Our Gadget Expert on Grilling with Charcoal

Those vents on the top and bottom of your charcoal grill are more important than you think.

Published May 24, 2017.

Grilling should be easy and delicious, and leave you with no pots and pans to wash. Food looks and tastes better, with crisp grill marks and a hint of smokiness. But having a little inside knowledge can make a huge difference between a great dinner or one that comes out leathery and dry—or scorched black on the outside but still raw on the inside.

In my time as the executive editor of the Tasting and Testing Team and the resident gadget expert at America's Test Kitchen, I’ve tested both gas grills and charcoal grills. As such, some people have asked me which I prefer. I see the benefits of both styles, and have used both many times with great success, but I have a small preference for charcoal and the flexibility it allows the cook to control heat and smoke. I’m more of a DIY person, and I like playing with real fire. (But it’s really up to you which grill you choose.) 

Of course, you can get great results with either charcoal or gas grills, but there are a few things we've learned through our testing at America's Test Kitchen about how the two methods differ and what you need to know to grill like a pro. With a little knowledge of how each type of grill works, you can enjoy better cooking results and great food every time. Here's some advice on cooking with charcoal grills. And be sure to check back tomorrow, when I'll be discussing gas grills. Happy grilling season!

Clean Your Grill Before You Cook

No matter what method you use, there’s one cardinal rule of grilling: Always scrub down your grates before you start to cook, every single time. Otherwise, you'll be eating grit and char from the last time you cooked outdoors. Not so appetizing.

Here’s how: Get a good grill brush, a small bowl of vegetable oil, a pad of folded paper towels, and a pair of our favorite 16" Oxo Good Grips Locking Tongs [Buy on Amazon]

1. Preheat your grates thoroughly, and scrub them with the brush till they've been stripped of any old food stuff. 

2. Now, wipe down the clean, hot grates with the vegetable-oil-dipped paper towel held by the tongs. This will help prevent food from sticking to the grates. 

Learn to Use Your Grill's Vents

The biggest difference between charcoal and gas grills is that charcoal grills give you all the power to control heat. Unlike gas grills—where the vents are in a fixed position across the back of the box, and all the heat heads out that way no matter what you do—charcoal grills allow you to set the vent openings and placement to cook and smoke to perfection. Vents on a charcoal grill, such as our favorite Weber kettle grill [Buy on Amazon], are in two places: at the top of the lid and beneath the kettle. It’s pretty simple: When vents are fully open, more air reaches the fire, and it becomes hotter. When they are fully closed, it chokes off the fire’s air supply, so the fire will go out. When the top and bottom vents are partially closed, either more or less, you can modulate the heat output accordingly.

Testing Charcoal Grills

We’ve happily made do with Weber’s basic kettle for years. But would newer, more tricked-out charcoal cookers be worth the upgrade?  
Read the Review

Distribute the Heat However You Want

Placement of the top vent on the grill lid helps direct the heat flow and the smoke direction inside the grill. Heat and smoke will rise from the surface to the lid vent. Position it where you want it to go, such as to draw smoke and heat from the hot side of the grill to the cooler side, while cooking on the cooler side. This is the setup for indirectly grill-roasting larger cuts of meat.

Arranging Your Coals is Key

Arranging the coals is another way you can modify heat in your charcoal grill. A long pair of tongs and long, protective grill mitts will allow you to move the coals right where you want them to create hotter and cooler cooking zones. Many of our recipes have you start cooking on the hotter side, then finish cooking on the cooler side, or vice-versa.

Master of the Grill

With recipes and techniques arranged by skill level—from The Basics to The Easy Upgrades to The Serious Projects—cooks of all stripes can dive in and choose their outdoor cooking adventure.  
Buy the Book

Which type of grill do you prefer: charcoal or gas? Let us know in the comments! And for more on grilling, read this post

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