One of the great parts about life in the Midwest is the smell of a charcoal grill being lit in the summertime. Some people love the extra flavors and smells that come from charcoal grilling and some people love the ease and convenience of gas grilling. Neither is wrong, but today we’re going to be sharing five tips on how we recommend using your charcoal grill.
Our first tip is about charcoal. We do not recommend using charcoal briquettes. Instead we recommend using natural lump charcoal. Sure, briquettes are cheap, but they’re often packed full of chemicals that can affect the taste of the food, they take longer to light and don’t get as hot as natural lump. Natural lump charcoal is easy to light, burns hot and clean, and, in my opinion, adds a nice smoky flavor to the food without needing extra wood chips or chunks added. Overall, we recommend natural lump charcoal!
Now that we’ve recommended natural lump charcoal, how should you start it? Lighter fluid leaves an odor as well, so we suggest using either a charcoal chimney, a natural fire starter or an electric charcoal lighter. Charcoal chimneys let you put charcoal in an upper compartment and paper in a bottom compartment. Light the paper, let it burn, and it’ll light the charcoal. Once it’s burning, dump the charcoal into your grill and you’re cooking! Natural fire starters come in lots of types – paraffin cubes, wax blocks or other slow burning objects that can be put into a pile of charcoal to get them hot and on fire. Finally, electric charcoal lighters can be placed in a pile of charcoal, plugged in and they’ll heat the charcoal to the point of igniting.
With your charcoal lit, we’ll share our third tip, which is how you can arrange the charcoal in your grill. Your two choices are to arrange for direct cooking or indirect cooking. Direct cooking puts the meat right over the heat and is used when you need to sear or quickly cook meat. To arrange your charcoal for direct cooking, simply arrange the pieces of charcoal evenly on the bottom of your grill. Heat will be applied directly to the surface of the meat, quickly cooking only one side of the meat. Flip to cook the other side. Indirect cooking should be used for thicker meats, or longer cooks. This method of cooking cooks with convection heat, evenly heating the entire piece of meat. To cook indirect, just move all of your lit coals to one side of your grill, forming a pile. Put the meat on the other side so that it isn’t directly exposed to heat. Your meat will slowly and evenly cook. Having your grill set up for this method of cooking can also be called a two zone setup. The beauty of a two zone setup is that for some items, you can quickly sear them direct over the pile of coals and then move them to the other side of the grill to finish cooking indirectly. You get a crispy surface and juicy center. It’s the best of both worlds.
Once you have your grill arranged, it’s time to control the temperature inside the grill. Charcoal grills use air flow to control the temperature of the fire. On your grill, there will be a vent on the bottom and a vent on the top. They will open and close to control how much air gets in the grill and how hot the fire gets. Each grill is different, so you’ll have to play around with settings to learn how to get your grill to the temperature you want. High heat is 450 degrees plus and is used for serious searing. Medium high is 400 to 450 degrees and is great for cooking steaks. Medium is 350 to 400 degrees and is a versatile grill temperature. Below 350 degrees we start talking about barbecuing and low and slow cooks.
While you’re cooking, you may want to take the lid of your grill off to see how beautiful your food is. Here’s our guideline on when it’s okay to take the lid off and when it’s not okay. Leaving the lid on the grill builds up heat over the piece of meat you’re cooking. So even if you’re cooking direct, the side of meat not facing the heat will cook. If you’re cooking a very thin piece of meat that’s three quarters of an inch or smaller, over high heat, it’s okay to leave the lid off. Anything over three quarters of an inch, keep the lid on and help your meat cook more evenly. Remember – if you’re looking, you’re probably not cooking!
We hope you found our tips about charcoal grilling useful and informative. If you have more questions, stop by the store or drop us a line. We’ll be happy to answer!