You may be mistaken in thinking that all charcoal is the same and a newbie barbecuist might opt to cheap out and but Tescos finest thinking all is well in the world. Pretty sure my neighbour does this and it fricking stinks the house out. So in an endeavour to save the nostrils, not to mention the taste buds of the great British public this is my comprehensive guide to charcoal and charcoal barbecuing to get you into a true pro status.
TYPES OF CHARCOAL
Lumpwood charcoal – a wood that’s been fired in a kiln, making it very combustible. The better the quality, the higher the temperature it’ll reach once it’s burning. Lumpwood burns hot and fast and will last about an hour, so perfect if you’re grilling burgers, steaks and sausages.
Charcoal briquettes – uniformly shaped lumps of fuel. Once lit, they tend to burn for up to twice as long as lumpwood and provide a more constant cooking temperature so perfect for longer cooks such as smoking large briskets, pulled pork, chickens.
Instant Lighting Charcoal – This is nonsense crap. Don’t buy it. Jack says.
BUYING A CHARCOAL BBQ
When buying your first charcoal BBQ it’s wise to have a think about what you want to use it for. These are the things to ask yourself:
What am I going to cook on it?
How many people do I plan to cook for at any one time?
Am I planning to get into smoking?
Am I going to use it often?
For newbies getting into barbecuing, those on a low budget or if you wont be using your barbecue very often then a basic kettle barbecue is probably for you. There are some clever ways in which you can turn your basic kettle into a smoker which I will get into later, so this is a pretty cost effective option if you’re starting to dabble. Most good DIY shops and even supermarkets are selling some decent kettles these days or if you’ve got a bit more cash to flash you can’t go wrong with a Weber. Weber’s compact Kettle will only cost slightly more than a supermarket brand and I still use the first one I purchased over ten years ago and it’s still going strong. Perfect for direct grilling, burgers, sausages, chicken and other quick eats.
For those moving on or keen to invest in something with a bit more tech, planning to use it more regularly and add some longer cooks in the mix get out the credit card and think about investing in something like the Weber MasterTouch range. These are slightly bigger than your standard kettle and are pre built ready for both direct and indirect grilling as well as the ability to add all sorts of attachments such as pizza stones and dutch ovens as well as coming with a temperature gauge and ready for smoking. This is a great range of mid range charcoal barbecues and will happily see you through any kind of barbecue gathering.
If you going all guns blazing, heavily committed to BBQ life or just some kind of rap music mogul with plenty of cash lying around then you cannot do any better than the Weber Summit Charcoal grill which is the culmination of 60 years of perfection rolled into one beautiful machine. I literally jumped for glee when mine was delivered. Better than my wedding day.
The Summit comes with:
- A double wall construction where less fuel is needed as the barbecue holds the temperature.
- Rapidfire Lid Damper to provide a chimney starter effect boosting airflow and encouraging the temperature to increase quickly.
- A low and low vent setting to get the right airflow for smoking.
- A two position fuel grate which provides flexibility when smoking, grilling at indirect heat or searing over direct heat.
This is literally the king of charcoal barbecues.
There are of course many other brands out there, but Weber is undoubtedly the best known, so for your basic, mid range and super charged barbecue I would use this above as a reference/ comparison to make sure you’re getting the right grill for you.
There will be many more questions you have about buying your first charcoal BBQ, especially if like me you see it as an extension of your kitchen! My advice is to go to a reputable dealer such as our friends at the Riverside Garden Centre. They have an amazing showroom like a BBQ Disneyland and plenty of staff on hand to answer any questions you might have.
LIGHTING YOUR BARBECUE
The easiest and quickest way to light a barbecue can be achieved by using a chimney starter which is an upright metal cylinder with a handle on the outside and a wire rack inside. No need for lighter fluid when using one of these which can compromise the taste of your food.
Before filling your chimney starter you need to decide on what you plan to cook and the temperature which you need the grill to reach.
As a guide:
- A third full will reach a temperature of 130C to 135C. This is your smoking temperature for low and slow.
- Half full will reach a temperature of 180C to 200C. This is for direct grilling for your burgers and sausages.
- Filled to the top will reach a temperature of 230C to 250C which is used for searing.
These temperatures will vary depending on the quality of your charcoal as above BBQ fans don’t scrimp on your fuel source. Also consider your weather, high temperatures can add an additional 5 to 10C to your barbecue so take this into consideration as we don’t want your guests eating cinders and you blaming the shack!
To use your chimney starter, first take out your cooking grate from your grill. Fill your chimney starter using the guide above, set a lighter cube on the charcoal grate and light it. The fire from the cube will begin burning the charcoal and the flames will grow upwards from there pretty quickly.
