12 Expert Tips and Techniques for Charcoal Grilling

Need some charcoal grilling tips? Learn from three champion BBQers who shared their best grilling strategies with us.

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Chris Lilly photo: Kingsford Charcoal | Allen LeCuyer photo: Allen LeCuyer | Matt Moore photo: Clay Hassler

Chris Lilly is a world-champion pitmaster, spokesperson for Kingsford Charcoal and five-time winner of the Memphis in May BBQ competition. He’s also vice president, executive chef and partner at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q and head chef of the Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q Competition Cooking Team.

Allen LeCuyer is pitmaster for the competition BBQ team, Magnum P.I.G. He has been on the competitive backyard-grilling circuit since 2016, and has won multiple Grand Championships, including Minnesota in May and Rotary Rock’n Ribs.

Matt Moore is a BBQ pro and author of multiple grilling books, including “Serial Griller: Grillmaster Secrets for Flame-Cooked Perfection.” His work has been featured by the BBC and CBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Atlanta Constitution, Chicago Tribune and others.

We asked each of these BBQ gurus for their best charcoal grilling tips. They had a lot to say, but first …

What Is Charcoal Grilling?

Charcoal grills come in various shapes, sizes and styles, but they all work by containing burning charcoal or briquettes for cooking food. Grills can be lidded or open, metal or ceramic, but they all include a reservoir of charcoal in the bottom, and a grate above for what you’re cooking. Sounds simple, right? But there’s a whole lot more to grilling than you might think.

Tip 1: Don’t Use Lighter Fluid for Igniting

Allen: This is the easiest improvement a cook can make. Throw the lighter fluid away! Lighter fluid has a taste. If you don’t completely burn off all the fluid that you put on your coals, you’re at risk of tainting the flavor of your food. The best option is to use a charcoal chimney. They’re available at most stores that sell cooking equipment and most online retailers. It works by pouring unlit coals in the chimney and lighting from the bottom.

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Tip 2: Add Hardwood to Lump Charcoal for a Great Smokey Flavor

Matt: Lump charcoal can be lit quickly and reliably and reach high temperatures if it’s dry, producing very little ash. Though charcoal is composed of wood, it typically provides much less smoke compared to natural hardwoods. For that reason, lumps or chips of hardwood are often added to the lit coals to produce a more natural, wood-fired flavor. Grilling purists almost always prefer lump charcoal over the cheaper alternative, briquettes.

Tip 3: Open Dampers for High-Temperature Cooking

Chris: Regulating the temperature of your charcoal grill is controlled by airflow. Air intake, through the dampers near the fire, provides the oxygen needed to keep the fire burning. The air outflow through the top dampers pulls air through the grill. Open dampers result in higher temperatures. To maintain these high temperatures for a long period of time, I use 100 percent natural briquettes.

Tip 4: Use Indirect Cooking for Large Meats

Allen: With a standard grill, the best way to do a long low cook is to use the indirect method. Pour your hot chimney of coals to one side of your grill. This will create two zones, a very hot one on one side and a cooler zone on the other side. Put the meat on the side without coals. Without the heat directly on the meat, you will be able to cook at a lower temperature for a longer period of time. Indirect heat will allow a “slow and low” cook that will help tenderize large meats.

Tip 5: Use High Heat and an Onion for Grill Cleaning

Matt: After you’ve finished grilling, open all the vents on your charcoal grill to drive up the temperature. After five minutes, the grates and surfaces will be super-hot, making it easy to clean them with a wire brush. No grill brush? How about an onion? Cut an onion in half and place the cut side down on the grill. Stick a fork in the onion and rub it up and down the grates — the natural oils from the vegetable will help clean and season the grill.

Tip 6: Shut Down Safely

Chris: After grilling, shut down all air dampers to snuff out the fire and preserve any unburned charcoal or briquettes. Do not throw away the ash from the grill for 24 hours to prevent unintended fires. You can reuse any unburned charcoal the next time you grill.

Tip 7: Buy a Grill Thermometer

Allen: The best grilling accessory is an easy choice for me. It isn’t charcoal-grilling specific, but applies to any cooking. A good thermometer is crucial. Undercooked meat isn’t safe and overcooked meat can be tough and unappealing. A good thermometer can help just about anyone become a grillmaster.

Tip 8: Oil Your Grates

Matt: To prevent sticking, dip a folded towel (an old terry cloth towel works best) in canola or vegetable oil and use tongs to rub the oil on the grates prior to adding your food.

Tip 9: Buy the Right Grilling Tools

Chris: My “must have” tools and equipment include: a charcoal chimney, heavy grill gloves, a large heavy spatula (for big meats), a more delicate spatula (for fish and vegetables) and an internal meat thermometer to measure precise doneness.

Tip 10: Know How to Cook Different Meats

Allen: There are two main types of hamburgers: the thick ones (often called steak burgers), and thin ones, called diner burgers. Both are technically hamburgers, but they really are two different categories. Cooked properly, both can be fantastic, and I encourage people to try both. Chicken and other poultry has to be cooked to the right temperature — it really doesn’t have a range like beef does. Undercook and you could get yourself and your family sick. Overcook and you could chip a tooth on that crusty meat. Use a thermometer!

Tip 11: Stop Poking and Prodding

Matt: Most folks have trouble with items sticking to the grill because their grill temperature is not hot enough, or they have not allowed sufficient time for the food to cook prior to flipping. Be patient, folks.

Tip 12: Rest your Meat

Chris: For smaller cuts of meat, let them rest for five to 10 minutes after removing them from the grill and prior to cutting. For large cuts, wait 15 to 20 minutes. This time allows the temperature to equalize and gives the meat fibers time to reabsorb internal juices. You will appreciate the extra moisture. Here are a few tips for safely putting out a charcoal grill.

Steve Maxwell
Steve Maxwell is an award-winning content creator who has published more than 5,000 articles, shot countless photos and produced video since 1988. Using his experience as a carpenter, builder, stone mason and cabinetmaker, he has created content for Mother Earth News, Reader's Digest, Family Handyman, Cottage Life, Canadian Contractor, Canadian Home Workshop, and many more. Steve lives on Manitoulin Island, Canada with his wife and children in a stone house he built himself. His website gets 180,000+ views each month, his YouTube channel has 58,000+ subscribers and his weekly newsletter is received by 31,000 subscribers each Saturday morning.