How to Use a Charcoal BBQ (Beginners Guide)

Learn to grill like a pro.

If you’re new to charcoal grilling, it can seem like quite the challenge to light your charcoal barbecue and start grilling for the first time.

In this guide, we’ll take you step-by-step through how to grill on a charcoal BBQ, including some tips and tricks and frequently asked questions.

Before using your charcoal bbq

Before you even think about frying up a steak, you’ll want to season your grill.

Why season your grill?

A thin coat of oil and heating of the grill before grilling will prevent rust from forming on the grill.

Seasoning is what creates a nonstick surface on your grates which helps with mess-free grilling.

How to season your grill

Use a high-heat cooking spray like canola oil to coat the grill grates while they are cold.

Then, heat your grill on medium for 15 minutes.

After that, turn off your grill and let it cool before using food on the grill.

Starting your charcoal bbq

Here are the key things to know to get your grill started:

How much charcoal do you need?

A common rule of thumb is that you should cook with charcoal briquettes at a ratio of 1 kilogram of meat to 1 kilogram of coals.

This is a good starting point, but there are other variables to consider as well.

How to light your charcoal bbq

To light your charcoal bbq, first fill the chimney with charcoal.

Then, put some bunched-up newspaper, put it in your grill and light the paper.

Take off your grill’s top grate, put down the chimney, and get ready to cook.

The below video provides a great visual guide for lighting a charcoal grill with a chimney.

How long do you let the charcoal burn before cooking?

Leave your coals burning for 15-20 minutes before you want to start cooking.

This is how long it takes for heat from the coals/wood to transfer through the metal of your grill and reach an optimal cooking temperature.

How do you know when a charcoal grill is ready?

You will know the coals/wood are ready to spread out and start cooking on when they are white in colour and the interior of the grill is hot.

If you are using a charcoal chimney, once your coals are lit use the handle to shake them out into your grill.

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How to cook on a charcoal grill

Here are some tips for cooking on your charcoal grill for the first time:

  • Check for smoke. If there is smoke coming from the grill, it means the coals have warmed up enough that you can start cooking.
  • Move food to the cool side of the grill if needed. Put your food on small flames or move to a cooler part of the grill if there are large flames coming from under it.
  • Check for by piercing meat with a fork or cutting into thick pieces of meat with a sharp knife and checking that they are cooked all the way through. Steaks should be cooked to an internal temperature of 63 C (medium rare), 71 C (medium), or 24 C (well done). Tip: use a meat thermometer.
  • Do not press meat with a spatula while it cooks—it will make juices run out and make your meat dry out.
  • Use indirect heat when cooking larger items like whole chickens or roasts by placing them away from direct flame on hot coals and covering them with aluminum foil before closing lid over everything so they cook all the way through without burning outside first.

How to use a charcoal bbq with a lid

If you are using a grill that has a lid, it is better to keep the lid closed as much as possible while cooking. This will help you achieve several things:

  • More efficient cooking. By keeping the lid on your grill, you will ensure that more heat and smoke are retained inside. Your food can cook more evenly and faster.
  • Better control of temperature. The lid creates an oven-like effect, trapping heat and allowing you to better regulate the temperature inside your grill by adjusting the air vents.

How to extinguish a charcoal barbecue

The worst way to put out a BBQ is to use water. It may seem like an obvious choice, but you shouldn’t pour water on a fire.

The reason for this is that when water comes into contact with hot coals it creates steam, which can cause burns or injury if you are standing nearby.

When you’re done cooking on your charcoal grill, you can extinguish the fire by closing the lid and closing the vents or damper to cut the oxygen supply to the fire.

Once everything has cooled completely, pour a little water on it.

When your charcoal and ash are completely cooled, you can throw them away.

How to use charcoal grill without chimney

If you don’t happen to have a chimney for your charcoal bbq, consider the following options:

  • Firelighters
  • Wine bottle wrapped in newspaper (remove the bottle once lit)

The below video shows you how to light a charcoal grill without a chimney, firestarters, or lighter fluid.

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Recommended fuel for charcoal barbecue: Lumpwood vs Briquettes

Once you have your barbecue, the next thing to decide is whether you want to use lump wood or briquettes.

The main differences between these two types of charcoal are as follows:

  • Lumpwood burns at a higher temperature than briquettes, which means it burns down more quickly. This is great for cooking food quickly; however, if you want to cook low and slow, this fuel may not be the best option.
  • Lumpwood can be more expensive than briquette charcoal because it doesn’t contain any additives or chemical binders added in the manufacturing process.
  • When burnt down completely, lumpwood produces less ash compared with briquette charcoal, so cleanup is easier.

How to clean a charcoal bbq

There are a few things to remember when cleaning a charcoal barbecue.

  • First, you need to remove the food residue using a brush.
  • Scrape any grease from the grill with a scraper and then move on to remove grease from other parts of the barbecue.
  • Use water to wash off the grate—but don’t immerse it in water as this could cause rust.
  • Clean out the vents using an old toothbrush or an old butter knife. The vents may be clogged with ash and soot if you haven’t cleaned them in a while and this can cause flare-ups when cooking on your barbecue.
  • Clean all areas of the grill body, especially around handles that may have gotten splattered with grease throughout their use.
  • Finally, clean any grime off of the legs and wipe down any ash that has built up elsewhere.
  • Remember to cover your barbecue while it’s not in use!

How to use a Weber charcoal grill vents

The air vents let oxygen into your grill which helps the charcoal burn brighter and hotter, so the temperature inside the barbecue rises.

The more vents you open, the hotter your barbecue becomes.

Most Weber barbecues have vents on the lid and the bowl.

Weber recommends beginners leave the top and bottom vents fully open. As you become more experienced, you can try leaving the lower vent open and controlling the temperature with the lid.

Charcoal BBQ FAQ

Can you reuse charcoal?

When reusing your old charcoal briquets, look for bigger chunks and remove as much ash as possible. If storing the charcoal, keep it in a dry place to prevent any further combustion. When using old charcoal, add some new charcoal to provide extra heat.

What’s the difference between activated charcoal and charcoal?

Charcoal and charcoal briquettes both have a lot of carbon. They are made in different ways. Charcoal is a product made from partially burned organic compounds. Activated charcoal is produced at higher temperatures with additives.

Do you close the lid when grilling steaks?

For thick steaks, you may want to close the grill lid to make sure it cooks all the way through.

How hot should the grill be for burgers?

Prepare your charcoal grill to medium or medium-high heat—keep the temperature between 230° C and 260° C, or hot enough that you can only hold your hand above the grill grates for one second.