Charcoal grills come in all shapes and sizes. From huge grills capable of roasting an entire pig, to backyard kettle-style grills designed for grilling a few burgers and hot dogs at a time, the versatility of charcoal is seemingly endless. To help clear up any questions you may have about charcoal grills, we’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions along with answers from our dedicated team of BBQ grilling experts. We touched on everything from cooking methods to maintenance and cleaning so you can be fully confident the next time you use your charcoal BBQ pit.
For further help or answers to questions not listed here, call one of our charcoal grill experts at 1-877-743-2269!
General Charcoal Grill Questions
Indirect cooking simply requires a barrier between the heat and the food and… no, that’s it. That said, your grill type decides how you do this. You won’t have to lift a finger for an offset charcoal smoker, as charcoal is outright separated off into its own offset fire box. Vertical charcoal grills require intervention: you’ll benefit from a heat deflector or — get this — a water pan, which surprisingly stabilizes heat levels. If your grill’s wide enough, just shift all the charcoal to one side and cook on the other. To make this style more accessible, manufacturers often provide interesting charcoal basket accessories to fit their grills. The Weber Char-Basket, for example, is perfectly contoured to hold charcoal against the side of your Weber Kettle.
To divide a cooking chamber into separate areas for direct and indirect heat, you’ll need a grill with cooking grids and charcoal reservoir wide enough for you to bank your coals to one side and leave the other empty. This setup’s great for cooking meat! Cook meat on the indirect side until the fat is rendered and the meat is tender; nicely reverse-sear it on the direct side to caramelize sauces and seal in moisture. For more information, check out our article on dual-zone grilling.
The 2 methods are highly similar. You can simply adjust how much fuel you use — more charcoal, higher heat. Alternatively, you can adjust airflow through the air damper system. The wider the vents, the greater the airflow and level of available oxygen (which is, in itself, fuel). The airflow method is usually the standard go-to, as it’s the easiest to adjust during operation.
For most charcoal grills, you’re ready to grill once every charcoal piece is lit. With that said, this depends on a lot of variables — we’d say the construction of your grill is the big one here. This is especially true for direct heat grilling, wherein you really only need heat rising straight from the charcoal.
Ceramic kamado owners, listen up: beware of overheating during preheat. Ceramic material soaks up heat like a sponge, and it really loves to hoard the stuff. For low and slow cooks in particular, we’d say never preheat for longer than 30 minutes in advance. A longer preheat pushes these insulative kamados beyond the low and slow threshold; that’s a hard ship to right, unless you have time to spare. In this context, we think you’ll find reducing heat to be much longer and more tedious process than adding it.
One major perk to charcoal cooking: the ease of adding wood-fired taste. Simply toss hardwood chips or chunks onto the charcoal, or mix the two together before lighting. Unlike a gas grill, a wood chip smoker box is unnecessary — in fact, by burning directly on the charcoal, the resulting smoke is that much more efficient and potent. As always, we don’t recommend soaking wood chips, as all you are doing is delaying your smoke until the chips dry enough to ignite. If you need smoke over long periods of time, you may find that wood chunks are a better solution than soaking chips.
We have checked the relevant legal texts and see no crime you are committing. That said, neither your wallet nor taste buds will thank you. Wood pellets are essentially compressed sawdust with no additives — quick burn, mild smoke. You would need to stand over your grill for the entire duration of the cook with a trusty shovel and a small mountain of the stuff. Just use wood chips: they tolerate heat better and make way more smoke. Money saved, better flavor!
If you’re one of the lucky ones, your charcoal grill or smoker has a way to add it quickly — such as a door to the charcoal reservoir or hinged cooking grates. Otherwise, invest in a good pair of long-handled charcoal tongs and a set of heat-resistant gloves. You know what? Invest in those anyway. Your eyebrows and arm hair will thank you.
BBQGuys never, ever recommends operating a charcoal grill within the home. For one, burning charcoal kicks out small embers and stray sparks — not great in a house. It also releases carbon monoxide: tasteless, odorless, and poisonous (therefore, very dangerous within four walls). House fires, hospitalizations, and death are all very real possibilities when you attempt to use an outdoor grill inside your home.
