. Learn the basics, practice, and enjoy
This website offers tips on how to BBQ
as well as
some of our favorite barbecue recipes
. We barbecue with a charcoal grill
in an outdoor kamado-style cooker called The Big Green Egg
We love food and we love the grill, and hope you enjoy our recipes!