Charcoal Grilling Tips - The Basics of Great Barbecue

There's an abundance of , 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

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  • 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

  • Don't use lighter fluid. Sure, it's easier to get the charcoal to start, but it will also leave a gross chemical taste to the food. Use an electric charcoal starter or a chimney starter instead, both of which are efficient and easy to use. And use natural lump charcoal instead of briquettes will also make the lighting up process faster.

  • Clean the cooking grate before you use it. A clean grate helps the food cook better, stick less, and you won't get all those leftover little bits of charred 'stuff' stuck to your food.

  • Leave yourself ample time. Getting the coals to a suitable cooking temperature can sometimes take 30 minutes or even longer. Be patient.

Temperature Control

  • 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 coals around.

  • 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 flare-ups.

  • 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 veggies, 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)

Miscellaneous Tips

  • 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 yourself!



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!