Within 10 to 15 minutes the charcoal will be ready to pour on to the grill and a good indicator is when the top pieces of charcoal have turned to a grey ash colour. Pour in the coals depending on whether you are cooking on direct or indirect heat (we’ll be covering this below) and set your grate back on the grill. In about 10 to 15 minutes you will be ready to cook.
We’re moving on now on how to arrange your charcoal for your cooking. First choose whether you are cooking over direct or indirect heat or both.
Exactly what it says on the tin, cooking food directly over the flame. Direct heat is responsible for beautiful grill marks on fast cooking foods such as juicy burgers, sizzling sausages and crispy grilled vegetables.
The biggest question that is posed with direct heat is – lid up or lid down. The same principle applies to your BBQ as to if you was using a frying pan on your kitchen hob. The part of the food in direct contact with the pan is cooking, however if you were to put the lid on that pan the same part of the food directly above the heat is cooking faster, but the sides and top are also cooking because the lid is trapping the heat inside.
This same principle applies to your BBQ; Open the lid and the flamed heat will cook the bottom of the food. By closing the lid the trapped heat will cook the sides and top reducing the cooking time and cook through to the center faster than you would with the lid up.
My advice is keep the lid off when grilling fast cooked foods unless you need to increase some heat. For example, if you are cooking burgers and it’s time to flip, gently give them a nudge with your spatula. If the burger is sticking to the grill grate then put the lid on and give them a couple more minutes by which time they should come away easy. The meat has formed a protective crust on it’s outside and I mean crust, don’t get this confused with burnt!
Indirect heat is not a million miles away from baking. Reserved for bigger pieces of meat which require longer and slower cooking methods such as briskets, whole chickens and ribs this cooking method I for anything which will burn on the outside faster than it can cook in the middle. This method essentially requires the heat source to be established on one side of your BBQ with the food source being placed on the other. The food is cooked using radiant heat and convection and results in an evenly cook throughout the meat.
Such as the Reverse Sear method you can utilise a combination of methods if you want to achieve an even cook throughout with a crispier exterior. This can be achieved by setting up your charcoal grill for indirect cooking and moving your meat over to the heat source when it’s required.
SETTING UP YOUR COAL
For direct cooking on high heats this is easy peasy. Once you get the green light from your chimney starter tip the coals in a single layer on your bottom grilling grate and you’re good to go. This pile version gives you some void space around the outside for those circumstances when you may get a flare up and need a save space for your food.
The two zone fire
This is perfect for high heats and medium heat cooking for steaks, chops, chicken and seafood. This gives you some flexibility of both indirect cooking and direct cooking and is a great set up for reverse searing. As the title suggests arrange your coals to one side of the grill leaving the other side with no coals.
Ring of Fire
KEEPING THE TEMPERATURE GOING
- High heat 2 to 4 seconds
- Medium heat 3 to 6 seconds
- Low heat 8 to 10 seconds
If your temperature drops throughout the cooking process fill your kettle up to a third and add your lit coals to the grill to get the temperature going again.
If your barbecue has vents this is how you will control the temperature of your grill.
In the simplest terms, the more airflow you encourage the higher your temperature will rise. The top vent is what I use for control. A good way to start is to keep the vents wide open until you reach the temperature needed for your cook and close them up to reduce the temperature if needed.
The top vents allow hot air and smoke out of the top of the grill, which then pulls fresh air through the bottom grill vents and actually plays an important part of the cooking process. Closing these vents off will kill your fire. If you do have both top and bottom vents it’s better to leave the top open all the way and use the bottom vents to manage grill temperature.
Moderating your temperature using the vents comes with practise, so be patient and enjoy the process!
So as we draw to an end on the basics of charcoal grilling, lets talk about some of the other fun out there once you get going.
If you do choose to splash out on a Weber there are a whole range of accessories available to turn your grill into the Rolls Royce equivalent.
First there are Weber’s Char Baskets Focus allowing you to evenly arrange your lit charcoal on your fuel grate to create the perfect indirect heat for barbecuing. The beauty of this is being able to swap effortlessly from indirect to direct cooking by moving your coal baskets around.
Then comes the revolutionary Weber Gourmet range which allows you to replace your middle grill section with a range of nifty tools such as the pizza stone, waffle iron, chicken roaster and wok to name a few.
So BBQ fans hopefully I’ve covered all of the essentials for you from your basic to your more advanced charcoal needs but if you need to know more, hit up the comments section and I’ll be happy to help.