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Charcoal Grilling for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide

Host a backyard barbecue and learn how to use a charcoal grill. From tools to temps to cooking times, Abt breaks down charcoal grilling for beginners.
Charcoal Grilling for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide

Get Grilling This Summer

Summer is synonymous with grilling and backyard barbecues. And when cooking outdoors, a charcoal grill offers a classic way to learn the basics.
Charcoal grills are versatile and relatively inexpensive compared to gas grills. You can even find a portable charcoal Weber grill for less than $100! They are perfect for activities like cooking hamburgers and hot dogs at a tailgating party, on vacation at the beach, or at a campsite. Plus, charcoal grills offer that lovely, nostalgic scent that comes with burning briquettes.
But if you're a first-time griller or used to the convenient dials of gas grills, operating a charcoal grill may seem intimidating. What if you ruin the meat? Or what if you burn yourself on the coals? These are all good questions and concerns.
To make it easy for you, we created the ultimate guide to charcoal grilling for beginners. We promise to help you impress all your friends at your next backyard soiree with these tips and tricks.

Why Some Cooks Prefer Charcoal Grilling

First off, it's important to understand why some cooks prefer to grill with charcoals instead of propane fuel. Let's look at some reasons to opt for a charcoal grill, along with their advantages.
Portability — As mentioned, many charcoal grills and smokers are so compact that you can carry them to places like the beach, park or campsite.
Smokey flavor — You can find scented charcoal that emits the smell of smoked wood. And they come in a wide variety too! In general, it just leaves a more earthy, smokey flavor.
Burns HotterCharcoal burns hotter than most gas grills, which means it can reach temperatures you need for cooking certain items.
Fewer Flare-Ups — Although they still need precaution, charcoal grills tend to have fewer flare-ups than gas grills.
Reasons to Opt For A Charcoal Grill: Portability, Smokey Flavor, Burns Hotter, Fewer Flare-Ups

Choose the Right Charcoal Grilling Accessories

Proper charcoal grilling accessories can make all the difference to your cooking experience. They allow you to keep a safe distance from the flames while handling food.. They also allow you to keep an eye on the temperature and cook particularly tender dishes like grilled veggies or flaky fish. Let's take a look at a few grilling accessories and tools that come in handy for any griller, novice or pro.
  • Grill Cleaning Brush — Choose a wire grill cleaning brush to remove the food particles from your grill. Tip: You'll find it's easier to clean your grate while it's still warm.
  • Grill Tongs — Grill tongs are meant to keep your hands a safe distance from the heat. This design goes for just about any grilling tool, too! Every handle should be long enough to reach what you're cooking without putting you at risk of burns.
  • Grill Fork — Grill forks are perfect for piercing food without shredding it.
  • Long-Handled Spatula — Flip your meats and veggies from a safe distance. You need a long-handled spatula to really get in there and flip food safely.
  • Basting Brush — Do yourself a favor and get a basting brush. Basting brushes are cleaner and less wasteful than spooning over your marinade and losing half of it in the charcoal. You can quickly spread additions such as olive oils, flavored butter, or zesty marinades with less worry.
  • Instant-Read Digital Thermometer — Avoid opening the lid and letting heat out with an instant-read digital thermometer. This accessory will show your charcoal grill's interior temperature and when it's perfectly cooked!
  • Hinged Wire Basket — Wire baskets are perfect for grilling up foods such as fresh veggies or tender fish filets. You can even add juicy fruits like peaches to make a tasty dessert.
  • Apron — Aprons are for more than just saying, "I'm the grill master." They're actually there to protect you from embers or hot food you may drop. Heat-Resistant Gloves — It helps to have heat resistant gloves when you need to handle a hot plate or maneuver your hands near hot embers (remember never to touch the embers.)
  • Portable Cart — If you do intend to transport your grill, one extra-convenient accessory to acquire is a portable cart. For easy and safe transport, consider this purchase.
Grill Apron on wood background with grilling accessories and tools in pockets
Take a look at Abt's range of grilling accessories to discover everything from cookbooks, grill covers, wire brushes, cleaning products and much more!

Choose Your Charcoal

Charcoal comes in briquettes and lumps. While many people find they have a personal preference, as a beginner, there are a few things to understand about each.


Briquette charcoal burns longer. They just so happen to be more affordable, too. However, their main disadvantage is that they have additives such as sawdust, borax, and lighter fluid. To a grilling purist, briquettes are a hard pass because they tend to alter your cooking flavor.

Lump Charcoal

Unlike briquettes, lump charcoal burns cleaner. Because it burns at a hotter temperature, it also produces less ash and is easier to ignite. Plus, it doesn't have all of those added components.

How To Light the Charcoal

One of the best tools for lighting a charcoal grill is called a chimney starter. Chimneys are upright, metal cylinders built with a large handle. The cylinder is constructed with holes for airflow and a wire rack to hold charcoal. Using a chimney starter to light your charcoal will make your grilling experience quicker and easier.
Person Using Grill Chimney Starter
With your chimney starter, follow these steps to light your charcoal.

Pour the charcoal into the starter.

Choose an amount of charcoal based on the temperature you need to reach, and place it in the chimney starter. As a general rule, you need more charcoal to achieve a higher temperature.
Remember that your temperature is affected by how many coals you use, how long you cook your food, and how far apart you disperse the coals. If you spread the briquets far apart from each other, the temperature will lower. If you make a deeper bed of charcoal, it will concentrate the heat and stay hotter.

Ignite your charcoal.

