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Charcoal grilling 101: A guide to getting that perfect sear every time

Master grilling over charcoal with this step-by-step guide.
The Process Of Cooking Barbecue From Vegetables, Mushrooms And Chicken
Marinate foods in a zip-top bag overnight — it fits easily in the fridge and fully envelops the meat. Tat'?na Maramygina / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

There's nothing like smell of a charcoal grill being fired up to get us salivating and ready to celebrate a big weekend of football — but charcoal grilling can be intimidating. How do you start it? Where's the best spot for the food? When do you open the vents? Well, no need to worry — we've got you covered on the basics of grilling with charcoal.

How to start a charcoal grill

Traditional briquettes are inexpensive, light easily and burn long and steady. If you want a more intense, smoky flavor, go with hardwood charcoal (aka lump charcoal). These are blazingly hot but burn out faster.

Before you even light your grill, make sure to open to vents. The fire will need oxygen to keep going. After the charcoals are placed in the barbecue, you can control the internal cooking temperature by adjusting the vents: wider vents means hotter flames and more oxygen, while smaller vents means a cooler cooking temperature. Never close them all the way or the flames will go out.

Start your grill with a charcoal chimney; this is the easiest way to get your charcoal going. You do not need lighter fluid.

Stuff newspaper loosely in the bottom of the chimney (there is a space for it under the wire rack), then fill the chimney with charcoal. Remove top grate from grill, place chimney inside, and light the newspaper.

But how long should you let the coals burn? Let the charcoal or briquettes burn until they're covered with white-gray ash (it takes about 5 to 10 minutes for the coals to get to high heat and 25 to 30 minutes to get to medium heat).

Take the top grate of your grill off and, wearing protective grill gloves, hold the chimney by its handles and pour charcoal into the grill. Then take a paper towel soaked in vegetable oil, and spread it over grate with tongs. This is the trick to keep food from sticking to the grill.

What to grill on high heat

It takes about 5 to 10 minutes for the coals to get to high heat (about 700 degrees). Steaks, burgers and dense vegetables like corn on the cob and onions can handle high heat.

Grilling on high heat is the best way to get that perfect sear on the outside while keeping the inside juicy. To increase the temperature, open the vents to let in more oxygen. To decrease the temperature, close the vents — but not completely, or the fire will go out.

Chili on the Grill

When grilling on high heat, create a two-fire zone: Stack more coals on one side of the grill for higher-temperature cooking, and the other side of the grill should have less charcoal for lower-temperature cooking. When grilling, sear foods on hot zone, then move over to cooler zone to cook through without burning.

After grilling, let the meat rest for five minutes on a cutting board. A board with a groove running around the perimeter is the perfect board since it collects all the juices the steak releases.

Grilled Rib Eye Steak Florentine

What to cook on medium heat

It takes about 25 to 30 minutes to get to grill to medium-heat temperature (about 500 degrees). Proteins that need to be thoroughly cooked through like pork chops, chicken, fish, uncooked hot dogs and sausages, along with denser fruits and vegetables like pineapple and eggplant, should be cooked on medium-heat.

Barbecue Chicken with Salsa Verde

Lots of medium-heat proteins use marinades (they will burn off on high heat). Marinate foods in a zip-top bag overnight — it fits easily in the fridge and fully envelops the meat. If you are short on time (you can't do it overnight), increase the amount of salt (things like soy sauce) and acid (things like citrus) to more quickly penetrate the meat, cutting down on time significantly.

Chef D's Grilled and Glazed Baby Back Ribs

What to grill on low heat

Christopher Arturo, Culinary Arts chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, does not recommend grilling at low heat (about 300 degrees) on a charcoal grill for the whole time because the protein will likely dry out. That being said, there are certain foods that do well cooked on high heat and then transferred to an area of the grill at low heat. Folks can do this with larger pieces of protein, like pork chops, as well as fattier fishes like salmon. Arturo also loves grilling a whole onion with this method.

How to clean a charcoal grill

Clean the grill right after cooking, while it’s still hot, using a stiff-wire grill brush. Use it every time you grill to remove food particles from the cooking surface.

If you're looking for an alternative to using wire brushes (that may leave small wires and bits of metal behind), rub your grill grates with a peeled half onion," pitmaster Megan Day told TODAY Food. "Allow the grill to heat up to a high temperature. Pierce the half onion with a fork and rub the cut-side down along the grill grates. The onion's juices will release and produce steam to remove the bits and charred on debris."

This post was originally published on May 25, 2016.