How to use a charcoal grill: when to open vents, how long to cook for better results

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Mastering charcoal grilling is crucial for every chef who is into outdoor cooking. With so many techniques and additives involved, things can get a bit intimidating but your effort is worth it if your taste buds get to meet delicious food loaded with smoky flavor. 

In this article, we will help you master all the important aspects related to a charcoal grill. After all, who doesn’t like perfectly seared meat! 

Tools required for charcoal grilling

Tips to ace charcoal grilling

Before starting, ensure that you have all the materials listed above. The fuels and cooking grate which you use should be susceptible to high temperature. One should also make sure that their charcoal grate is compatible with different fuel types. Here’s a short guide on usage :

Step 1

Load your charcoal grill with hardwood lump charcoal and spread it throughout the cooking grates. Leave out some room in the center of the grill grate to allow fresh air intake through the charcoal grill vents. 

Step 2

Fire up your charcoal grill using a match or a fire starter liquid. Make sure that the grill lid is open and you are wearing protective grill gloves. When the temperature reaches 250-300F, move to the next step. Keep a charcoal pouch handy if you have to add more charcoal later. 

Tip: If you do not have an inbuilt thermometer to measure the internal temperature, you can hold your palm over your charcoal grill. If you cannot hold it for more than 3-5 seconds, that means that the charcoal is ready. 

Step 3

Move the light charcoal lumps in the direct heat zone. Mix some wood chips or pour some briquettes in the cooking chamber. 

Step 4 

Close the grill vents to slow down the combustion and to facilitate a smoke cloud formation inside the grill. 

Step 5 

Let your meat rest in the drip pan and keep the grill vents slightly ajar. You can use some vegetable oil or marinade on your meat for a richer flavor. While the food cooks, measure the temperature using a thermometer. When it reaches the desired temperature, open your grill’s vents and take your food out on a paper towel. Let it rest for 10 minutes before its ready to serve. Never lift the lid vent too often. Here are some additional tips :

Using newspapers

You can use newspaper as a fire starter by placing it near the bottom vents or below the charcoal. This will put a good use to them and help the coals burn hotter and quicker. 

Lighter fluid

As per the rule of thumb, you should use roughly 1/4 cup of lighter fluid per pound of charcoal used. This will help light the fire quickly. 

Lighter fluid contains petroleum and alcohol which help in keeping the oxygen flowing. Many experts advise against using them as they are harmful and may impart a bitter taste to your food. 

Cleaning the grill grates

Use a wire grill brush to scrape the remains of your previous grilling sessions which stick to the cooking surface. You should also oil your grill vent to prevent food from sticking to the surface. 

Know your charcoal 

With myriads of charcoal varieties available in the market, it is important to choose the right one. Charcoal is available in two forms : lump charcoal and briquettes. 

Lump charcoal is naturally derived from ingredients such as mesquite, taramind and coconut shells. Experts use it for slow cooking, dishes like brisket, pork and ribs do well with it. It burns faster and doesn’t offer uniformity while burning.

Briquettes on the other hand, are composed of sawdust and compressed hardwood. Due to molecular compression, briquettes burn slower and give a consistent and long lasting flame. 

How to use Grill Vents

Temperature control is important if you want to achieve a good sear. Your charcoal grill has upper and lower vents which help regulate the airflow through the exhaust damper. The intake damper feeds oxygen to your grill which helps it to keep the coals burning. 

To begin with, open up the intake damper and exhausts so that oxygen can reach the inside of the grill. Then partially close the lid to limit oxygen flow. This will lower the temperature.

This will assist you in reaching the smoker’s temperature (225F) which is ideal for cooking. 

Once you are through with the grilling part, you can shut the vents in order to extinguish the fire. 

Cooking food with a charcoal grill

On high heat, you should grill for 5-10 minutes. Keep in mind to flip the food often. Vegetables such as onions, corn etc can handle high heat. 

Hotdogs, sausages, eggplants etcetera go on medium heat. It requires upto thirty minutes to get ready. Furthermore, grilling on low heat is not recommended because it sucks the protein out of your food. 

Now it’s your turn to apply these principles and bring out the inner chef in you. In case you feel stuck, there are plenty of tutorials online to help you straighten your learning curve. Maintenance and technique is key. 

Picking out the best raw materials and using appropriate portions also prevents your food from overcooking.

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