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How to use a Charcoal Grill

Lighting up a charcoal grill and removing the ash regularly might scare plenty of people away.

There are several simple basic rules that are a good idea to follow so that cooking on a charcoal grill is easy, pleasant and successful.

Nobody is born a grilling master which is why you should learn few tricks that will make cooking on a charcoal grill more pleasant to you.

The structure of a charcoal grill is very simple, in most models there are several important elements such as the lid, the air vents, the grates, the ash tray and the ash catcher. Properly using all those tools guarantees you with success in cooking.

If you’re considering buying a new grill then you should definitely check out best charcoal grills buyer's guide.

How to use a Charcoal Grill

Let me start with the issue of starting a grill, for that purpose read the how to light a charcoal grill guide where I comprehensively described several most popular, simplest and most effective methods.

You will learn in that article about the easiest and fastest way to get charcoal burning ( in about 15 minutes ) without even getting your hands dirty during that task.

If you have already read the guide on how to easily get a charcoal grill burning or you believe that you don’t need it, you can move on to the next step.

How to Light Charcoal Grill

light charcoal grill
  • Step 1 Getting the charcoal burning – I assume here that you know how to get charcoal burning, as I already mentioned, there are several ways to do it. Set the charcoal on fire using the method of your choice ( I really recommend the Charcoal chimney starter ) and wait the required time for the surface of the charcoal to get covered with a layer of ash. Use the right tools to put the ready, hot charcoal over the entire surface of the grill. Below you’ll find out about alternative ways to spread the charcoal in order to use other possibilities of the grill.
  • Step 2 Warm up the grill – After placing the hot charcoal inside the grill close the lid ( if you have it ) and make sure that all the air vents are open to the fullest ( most of the time they are located on the bottom and the top of the grill ). Warm up your grill that way until it gets really hot. Thanks to the open air vents the grill will reach a high temperature much faster.
  • Step 3 – If your grill is ready enough already, you can start cooking. You can cook plenty of different kinds of food, remember to adequately adjust the temperature to the particular type of food. For example, steaks and hamburgers have to be cooked at a high temperature.
  • Step 4 – After each cooking make sure to remove the ash. If you feel like it, you can also clean the grill grates from the food remains, if not then you have to do this before the next cooking.

The most popular mistakes you should avoid

top charcoal grilling mistakes
  • Opening the lid too often
  • Not creating heat areas or improper type of heat for cooking ( direct & indirect )
  • Inadequate temperature for cooking
  • Putting the food on the grates too fast
  • Not cleaning the grill grates before cooking
  • Misusing the air vents or not using them at all

What and How to Cook on a Charcoal grill

what to cook on a grill

Remember one thing, you have to adjust the temperature and the cooking method to the food you’re cooking. Thick slabs of meat (ribs or a beef roast) that require more than 20-30 minutes should be cooked at a low temperature using the indirect method in order to create warm areas.

Much smaller thin pieces like steaks, hamburgers or chicken wings should be cooked in a higher temperature directly over the source of heat ( direct heat ).

How to Control Temperature on Charcoal grill

grill vents

For beginners, the temperature control in a charcoal grill might be quite a difficult task. It is a good idea to learn several rules that will help you master your grill, especially the temperature inside the grill.

The main role in heat control in a charcoal grill is played by oxygen and air vents. Oxygen is required to burn the charcoal, it is your friend and an enemy if you use it improperly.

Limited amount of oxygen lowers the temperature and causes the charcoal to burn slower, analogously higher amount of oxygen contributes to a significant rise of temperature and makes the charcoal burn faster. What to do, then?

You have to properly use the air vents. By properly opening or closing the air vents you make the temperature inside the grill rise or drop. In most cases the air vents are located on the top and the bottom of the grill ( sometimes on the sides ). So let’s move on to several examples of how it really works.

How to lower the temperature?

All you have to do is close the air vents almost all the way. Remember to leave them open at least a little, oxygen is required to burn the charcoal, if you close the air vents all the way, then pretty soon the fie will die. Depending on how much you close the air vents, you lower the temperature inside the grill and extend the charcoal burning time.

How to increase the temperature?

A very simple task, the opposite of what you do to lower the temperature which means you have to open the air vents all the way and let a lot of oxygen in. In such conditions, the charcoal will burn much faster, generating much higher temperature.

What to do if you need the highest possible temperature ?

A simple task – add much more charcoal directly on top of the burning charcoal and leave the air vents open all the way. The second method is to use a special charcoal chimney starter, which allows to burn a large amount of charcoal evenly within 15 minutes.

Problem with flare-ups in a charcoal grill ?


Flare-ups occur when grease from food drips directly onto hot charcoal. The most common mistake people make is using water to extinguish flare-ups. It is a bad idea as extinguishing with water causes the ash to fly up, which results in some of the ash landing on your food.

If you want to successfully prevent flare-ups then cook on the grill using two heat areas or leave at least a little free space on the cooking surface.

When flare-ups do occur, just move the food away from the flames onto the free space, once the flames die out you can move the food back to the same spot.

