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Cooking with charcoal: 10 tips you need to master

Cooking with charcoal

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it until the day that I die: there’s nothing like cooking with charcoal.

It’s just the best. It opens up a realm of cooking possibilities while reminding you that YOU are in control. Are you really though? In order to have peace of mind and wholeheartedly say “I got this”, here are 10 uncommon tips to make sure you never miss your shot. 


1. Know your flame

The most important thing with charcoal is to know your flame. The most common mistake I see is people ready to jump the gun at the sight of the first flame. While I totally understand the excitement, it is of the utmost importance that you understand that you are cooking with burning charcoal, not flames. You should always wait until your coals have ignited from top to bottom, the whole way through. Flames will often appear early on but they are generated by the blistering surface of the charcoal. They will die down as soon as you will shut your lid. Know your flame, pace yourself.


2. Smoke colour

One of the things you should pay attention to the most is your smoke. You can tell a lot about what’s happening in your BBQ by the colour of the smoke coming out of your vent. Mastering this element will help you keep your lid shut down as much as possible, therefore optimizing the moisture in your meat. White smoke is a sign that you’re running out of fire, or that it’s choking (not enough oxygen to burn clean). Thick black smoke is generated as your fire ramps up in temperature but is not yet burning hot enough for it to burn through all the wood residue. If you are having a hard time with white and black smoke, you need to optimize the airflow inside your BBQ in order to stabilize your fire. Once your fire will be stabilized, you’ll find yourself admiring that thin blue smoke we all look for.


3. Divide and Conquer

Working with zones is always smart when you are cooking with charcoal. There are only a few specific scenarios that will call for a full load charcoal. Most of the time, you will be getting better results working with a direct and an indirect grilling zone. By only filling one side of your BBQ, you are not only creating heat zones, you are also letting more room for air to circulate in your cooking chamber. It’s a lot easier to tame and maintain your fire working with a half load. 


4. The Vent Routine

Cooking with charcoal is all about airflow. While I’m sure you will always be full of good intentions, make sure to develop a vent check routine. Although some BBQs have better quality engineering, vents tend to loosen up through time and as you pop open your lid and close it back, it’s not that uncommon to see vents shifting position without you noticing. That’s even more true if you are working with daisy wheels. It should become a reflex for you to systematically check on your vent whenever you touch your lid. It’s something very important. There is nothing more frustrating than having to work your way back to temp through white smoke because you didn’t notice such a simple detail.


5. Fuel vs Flavor

Understand that although charcoal will generate smoke, it is not intended to “smoke” your meat. Charcoal is pre burnt wood. This means that charcoal does not have any specific aromas to work with. It’s fuel for your fire. Nothing less, nothing more. Should you like to add flavor to your meals, you will need to start playing with wood chunks. A great tip in order to burn “clean” faster is to preheat your chunks on the grill prior to actually throwing them in your fire. White and black smoke are generated as the chunks ramp up in temp. By warming up your chunks over indirect heat, you cut away at that process in a big way, which makes sure you get the best quality smoke as fast as possible. 


6. Top to Bottom or Bottom up?

Cooking with charcoal is cost-efficient as you can reuse the same charcoal load for multiple cookouts in most occasions. Understanding how to light your charcoal based on what you are set to cook will make sure you do not waste charcoal unnecessarily. If you are planning on doing hot and fast cooks like steaks, burgers and fish, lighting your fire from the top will allow you to get just enough coals on fire to sear and cook, while giving rest to the lower end of your fire box. If you plan on doing long cooking sessions, lighting your fire with a lighter from the bottom up will allow the fire to gradually spread and climb its way to the top, extending the longevity of your fire without needing to reload charcoal halfway through. 


7. Gear up for flare-ups.

Unlike gas grilling, charcoal grilling is much more intense. Investing in quality gear will not only make it more fun, it will make it safer. You always got to keep in mind that you’re playing with, and over, fire.

Essential accessories such as good tongs, spatulas, gloves and brushes will help you make sure you never burn knuckles over fire. Getting a decent charcoal rake is a no-brainer as well to work your fire.


8. Reconnecting with Rotisserie

The major upside to cooking with charcoal is the wide range of techniques that you can work with over live fire. A big sleeper in this range is the rotisserie style. For some reason, rotisserie style cooking over charcoal has been left out in the latest trends but it’s time for a comeback. I get that low and slow is cool and all, but there are NO techniques that can even come close to rotisserie style if you’re looking for flavorful, juicy and crusty cuts of meat over charcoal. Spontaneous flare-ups, gently tickling meat for hours on hours, or even Brazilian rodizio style skewer menus, will always win your crowd over. 


9. Keep it closed at all times!

It’s always tempting to peek. Did you know however that the more you open your lid, the more you can sadly screw things up? Every time you open the lid on a charcoal BBQ, you are wasting humidity and creating a short blast of heat. Those variables will lead to drier food and uneven cooking. This is why you need to keep the lid closed as much as possible and start relying on other signs and techniques. Working with probes and understanding smoke colour are easy ways to keep track of what’s happening inside your BBQ. 


10. Burn it down

I’m not a big fan of veggies. I’m sure a lot of you feel the same way. There is, however, an upside to working with charcoal that gas grills don’t have. Ever tried tossing your veggies directly into the flames? Charring up bell peppers, eggplants, scallions, tomatoes, brussels sprouts or even kale is a great way to experience veggies in a new way. 


I’m not a gambling man, but I am more than willing to bet that if you apply these 10 tips and tricks, you won’t feel the need to go back to your old gas grill ways.


There’s a reason people get so passionate about BBQ and most of it comes from playing with fire. Own your craft, experiment, document and repeat, this is all there’s left to do from this point on.