The Ultimate Guide to Charcoal Grills

Grilling season is here, and if you want to join in, a charcoal grill is well worth considering. Learn all about charcoal grills and how they work.

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If you’re into grilled meats, you undoubtedly know about charcoal grills. Used all over the world, these outdoor cooking appliances make great-tasting food with a smoky flavor. Learn all about charcoal grills and decide for yourself if one makes sense for you.

What Is a Charcoal Grill?

Charcoal grills are combustion appliances designed to hold and cook food over burning charcoal. The modern charcoal kettle grill was invented in 1951 by American entrepreneur George Stephen. Several styles have developed since, but they all follow the same principle. A reservoir of burning charcoal below a metal cooking grate heats food from underneath.

Pros and Cons of Charcoal Grills

There’s a longstanding debate among grilling gurus everywhere on which is better, a charcoal or gas grill.

Charcoal advocates feel the smoky flavor imparted to the meat by burning hardwood charcoal makes for a better meal. They also point out the greater heat output of charcoal and the ability to spread charcoal briquettes around for different cooking speeds and styles.

Charcoal grills also practically eliminate the danger of flareups, which happen easily with gas grills, especially when cooking fatty meats. That said, charcoal requires more skill to cook with than gas, takes longer to heat up and carries more potential for mess.

Types of Charcoal Grills

Brazier Grills: These small, simple grills hold charcoal in shallow, open pans without lids. Metal cooking grates are fastened on top. Cooking speed is adjusted by raising or lowering the grates.

Kettle Grills: Kettle grills hold charcoal beneath grates in a bowl-shaped bottom chamber with legs. A matching dome-shaped lid hinges open and closed on top, allowing covered or uncovered cooking. Vents on the top and bottom allow further heat adjustment.

Square Grills: These mid-sized grills combine the shallow charcoal pan of braziers with the hinged lid of kettle grills.

Barrel Grills: These are best for those who cook lots of meat at once. The simplest versions are 55-gallon barrels cut in half lengthwise, with charcoal and a cooking grate in the bottom half, and the top half functioning as a hinged lid.

Cart Grills: Charcoal cart grills are similar to typical gas grills. They have round or rectangular charcoal pans, a hinged lid and, like many gas grills, are built into wheeled carts with one or two side tables.

Ceramic Grills: Adapted from an ancient Japanese cooking tool, ceramic charcoal grills, also known as Kamado grills, are similar in appearance and function to kettle grills, with one important difference. As the name suggests, their egg-shaped cook boxes are made entirely of ceramic material.

Types of Fuel to Choose From

All charcoal grills burn some version of purchased fuel:

Lump Charcoal: This is exactly what it sounds like. Approximately two-inch-long lumps of hardwood charcoal are sold in bags. Lump charcoal has the advantage of being 100 percent natural wood, and it produces more heat than briquettes. It also burns more completely, producing less ash, so your grill doesn’t need to be cleaned out as often.

Charcoal Briquettes: These are perfectly uniform charcoal bricks made in factories by pressing together a mix of charred sawdust, wood chips and a binding agent. They don’t burn as hot as lump charcoal, but produce slightly more even heat. They burn slower than natural charcoal, too, so they’re perfect for slow-cooking large cuts of meat.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill

Start your charcoal grill in one of five ways: a charcoal chimney, fire starter cubes, fire starter liquid, an electric charcoal starter or self-igniting briquettes.

If you’re using lump charcoal or briquettes, a charcoal chimney is preferred by grill experts. It’s a metal cylinder that uses burning newspaper crumpled in the bottom to ignite a few coals, which are dumped into the grill to ignite the rest.

Non-toxic, odorless fire starter cubes placed beneath unlit charcoal will light even in windy conditions

Lighter fluid is another option for lump coal or regular briquettes. Just drizzle a little on and light it. If you light this way, let the charcoal burn for a while before cooking to avoid toxic fumes from the fluid. Some fancy new grills have a gas-ignition system for easy, convenient lighting.

Electric charcoal starters also do a good job, but you need to be near electricity to use them.

Specially formulated self-igniting briquettes have flammable chemicals mixed in at the factory, allowing them to ignite almost instantly at the touch of a lighter or match.

How Much Do Charcoal Grills Cost?

With so many sizes and styles of charcoal grills available, prices vary greatly. The smallest, simplest brazier grills cost $30 to $50. Small to medium-sized square grills often range from $150 to $350. Larger kettle grills cost anywhere from $200 to $600 and more, depending on features such as cart attachments, gas ignition, side tables and built-in cooking timers. Ceramic grills cost $250 to more than $3,000, depending on the brand, size and features.

Best Accessories for Charcoal Grills

Charcoal grills are inherently simple, so they don’t need many accessories. You’ll keep your grill happier with a few simple items: a grill cover, cleaning brush, grill cleaning spray and wipes. Aspiring grill masters should also consider a high-quality grill thermometer for precise monitoring of the cooking process.

Charcoal Grill Maintenance

Keep your grill working well with a few simple maintenance practices. Empty the ash after every few uses to keep combustion clean and even. Clean the inside and outside of the cook box (and lid, if your grill has one) with grill cleaning wipes. Keep your food from getting dirty by degreasing the cooking grates regularly.

This content has been reviewed by grilling expert Allen LeCuyer, a board member of the Minnesota BBQ Society.

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.