What is Char Grilling?

There’s nothing like the smell of a charcoal grill is fired up to get us salivating for a good barbeque. The combustion gases from charcoal mixed with smoke from wood and the smell of the food cooking evoke a distinct feeling of anticipation for a flavorful and wonderful meal. The mouth-watering smoky flavors on foods grilled on a charcoal grill are unparalleled by gas or propane grill outputs. This is why the more traditional char grilling still exists, even in the midst of countless modern grills that produce less smoke and allow for less grilling time.

However, charcoal grilling can be intimidating, to say the least. If you’re used to using a grill that has knobs and controls, you may be unsure how to operate a charcoal grill and perform chargrilling. But this is a guide that can answer your char grilling questions.

What is Char Grilling?

Fish being grilled on a charcoal grill

Char grilling, short for charcoal grilling, is the process of cooking in which food is directly placed on a grill over hot, burning charcoal or wood so that the surface burns or chars slightly. This cooking process creates a flavorful crust on the surface of the food while sealing in its natural juices. This way, the smoke from the fuel source permeates the food and adds flavor to it.

What are Charcoal Grills?

The name says it all – a charcoal grill is a grill that uses charcoal as a fuel source. It needs a lot more effort than a gas grill to start igniting, controlling the heat, cooking, and cleaning up afterward. But it rewards you with food that’s incomparably smoky and flavorful that you cannot get from gas or propane grills.

A charcoal grill is for people who love the grilling process and not just the grilling part. It needs more time to get the fire going – it takes around 10 minutes for the charcoal to get hot and white with ash. Plus, the learning curve is steeper, as it takes time and experience to learn the best way to position the coals and how to adjust the air vents to reach and maintain the right grilling temperature.

Charcoal grills are often less expensive than their gas counterparts, but you’ll need extra tools to start. Specifically, a chimney starter is a must so you can hold the charcoal as it lights. You also need a stick lighter, long matches or newspaper for ignition, and natural lump charcoal  as fuel. There are different types of charcoal used for grilling , and they come with different features. If you want to look for the best charcoal grills, check this out

What to Grill on Charcoal Grills?

Steak and corn being grilled on a charcoal grill

The food you can adequately cook on the grill varies depending on the heat level. The heat is highest in the place where the burning coals are gathered.

High heat (about 700 degrees)

It will take you about five to ten minutes for the coals to get high heat, and it’s when the coals are glowing red but not aflame. Char grilling in this heat level is the best way to get the perfect sear on the outside while keeping the inside juicy. To increase the temperature, open the vents to let in more oxygen. To decrease your temperature, close the vents but not completely, or the fire will be put out.

When grilling on high heat, make sure you have a two-fire zone. Stack more burning coals on one side of the grill for high heat cooking and the other side for lower-temperature cooking. This way, you can sear foods in the high heat zone, then move to the cooler zone to cook through without burning the food.

Foods you can cook on high heat include steaks, burgers, corns, squash, onions, and peppers.

Medium heat (about 500 degrees)

Most of your cooking happens in this sweet spot. It takes the grill about 25 to 30 minutes to get the grill to medium heat temperature. Lots of medium heat proteins use marinades that will burn off on high heat, so sometimes you need to achieve this level while grilling.

Proteins that need to be cooked through pork chops, fish, chicken, uncooked sausages and hotdogs and denser fruits and vegetables like pineapple and eggplant must be cooked on medium heat.

Low heat (about 300 degrees)

You can achieve low heat after about 45 minutes. It’s not recommended as a heat setting for grilling proteins for the whole time because the protein will likely dry out. But some foods cooked on high heat are often transferred easily to the grill area at low heat to prevent burning. You can do this with larger pieces of protein like pork chops and fattier fishes like salmon.

How to Cook on Charcoal Grills

A person grilling sausages on a charcoal grill

Prep the grates.

The first step to chargrilling is to clean the grill grates. Heat the grill grates to burn off any buildup. Then, use a grill brush or a wad of aluminum foil, maneuvered using long tongs to scrub off the ash and buff the grates clean.

Light up the charcoal.

A chimney starter can help speed up this process a lot. It’s an upright metal cylinder with a handle, and it comes with small holes throughout and a wire rack inside for the air to travel through.

Put your desired amount of coal into the chimney starter and ignite it with lighter cubes. To do this, light the cubes on the charcoal grate of your kettle grill, then put the filled chimney starter over top. After 10-15 minutes, the coals are becoming white-hot and ashy. It’s only then that you can disperse your lit charcoal into your kettle grill.

Alternatively, you can use a stick lighter if you don’t have lighter cubes. Coat a few pieces of newspaper with vegetable oil and put it in the underside of the chimney starter. Then, fill it to the top with charcoal. Place the chimney starter on the lower grate of your charcoal grill and light the newspaper with the stick lighter. After about 30 minutes, the coals must be white-hot and ashy. Then, dump the burning coals to the lower grate and put the cooking grate at the top. Wait for the cooking grate to heat before starting to grill.

Decide if you will cook on direct or indirect heat.

The food you plan to cook will determine what style of cooking zone you will need.

Grilling indirect heat is what you’re doing if you’re grilling the food directly over the top of lit charcoal. To set up grilling through this way, spread the lit charcoal in a single layer all the way across the charcoal grate to create a wide zone of heat to grill food over.

Meanwhile, grilling in indirect heat can be done in two ways: grilling or smoking. The indirect grilling method involves placing the food on a grill, so it’s not directly above the heat zone. When doing this, it’s essential to spread the lit charcoal apart on the opposite sides of the food to create one zone of indirect heat in the middle.

The other indirect method of cooking that is still considered grilling is smoking. It takes place in a closed grill. This grill mixes wood chips with coal. It’s excellent for cooking rotisserie chicken, beef brisket, fish fillets, or large cuts of meat. However, it takes a long time.

If you’re preparing something that takes less than 20 minutes to grill, you’re going to need it grilled directly. Burgers, pork chops, steaks, and chicken breasts are a few examples that can be prepared using a direct heat method.


Once everything is ready, it’s time to grill! The length of time you need for grilling depends on the type of food you want to cook. Generally, with meats, you want to continue grilling until it’s golden brown and slightly charred. If you need tips for charcoal grilling, read here