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Cooking on a charcoal BBQ: a beginner’s guide

There’s something about a charcoal BBQ grill I can’t get enough of.

Cooking on a charcoal BBQ: a beginner’s guide

In partnership with Firehawk Grills


If summer was a smell, it would have to be the smoky seduction of a charcoal BBQ grill, mingled with the foodie fragrance of sizzling sausages, juicy chicken and seared steak. Yep, a charcoal grill takes your backyard barbecue to new heights, with an infused flame-grilled flavour that’s simply inimitable when you’re using another fuel like gas. But if this is your first rodeo, where do you start? Right here, with my beginner’s guide to using a charcoal BBQ. Fire up the grill, my friend.

Choose your BBQ coal

There’s no cooking without charcoal – it’s the fuel to the fire that’s going to impart all your creations with that delicious smoky goodness we’re aiming for. So the first thing you need to do is decide on those coals. Your choices here come down to one of two options: lump charcoal or briquettes.

What’s the difference between briquette charcoal and lump charcoal?

Close up shot of a closed kamado charcoal BBQ with a river background.

I’m sure pitmasters and pro barbecue aficionados have much to say on this topic, but here I’m going to give you the topline info so you can make your own choice.

Lump charcoal

Close up of a hand holding a pair of tongs to pick up lump charcoal to use on a charcoal BBQ grill.

This is typically what your pitmasters will opt for – it’s most often the choice of the pros. However, it’s absolutely gaining traction with backyard BBQ grill cooks and for good reason. Lump charcoal is an all-natural fuel that’s made by burning real pieces of wood, ever so sloooowly. The process is done in an airtight area until all the sap, moisture and natural chemicals present in the wood have all packed up and left. What’s remaining is pure charcoal, a natural fuel that responds really well to oxygen, giving you lots of control when you use your air vents and chimney on your charcoal bbq.

On the downside, it is the more expensive option and sometimes the size of the charcoal lumps will vary in the one bag, which can be harder to cook with. You’re getting quality over uniformity.

Charcoal briquettes

This is the type of charcoal you’re more likely to come across in a big bag at petrol stations and grocery stores. The difference between lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes is that the latter is made with leftover pieces of wood and sawdust, which is then mixed with additives before being squished and compressed into a blocky, pillow shape. A lot of the time those additives can make charcoal briquettes smoke more, easier to light or even add a certain flavour to your grilling creations.

Yes, they burn for longer than lump charcoal, maintain a steady temperature and are a cheaper financial outlay. However, they can produce more ash, don’t typically burn as hot as your charcoal lumps and can sometimes give off a chemical smell.

Lighting a charcoal BBQ

Cooking on a charcoal BBQ

Now you’ve chosen your fuel, we need to fire up the grill: it’s time for lighting your charcoal barbecue. Take out your charcoal basket, then measure out your coal as per your grill’s instructions, then place it into the charcoal pit. I always like to use some lighter cubes for easier fire starting, so pop a couple of those in there too as well as some kitchen paper.

Indirect vs direct cooking

Image of a spatchcoked marinated chicken being placed on a charcoal bbq grill with a pair of tongs

Next, you want to choose your cooking method. Direct cooking is where you’re cooking the food directly over the flames, which makes it hard and fast. And, once the lid of your BBQ grill is closed, all that hot air is going to rise and circle your ingredients, cooking them quickly. Therefore it’s perfect for thinner and smaller cuts, like steaks, burgers, veggies, pork chops and the like.

For larger pieces of meat, you’ll want to use indirect grilling. This is done at a lower temperature and to the side of the chargrill bbq. This grill cooking method is best for whole roasts, ribs and whole fish. And it’s the method I would suggest as well for charcoal chicken (I have a recipe for charcoal BBQ chicken with Thai chimichurri!). Note: I also used a heat-deflecting stone that comes with the Firehawk Kamado Grill, the charcoal bbq I used, to further control my cooking temperature and ensure I didn’t get any burning flare-ups like you could if you were grilling directly over the coals.

Control the lid and vents, control the cook

Close up of the bottom vent being shut on a Firehawk ceramic kamado charcoal barbecue.

To really master cooking on a charcoal BBQ, you need to know about the lid and vents, aka your grilling ventilation. Put simply, the air that circulates around your charcoal is what’s going to control the temperature and timing: hot and fast or low and slow cooking. 

If you’re wondering if you need to use the lid when grilling, just remember that closing the lid will simulate the effects of an oven. Think: hot air trapped in an environment that circulates up and around your food, cooking it from all directions rather than just from directly below. Speaking generally, if you want to sear smaller pieces of meat or vegetables, keep the lid up. For larger items, like my charcoal roast chicken, you’d want the lid down to promote slower, more even cooking. With me?

Next up, let’s talk vents. You’ve usually got one slide-y one on top of the charcoal BBQ grill (this controls how much heat leaves your grill), and then another underneath your charcoal (this controls how much air gets in). By controlling the amount of air inside your grill, you’re affecting the heat level as a result. As a general rule, the more open your vents are, the hotter and faster your charcoal will burn.

Let’s try a charcoal chicken recipe!

Cooking on a charcoal BBQ

Charcoal BBQ lesson over, and now let’s cook. I’ve gone for a whole chicken because I think it’s one of the best things to master. I cooked my 1.2kg spatchcocked bird to the side of the Kamado Grill with the heat-deflector stone in place, and it took pretty much bang on an hour. You’re aiming to keep your temperature at about 180°C (350°F) so, depending on your charcoal, you may need to make adjustments using the top and bottom vents. Close the vents more if the temperature is too hot and open them up if the temperature is too low.

Check out my full charcoal chicken recipe for more information.

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