5 Mistakes to Avoid When Cooking on a Charcoal Grill

updated Jun 18, 2020
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(Image credit: Kristin Teig)

With summer in full swing, many of us have the same thing in mind: firing up the grill. While gas grills are certainly easy and convenient, there’s something truly special about meals prepared on a charcoal grill. Not only are they typically less expensive than their gas counterparts, but food cooked on a charcoal grill also comes with that true, cooked-over-a-fire feeling. Those juicy burgers, sausages, and chicken come bearing a smoky taste — purely reminiscent of the outdoors and summertime — and you just can’t get that from a gas grill. Don’t have one yet? It’s certainly not too late to pick one up (this is our favorite charcoal grill!).

Whether you’re a novice or a master griller, it’s helpful to remember that cooking on a charcoal grill requires more effort. Here are five common mistakes you’ll want to be sure to avoid.

1. Not cleaning public grill grates before cooking.

Charcoal grills require cleaning and maintenance to make sure they function and cook properly. This goes for you own grill in the backyard and the ones found in public parks and at campsites. While public grills are perfectly safe to use, you should give them a quick cleaning before tossing your food on.

Follow this tip: Whether you’re planning to fire up a charcoal grill at home or one in a public space, the first order of business should always be cleaning the grates to ensure there’s no stuck-on food. This is especially important when using public grills since you don’t know what was cooked on there previously, or the last time it was cleaned.

Preheat the grill and then use a stiff wire brush to remove any charred debris from the grates. Not only will this prevent those old food bits from getting stuck to what you’re grilling, but clean grates also make for nicer grill marks.

Read more: How To Clean a Charcoal Grill

2. Adding food to the grill too soon.

Grilling takes patience — especially as it’s heating up. When you jump the gun and add food before the grill is fully preheated, it’s very likely to stick to the grates, and it can impart off-flavors on the food if you’re cooking with briquettes.

Follow this tip: The grill needs to get good and hot before any food is added. After lighting the grill, cover it with the lid and let the charcoal heat up for at least 15 minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when it looks gray and ashy.

3. Using the wrong type of heat for what you’re cooking.

When using a charcoal grill, the charcoal acts as a direct heat source. Cooking food directly over hot charcoal is similar to cooking over high heat on a gas grill. Some foods are better cooked over direct (or high) heat, while others benefit from indirect (or low to medium) heat. When not using the best heat source for the job, you run the risk of undercooking, overcooking, or even burning a meal.

Follow this tip: Before adding the charcoal to the grill, consider what you’re cooking. This will determine whether direct, indirect, or a mix of both is the best option for you, and whether to spread the charcoal over the whole grill or just a portion. Foods like burgers, hot dogs, steak, and chicken breast all benefit from direct heat since they have a relatively quick cook time, while larger foods with a longer cook time (like whole chicken, pork loin, and ribs) are best cooked over indirect heat.

Read more: What’s the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Heat?

4. Not using the vents on a charcoal grill.

Unlike a gas grill, charcoal grills have vents, typically located on the hood and on the bottom of the grill. These parts of the grill control air flow, which is essential to keep the charcoal burning, and for controlling temperature. Two things can happen when you forget to either open or close the vents: The charcoal may burn out before your food is finished cooking, or the heat may soar way too high, potentially burning your food.

Follow this tip: Adjust the vents as you preheat the grill and during cooking to control the temperature. For extra air flow, keep the vents open when lighting and preheating the grill. If it seems like your food is cooking too quickly, try closing the vents a bit to lower the temperature. Or if you want to raise the heat, try opening the vents a bit.

5. Lifting the lid too much.

Unlike ovens and gas grills that lose heat when the lid is opened, the opposite happens with charcoal grills. Opening the lid feeds extra oxygen to the coals, which causes them to burn even hotter and ups the potential for burning food.

Follow this tip: Open the lid to flip food and check its progress, but keep the lid closed as much as possible. This is especially important when cooking larger items that benefit from cooking over indirect heat for a longer period of time, like ribs or a pork shoulder.

Read more: The Mistake New Grillers Always Make

More Tips About Cooking on a Charcoal Grill