Charcoal Grilling Made Simple

Charcoal grilling is almost as easy as grilling with gas, has a fuller and better flavor, and doesn’t risk springing a leak and melting down your grill (which I have seen happen). Here’s the basics to get you started without any of that nasty lighter-fluid.

You’ll need:

  • A Grill, obviously. Because this is Bachelor Chow, we keep it small (and portable).
  • A Chimney Starter, appropriately sized for the grill.
  • Tongs and Brush.
  • Lump Charcoal (as natural as possible; briquets fall apart)
  • The bottom of a cardboard egg carton (or some other kindling)
  • A lighter or match(es)

First, prepare the grill by scraping the big grill with the brush until it looks clean enough that a bit of fire will be sufficient to sterilize it. Remove the big grill and set it aside. Open the vents in the lid and base (on my little Weber, the base vents are on the sides) as fire likes to breathe. If you’ve got used charcoal in your grill, use your tongs to put it into the chimney starter: if it can be picked up, it can be reused.

Light it up!

Now let’s light it up. Fill the chimney starter with charcoal (if not full already), put the egg carton on the lower grill in the barbecue, light the egg carton on fire, put the starter on top of the egg carton.  The upward-traveling heat will be focused by the starter on the charcoal, which will light and in about 20 minutes (or as little as 14 for new charcoal in a new starter) all of the charcoal will be gently burning. When the charcoal at the top of the starter is starting to get tinged with ash or has flames actively lapping past it, pour the charcoal out into the barbecue with as even of a distribution as possible (tap any too-big piles with your tongs to help level them out) and set the larger grill on top. Give it a moment to heat up and then put your not-quite-food-yet on top of it to cook.

Bonus: Most foods get more out of being grilled if you put the lid on; the circulation within the grill increases the flavor.

When your food is done (with specific instructions varying by food), take it off the grill. Give the barbecue a moment of open air to burn itself clean, and give it a quick massage with the brush to get any lumps of herbs/marinade/gristle off of the grill and into the fire. Then close the vents and put the lid on to asphyxiate the fire and go eat your food.

You have now cooked something with fire. Yay! Feel Mighty and Primal!

Special Note 1: it is possible for charcoal, especially if it is left out in the damp of winter, to go “dud” and not light. Do not argue with the charcoal about this; it is an inanimate object and does not care that it only had one job. Just go out and buy a new bag.

Special Note 2: I use cardboard egg carton bottoms because the dome-shapes are particularly conducive to being piled up and lit on fire. I’ve used as few as 3, but generally use 6 (since I buy my eggs by the half-dozen anyway). You can see from the photograph that I’ve torn the carton into its 6 compartment-parts to make a neat pile.