Once you have the appropriate amount of charcoal, it's time to light the chimney. We suggest something on the lines of a non-toxic Weber lighter cube. The important thing here is to avoid lighter fluid, which can be quite dangerous.
Place the cubes on the charcoal grill's grate and light them. Once they get going, place the filled chimney starter over the cube and allow the charcoal to become white-hot and ashy-looking. This process should take roughly 15 minutes for the full effect. Once this happens, you can then disperse your hot charcoal into the grill.
Always be careful when dealing with hot charcoals. Wear some insulated gloves and a durable apron to protect your hands, chest and clothes.

Decide Between Direct and Indirect Heat

To prepare certain dishes correctly, you need to determine whether to use direct or indirect heat. But first, let's dive into what each means when it comes to charcoal grilling.

Direct Heat

Create a Heat Zone - To prepare for direct heating, spread the charcoal in a single layer across the charcoal grate. This layer will create a heat zone where you will grill your food.
Direct heat means you are grilling your food directly over the bed of hot charcoal. To prepare for direct heating, spread the charcoal in a single layer across the charcoal grate. This layer will create a heat zone where you will grill your food. For potential flare-ups, keep an indirect heating area nearby with a small portion of the charcoal.

Indirect Heat

For indirect heat, cook your food beside the flame instead of over the flame. You can also do this by shielding food with a protective plate. To cook food over an indirect heat source, spread the charcoal along the grill's edges. Alternatively, you can use a charcoal basket to hold your hot charcoal as you transition from direct to indirect heat.

Determine Your Cooking Time

What did you decide to serve your family and guests? Do you know how long it will take to cook over a charcoal grill? Twenty minutes is a critical time frame to remember when it comes to cooking with a charcoal grill.
As a rule of thumb, if it's going to take more than 20 minutes to grill, understand you will need to use some indirect heat. Certain foods, such as burgers, pork loins, chicken wings or chicken breasts, are delicious when prepared over direct heat. But when it comes to other foods, like baked goods, whole chickens, roast beef or racks of lamb, you will mostly need indirect heat (with a touch of direct heat for a sear at the beginning or end).
Once you determine your cooking time, you can begin to understand how to use direct and indirect heat sources. Only then will you be able to impress everyone with your grilling mastery.
Weber Charcoal Grill on backyard lawn

Keep the Grill Closed

As a novice griller, you'll probably be tempted to constantly check in on the food. You might feel as if you're riding a fine line between undercooking food and burning it to a crisp. But try to relax! One of the top grilling mistakes is continuously opening the lid and letting the heat out. Only open the lid to flip the food--that's it! If you are worried, set a timer and keep an eye on the temperature with an external digital gauge.

Time Your Meat Correctly

Many variables determine how long a piece of meat needs to cook. Cook times differ based on the cut of meat, how long the meat has been out of the fridge, and the level of doneness you prefer.
In other words, it's not an exact science. However, there are some general guidelines. You will also become a better judge of cooking time as you gain experience.
Meat Thermometer - The best thing you can do is get a meat thermometer. Never try to gauge the doneness of a piece of meat by cutting into it before it's ready, which can dry it out and make it less tasty.
For example, a one-inch steak will come to a rare interior in approximately eight minutes. For a medium steak, it can cook closer to 10 or 12 minutes. The best thing you can do is get a meat thermometer. Never try to gauge the doneness of a piece of meat by cutting into it before it's ready, which can dry it out and make it less tasty.

Ready For Some Summer Grilling?

As a charcoal grilling beginner, it's important to have fun and always play it safe. Once you get the hang of it, using a charcoal grill will become easier. Building the chimney starter and lighting the briquettes will become second nature. Before long, you'll be able to cook that perfect steak.

Q&A Summary

How to Start a Charcoal Grill

To start a charcoal grill, you'll need a chimney starter. These tall metal cylinders use just heat and oxygen to fire up kindling and charcoal to high temperatures, creating flame that will help the rest of the charcoal in your grill catch. You'll know the chimney coals are ready when they're grey and red; then it's time to spill them into the grill and add more charcoal. The entire process can take as long as 30 minutes—but you'll have a hot flame fast (and without the flavor of lighter fluid).

How to Charcoal Grill

Light your charcoal (with a chimney starter, hopefully, though many start out using lighter fluid), move the briquettes or lumps to cook directly or indirectly, add your food and close the grill. Open if you need to take the temperature or flip anything over, or if you need to add fuel for longer cooks.

What's the Best Weber Charcoal Grill?

Finding the best Weber charcoal grill can seem tough, and that's simply because there are so many iterations of charcoal cooking that Weber has designed. From charcoal smokers to the junior Smokey Joe, there are tons of ways to get that blackened taste into your food. However, the classic kettle has stayed popular for decades with few changes in design. That's because it's easy to use, can stand up to years of flame and weather and it just isn't complicated. Its simple versatility makes it the best Weber charcoal grill.

Best Grill for Beginners

The best grill for anyone starting out is one they can use and get to know. If they have trouble lighting charcoal, skip to a gas grill. Or if they have a hard time with the price tag of a gas grill, choose a smaller charcoal one. Look for something maneuverable and easy to manage, and skip the fanciest features if you're just starting out—they may be too complicated to use. For those reasons, charcoal kettles are perfect for beginners.

Tips for Charcoal Grilling

The best tip for charcoal grilling is to skip the lighter fluid and opt for lump charcoal, not briquettes. Briquettes contain chemicals and additives that can bring unwanted flavor to any (and every) meal you make. It's that cloying, chemical taste you may have noticed at family barbecues in the past. Skip the chemicals and opt for a chimney starter.

What About Gas Grilling for Beginners?

In search of our guide to gas grilling for beginners? Check out our article on How To Use a Gas Grill.

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