Remember: no matter the fuel, all grills are contained fires… until they aren’t. Our rule of thumb is at least 10 feet from any structure (yes, this includes overhangs and railings). Never work an outdoor grill indoors. Absolutely keep all combustible materials away from the heat, and never grill beneath an enclosure. For more specific details, consult your owner’s manual for further instructions on grill placement.
Ember kickout is a real safety concern of charcoal grills. This isn’t an issue if you’re grilling on concrete or another non-combustible surface, but some of us want to grill from the comfort of our decks. Hedge your bets with something we wholeheartedly recommend: a grill mat. When placed under your grill, a grill mat separates the wood (or similarly flammable) surface from that fountain of stoked heat; this drops the likelihood of a stray ember causing a fire.
Every time, in a nutshell. After each use, remove any leftover charcoal and all ashes. This is pretty important because, when it becomes moist, charcoal ash becomes chemically identical to a little thing we like to call “lye.” You chemists out there might recognize that as a potent burning mixture that can chew through steel. Although most charcoal grills feature a tough protective anti-rust coating, moist ash has all time in the world — and it just loves to cause rust! Some brands incorporate ash collection; if it’s there, use it. For all others, we suggest a shop vac or a good ash tool.
General Charcoal Questions
We lean towards charcoal chimneys and electric starters. For the former: picture an oversized metallic beer mug that you’d fill with charcoal and light underneath with tinder, and you’ve got the idea. When it’s done, just dump it inside! Charcoal chimneys make a great starter point for lighting bigger charcoal loads. Meanwhile, electric lighters keep the lingering chemical taste out of your grill (and food) by bypassing lighter fluid. The Looftlighter is a great example — simply load up your grill, light the charcoal at a few equidistant points, and wait. The fuel itself takes care of the rest.
Lump charcoal burns slower but contains no additives and leaves less ash, whereas briquettes are made with binders, fillers, and accelerants and often bake a chemical taste into your grill or smoker. For more info, check out How to Choose Charcoal For Your Grill.
Yes. Lump charcoal is wood burned at high temperatures with little oxygen, reducing it to its purest carbonic elements in its original wood shape. Nothing is added. This results in a cleaner burning fuel which is easier to light and produces less ash than charcoal briquettes.
Yes. Lump charcoal burns hotter and faster than briquettes. Since it combusts easier, temperature management can be trickier; you’ll want to keep an eye on your fuel levels. Charcoal briquettes also create more ash than lump charcoal.
Since this varies so much, it’ll depend on a few factors: temperature, grill type, and time. Hitting your target temperatures depends on fuel level: more charcoal, more heat. This rule also applies to airflow. Since oxygen availability determines how hot your charcoal burns, this is where the type of smoker or grill you’re using comes in to play (e.g. a standard upright charcoal grill is built for air exchange, and therefore hotter heat). Then, there are ceramic grills — with such reduced airflow, they’ll need less charcoal and it’ll last much longer during long cooks. It’s not outrageous for even a small charcoal load to last 16 hours or more in a kamado grill.
If we were to pick one takeaway for you, we’d say: always keep extra fuel on hand. Start with a reasonable amount; when you monitor temperature, airflow, and fuel, you might find you need to add more. As you gain experience with your grill, you’ll quickly zero in on gauging your usual needs.
Keep it dry and sealed, away from fire. Moisture matters most here — more specifically, avoiding it. Charcoal and water are not friends. Lump becomes harder to light and burn, while briquettes unbind into a gunky slurry. As a note, most charcoal has an indefinite lifespan, though the accelerants in briquettes may evaporate over time if exposed to air (such as a torn bag or a container left open).
Done correctly, it’ll take 24–48 hours. For best practices, suffocate your charcoal grill. Cutting off the air supply starves the fire of oxygen and sunsets any combustion. After closing off any airflow dampers and shutting the lid, give it plenty of time to cool naturally. Never add water to lit charcoal — wet charcoal is an angry thing, and it loves little more than to take its temper out on your grill’s metallic surfaces.
Remember what charcoal ash and water do? Lye excels at burning the feet of pet and children, so dumping it on the ground is out. Wrap briquette ash in aluminum foil (lidded foil pans are great for this) and dispose straight in the trash. Lump charcoal ash can be composted (but not added directly to garden beds because, again: lye burns) — in fact, its abundant potash is great for plants and builds strong, healthy root systems once composted.