How to Use a Charcoal Grill

A gas grill is nice, but there’s nothing like the rich, smoky flavor you get cooking food on a charcoal grill. Whether you use charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal, you’ll get a nice, seasoned flavor. You can add wood chips to a charcoal grill to smoke your food even more.


But lighting up a charcoal grill and cooking on it is intimidating. How do you get the coals to light? How long does it take before a charcoal grill is ready? Read on to find the answers to all your questions about using a charcoal grill.

Prep the Grill for Food

Before you start your coals or put any food on the grill, you have to make sure it’s clean and ready for food. Use a grill brush to scrape any lumps of old food and charred bits off the grill. If your grill is dirty, take it into the kitchen sink and wash it with a grease-busting dishwashing liquid. Spray it with vegetable oil so that food will be less likely to stick, and set it aside so you can prep the rest of the grill.


Some people like to wrap foil around their grill grates before grilling. You shouldn’t do this, because it can impair air flow through the grate and your food won’t cook as well. However, you can wrap food in foil packets before cooking it on the grill. That’s an easy way to cook things like vegetables or fish on the grill.

Choose Your Charcoal and Wood Chips

You have a couple of options when it comes to buying charcoal for your charcoal grill. The main choices are charcoal briquettes, which are the little round squares of charcoal you can buy just about anywhere, or lump charcoal. Charcoal grill purists will tell you never to use charcoal briquettes, because they can contain chemical additives and materials that aren’t strictly wood.


Instead, they’ll insist you buy lump charcoal, which is made by burning pieces of real wood and never contains wood byproducts. You can buy grilling chips and chunks at most hardware stores, if not at your local gas station and all the other places you can buy briquettes. Either choice will cook your food just fine, even if briquettes may have a few more chemicals in them.

Light the Coals

Lighting the coals in a charcoal grill can be intimidating the first time you do it, and even after that for a while. You can light your grill using a chimney or you can light it using lighter fluid. Again, purists insist on using the chimney because lighter fluid can contain chemicals that can affect the taste of your food.

To light your grill using lighter fluid, arrange your charcoal in a neat pile in the middle of the grill (with the grate off). Add a little lighter fluid to the top and sides. Make sure you buy lighter fluid intended for grilling food, because it’ll add less of a chemical smell and taste to your food. Light the fluid and let the coals burn until they’re all covered with a coating of gray, which should take about 15 minutes. Then they should be ready to cook on.


To light a charcoal grill with a chimney, put wadded newspaper or another paper product in the bottom of the chimney and rest it on top of the grate. Fill the rest up with charcoal briquettes or lumps. Light the paper at the bottom of the chimney and let it burn until you see smoke and heat waves coming out of the top of the chimney. Dump it out into the grill and you should be ready to cook.

Cook Your Food

Once your coals have a coating of gray ash on them, they should be hot enough to cook over. You may want to move the coals to one side of the grate so you can have a direct heat area for searing or cooking meats and an indirect heat area for keeping things warm or letting them cook a little longer without burning. Keep an eye on your grill – things can overcook fast. Once you’re done cooking, you can put out the grill by dowsing it with water and dispose of the ashes in a metal trash can or firebox. If you want to let the ashes cook completely, you can put them on your garden or flower bed to fertilize the plants.


You don’t need to be intimidated by cooking on a charcoal grill. Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy – and it’s a great way to make tasty food, whether you’re having a quiet family dinner or a big backyard party.