Using charcoal briquettes on a barbecue grill is an efficient cooking method outdoors. But it is also a tricky task to accomplish. The solution perhaps is not the most simple one and requires a little research and background knowledge.
Common questions that pop up around charcoal grilling are as follows:
- What are you cooking on your grill?
- How much food are you cooking?
- How hot do you want your grill to be?
Now, whether you’re a newbie at backyard barbecues with the pals or have been at it for years, this detailed breakdown will inform you of all the ticks and crosses you’ll have to check out before mastering charcoal grilling.
But First: The Basics of Charcoal Grilling
Charcoal is the result of wood that’s burnt through a process called ‘pyrolysis’. Pyrolysis involves a sustainable heat applied to something with little to no air around.
Once we get the charcoal in our hands (not literally), applying air to the task can make them burn at high temperatures that go up to a couple of thousand Fahrenheit degrees. The more distance between the briquettes, the slower the transfer of heat, and hence, temperature declines rather quickly. Therefore, another key information to gobble up is the spread of coals.
How you spread out the charcoal briquettes determines their highest temperature and the duration of cooking.
- A thin spread across a wider surface area will result in milder temperature levels, and the heat will fall rapidly.
- In contrast, a multilayered spread of coals closer will induce higher temperatures, and the heat will linger around longer.
We learned about the symbiotic relationship between distance and quantity of coals in determining heat and temperature levels. Now, let’s look at vital figures that tell us exactly how to load the grill with coals per the heat we want.
- High heat (450 degrees F to 550 degrees F) – A full chimney
- Medium heat (350 degrees F to 450 degrees F) – A half-full or ¾ full chimney
- Low heat (250 degrees F to 350 degrees F) – A quarter-full chimney
Usually, we tend to use the built-in thermometers in our cookers to get an accurate temperature reading. But what can you do if yours doesn’t have a thermometer and you want to find out how hot the coals are?
Use the HAND TEST:
You can place the palm of your hand about five to six inches above the grill machine to determine how hot the charcoals are. The time it takes to pull away your hand will indicate the temperature levels.
- If it takes two to four seconds – high heat (450 degrees F to 550 degrees F)
- If it takes five to six seconds – medium heat (350 degrees F to 450 degrees F)
- If it takes eight to ten seconds – low heat (250 degrees F to 350 degrees F)
A chimney is the most popular tool to heat coals fast in any barbecue party. They usually hold about a hundred pieces at a time, having enough room for reaching high temperatures. When your coals turn to ash in color inside the chimney, that’s when they’re ready to use.
If you’re using a chimney to get your coals amped up, then we’ve got a table for you to demonstrate the number of coals proportionate to the heat:
|Chimney filled 25%||Chimney filled 50%||Chimney filled 75%||Chimney filled 100%|
|Slow cook fish or meat||Low Heat|
(250 F to 350 F)
|For cooking burgers, hotdogs, ribs, buffalo wings||Medium Heat|
(350 F to 450 F)
|Perfect grilling temperature||Medium & Up|
(400 F to 450 F)
|Perfect searing temperature for steaks||High Heat
(450 F - 600 F)
Charcoal Briquette Arrangements & Foods to Cook
How you arrange your charcoal briquettes determines how hot the grill will be and the kind of foods you want to cook.
1. Smoking: Low Heat (225F to 250F)
- Indirect cooking process
- Slow cooking method for meats and fish
- Perfect for slow-cooking burger patties, steaks, etc.
- Hardwood charcoal briquettes or even wood chips dipped in water are used
Arrangement: Spread unlit charcoal briquettes all across the grilling grate, add a few lit briquettes to begin smoking
2. Direct Cooking/Grilling: High Heat (450F to 550F)
- Direct cooking process
- The method used to cook foods over high heat
- Ideal for searing & grilling steaks or thin layers of meat
- It’s better to leave a small space uncovered by coals
- Single-layer of charcoal briquettes spread out evenly over the bottom grate
Arrangement: Requires 100 charcoal briquettes or an entire chimney
3. Two-zone Grilling: High Heat (450F to 550F) & Medium Heat (350F to 450F)
- Both direct and indirect cooking are possible
- You have the benefit of both searing steaks at high temperatures and slow-cook ribs and burgers at lower temperatures
- It involves spreading out charcoals over one half of the cooking grate and leaving the other portion vacant
- A versatile and flexible method best for boneless chicken cuts, steaks, pork chops, etc.
Arrangement: Requires 50-100 charcoal briquettes or half to one whole chimney
4. Two-zone Grilling: Parallel Lines: Low Heat (250F to 350F)
- Direct & Indirect grilling method
- The process involves spreading out pieces of coal on either side of the grill, leaving a vacant lot in the middle
- The process can be utilized for smoking or slow-cooking tailgate foods like burgers, sausages, etc., and cooking larger portions of ribs, roasts, whole turkeys, etc.
Arrangement: A full chimney or 100 charcoal briquettes to start with, add more later when required
5. A Charcoal Snake: Low Heat (225F to 250F)
- Slow-cooking and smoking method
- Line up charcoal briquettes in a spiral along the grill walls and add another layer of wood chips or chunks on top. Add a few lit coals on one end to begin the slow-burning process
- Achieves one of the most efficiently sustainable slow-burns involving a grill for hours of cooking
- Roast whole chickens or turkeys, slow-cooked ribs, and large portions of meat with ease
Arrangement: Needs 100 unlit charcoals, an additional six to eight lit charcoals, wood chips, and additional coals for later
- At what temperature do charcoal briquettes burn?
Charcoal briquettes burn at high temperatures at about 1260 degrees Celsius.
- How long can the Charcoal Snake method cook for?
The Charcoal Snake method lets you cook for up to 16 hours at a time.
- How long does it take for charcoal briquettes to be ready for use?
Charcoal briquettes turn gray once the flame subsides and the ash spreads onto other briquettes. This process takes up to ten minutes.
- What are lump charcoals?
Lump charcoals are made from burning wood chunks slowly without oxygen to dispose of all the chemicals and moisture out of the wood. They burn faster and are hotter than charcoal briquettes.
- Should I keep the lid open or closed when I’m heating coals?
Always leave the lid open when arranging the briquettes and lighting them up. Close the lid only after the briquettes are lit up properly.
A charcoal grill is a cooking wonder. Summers are not the same without backyard barbecues and bonfires. You can cook all year round with the proper arrangement of charcoal briquettes and grilling machines.
Large protein pieces like pork chops cooked under low heat or perfectly seared rib-eye steaks are all gifts of cooking on a charcoal grill. After a thorough read about the ins and outs of briquette temperatures, you’re ready to smoke!