How to Cook with a Charcoal Fire
Outdoor cooking with a charcoal grill produces juicy, tender meats and vegetables that have a down-home wood-fired flavor.
For some of us, outdoor grilling just isn't the same without that smoky, wood-fired flavor. And one of the best ways to achieve that has always been – and still is – cooking with a charcoal grill. If you like that charcoal flavor when you grill, here's how to get it.
Types of Charcoal
The most common type of grilling charcoal available is not necessarily the best. Your standard charcoal briquettes contain not only charcoal but sawdust, starch, scrap lumber and various additives that all affect the flavor of the food. Hardwood lump charcoal is far better, harder to find but cleaner to cook with. You can find it in many grocery stores and hardware stores.
Starting the Grill
There are two ways you can start the fire in a charcoal grill. You can use an electrical coil starter or good old fashioned newspaper and kindling. In either case, remove the grill and lay your starter (the coil or paper and twigs) directly over the fire grate, placing a few handfuls to a mound of charcoal on top of it.
As the fire starts and the charcoal becomes hot, its embers will light the surrounding ones, starting from the center and moving outward. For this reason, if you’re planning to cook for a significant length of time, add an extra outer ring of charcoal that will start to heat up as the center embers start to fade.
Don't start cooking on the grill until the fire has been going for at least 15 minutes (and as long as 40 minutes) to give the charcoal a chance to heat up evenly and completely.
To add a particular smoky flavor to food, you can mix in certain kinds of wood chips with the charcoal. One of the most popular is mesquite, but you can also achieve authentic wood-fired flavor combinations with the likes of apple wood, oak, hickory and cherry.
For best results with these chips, which lose their effect quickly after heating, soak them in water first and wait until the charcoal is already glowing before you add them, just a sprinkle at a time, right before laying the raw food onto the grill to cook. Add fresh wood chips to the charcoal as each round continues to cook and before laying each successive round down on the grill.
Charcoal Grill Safety
Never cook with a charcoal grill indoors or in any confined space – not an RV or tent, not a cabin or garage – as it produces carbon monoxide which is highly toxic and could be deadly.
Always set the grill down on flat, level ground in the most open space available. Never use gasoline to get a charcoal grill fire lit (or to keep it lit). Keep children and animals away from the grill and out of the path of the smoke. And make sure there aren't any nearby flammables like wood fences or overhanging tree limbs that could catch fire.
Charcoal Grilling Tips
There are a number of ways to cook food with a charcoal grill. One of the tastiest all-purpose techniques is to lower the grill close to the fire to sear the outside of the food on both sides and then raise the grill to cook it through the rest of the way. This produces a crunchy crust on the outside with a soft, juicy texture inside.
You can also pan-broil on a charcoal grill just as you would in your oven indoors. A timeless family favorite with charcoal grills is to cube the food and use skewers to make shish-kebabs.
However you decide to prepare them, for cooking meats and vegetables outdoors with a down-home wood-fired taste, cook with a charcoal grill.
Ready, Set, Grill!
Try your charcoal grill out on a few of these grillable faves:
What are your charcoal grilling secrets? Share them in the comments!