How to Smoke Meat on a Charcoal grill

smoke on charcoal grill

Smoking on a charcoal grill is an easy task, you need at least a mid-size grill so that you can split the grill’s space into areas. If you are experienced with cooking food using the indirect method, it is even better for you. See how it looks step by step.

Before you start, there are plenty of methods of indirect cooking, which is why I suggest you read that guide. You will find out how to properly divide the grill’s space into different areas.

  • Step 1 – Get the charcoal hot, then divide the cooking space into areas. Place hot charcoal in one area ( you can use special charcoal basket ), and put an aluminum water tray in another ( the water will make it easier to maintain low temperature and add a little moisture to the meat ).
  • Step 2 – Wait some time for the temperature inside the grill to normalize. Next add several wood chunks or wood chips directly to the charcoal ( the smoke will be richer, which will significantly improve the meat’s flavor ).
  • Step 3 – Put the meat on the grates, directly above the aluminum tray, and close the grill’s lid.

Now all that is left for you to do is control the temperature and once in a while add some charcoal in order to maintain a fixed, low temperature ( like once in an hour ). Try to open the lid as rarely as possible, preferably only when you want to add more charcoal or wood chips.

The bigger the charcoal grill, the better for you. You really should buy a digital meat thermometer that will allow you to evaluate the temperature inside the meat.

What Charcoal to Use?  


You have two types to choose from, Lump Charcoal vs. Briquettes – which to pick ? You can read about it in detail but let me briefly present the upsides and downsides of both types of charcoal.

  • Lump Charcoal – 100% natural, reaches much higher temperatures, it burns fast. The downside is that it burns fast and costs a lot. It is definitely a good choice if you want to cook food that requires a really high temperature. Due to burning fast, it is not the best choice if you want to cook meat that requires a lot of time. You will have to add lump charcoal much more often.
  • Briquettes – First of all there’s the low price, it burns significantly longer than lump charcoal, but it reaches lower temperatures. A very good choice for slow meat smoking in low temperatures. One downside might be the chemical smell, it’s not a 100% natural product. Charcoal briquettes burns evenly and allows for an easier temperature control.

Personally, I use both types depending on what I want to cook.

Post-season maintenance – Important topic

grill covers

If you wish for your grill to last for many years, look and work very well then you have to ensure the proper maintenance of the grill.

Obviously, a grill’s durability depends to a large extent on the quality of the materials it was made of, but there are methods today that successfully extend a grill’s lifespan.

After the end of season, before you put the grill away in the garage or any other place, remember about one very important thing.

Grill cover – Buy a cover in the right size so that it fits your grill ( my guide to the best grill covers will be helpful ). 

A cover is made of special materials that protect your grill from many harmful external factors such as rain, sun, dust, freezing rain, snow etc.

If you’re planning to hide your grill in the garage for a long time then it’s a good idea to think about cleaning it before doing so. For that purpose, comprehensively clean the entire grill, and then dry it very well. It is very important, as dampness causes rust to appear.

A grill that is properly protected like this will be safe and instantly ready for cooking when you need it.

Charcoal Grill Tips & Techniques   

Tips & Techniques for charcoal grill

Below I present different kinds of tips and info that will surely come in handy during cooking and help you master a charcoal grill better.

  • Remove ash – Remember to remove the ash after each cooking. Keep the grill clean, and it will extend your grill’s lifespan.
  • Clean the grates – It is obligatory before each cooking for the grates to be clean. Dirty grates have a negative impact on the food’s flavor, it makes the food stick and lowers the convenience of cooking on the grill. The food and grease remains on a grill are a cause of frequent flare-ups.
  • Accessories – Every grill master has an obligatory set of accessories that make cooking easier. This include, among others, tongs, spatulas, brushes, a digital meat thermometer, gloves etc.
  • Firing up – I really recommend the charcoal chimney starter, I’d say it’s the best way to get the charcoal burning. A cheap addition that you will certainly love from the start. In just 15 minutes the charcoal is ready without getting dirty at all. For starting the fire, you may use several sheets of newspapers or lighter cubes that are environmentally friendly and toxin-free ( sheets of newspapers will be just fine on their own ).
  • Close the grill’s lid – Only open the lid when you have to, there’s no point checking the food every dozen seconds when it starts cooking. An experienced person can accurately tell how much more time the food needs. Opening the lid causes the heat to escape the grill very fast.
  • Heat areas – If you have a big grill then make use of its abilities by creating different heat areas ( indirect and direct ). I recommend special baskets that you can put charcoal in.
  • Flare-ups – Don’t extinguish them with water, just move the food away from the flames and wait until they’re gone. If you pour water on the flames, the ash will land on your food. Always leave some free space on the surface of the grill. When flare-ups occur, you will have place to move the food to until the flames are gone.
  • Better Smoky Flavor – You want to enrich the flavor of your food ? Add wood chips to the hot charcoal, each type of wood gives food a different flavor.
  • Remember to cook in the right temperature, there is nothing worse than serving your guests raw meat.
  • Additionally, I recommend using an instant read thermometer. A very useful gadget when cooking things like steaks. There are as many as 6 levels of a steak being done, which makes it a great idea to cook with a digital thermometer in order to know the internal temperature of the meat and if it’s ready.