Beginner’s Intro to Charcoal Barbecues

The two most common types of backyard grills are gas barbeques and charcoal barbeques. Propane grills are the most popular due to their convenience and the ease of use. Charcoal grills are revered though for the full barbeque flavour it will give your food. The hint of char and smoke is unmistakable and simply not reproducible with a propane grill. Smoking is also best achieved by a charcoal grill. You can deepen the flavours and control the smokiness by throwing your soaked wood chips directly into the coals. Charcoal grills are one of the best investments you could make for your backyard and will definitely be popular with your friends and family.

There are three main types of barbeques. Models of each kind range from small and portable to large and built in.

kettle grill

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Kettle Grills

Kettle grills are the most common type of charcoal grill due to their affordability and versatility. They have a simple design with a rounded bowl and cover that holds the heat rather well in the center. They tend to be best suited for smaller quantities of food that will quick cook quickly such as burgers. This is because the grill size is typically relatively small and the heat of the fire tends to be confined to the middle and not easily managed in a two-zone system. They’re an excellent and very popular option for simple grilling.

barrell charcoal bbq

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Barrel/Bullet Grills

Barrel grills, as the name suggests are often shaped like a barrel on its side, though this is not always the case. They’re a little pricier than a kettle grill but tend to come equipped with capabilities and features to go with the price tag. The larger grill size means more versatility and capability to cook for larger numbers. They’re also a great option if you want to go beyond simple grilling and want to use your barbeque for smoking or slow cooking roasts. Many models will come equipped with workspace at the ends and an ashtray of kind to make cleaning it out simple.

kamado grill red

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Ceramic/Kamodo Grills

These egg-shaped grills are often regarded as the best of the charcoal grills. They warm up more quickly than any other type of charcoal grill and have the great benefit of being the most efficient at regulating temperature. They are incredibly versatile and those who use them rave about the quality of the cook they can achieve. They are also durable enough to withstand the changing seasons without requiring a winter housing solution. They are the most expensive type of grill but they are undoubtedly a great investment.

kamado grill

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What to Look For

Before you start looking at models the first thing you should consider is what you want to use your barbeque for. The type of cooking you wish to do will tell you what type of barbeque you should be looking (see above) as well as how large it will need to be. For example if you’re just interested in a small portable or tabletop grill for your summer camping trips then a portable kettle grill will likely be the best option. However if you’re looking for a grill to experiment with smoking or for cooking steaks you’ll need a bigger grill that can accommodate the size of your cut of meat and a two-zone cooking system.  Consider too whether you’ll want room for sides such a grilled corn.

When looking at the models in person pay attention to the build quality. Is it sturdy? It shouldn’t be at all unstable or wobbly feeling. The lid should close tightly and its always nice to have a built in temperature gauge in the lid. Charcoal grills are less expensive than your propane option and they should last longer as well but the fuel is more expensive so you’ll want to make sure your barbeque is efficient. Thicker bases will hold heat better and dampers should close tightly. You’ll want to choose a model that has two dampers – one exhaust vent at the top to let smoke out and one intake vent near the bottom to allow fresh oxygen in to feed the fire. This allows you better temperature control and when you’re done if you can close the dampers and lid tightly you can smother the burning charcoal for future use.

charcoals burning in bbq

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Grills come in a variety of materials including stainless steel wire, cast iron, and porcelain coated. The type of grill you want is up to your preference. The porcelain coated grills are by far the easiest to maintain and to clean though while the cast iron will require the most work.

A key feature that will make your life much easier is an easily removable ash catcher or pan. Without one you’ll have to scoop the ash out of the basin of your barbeque. Ash will absorb quite a bit of heat if left so you’ll want to be cleaning out the ash regularly. A removable tray will save you quite a bit of work.

Similarly, access to the coals without lifting up the lid and going through the cooking grill will also make your life easier. It lets you rearrange your coals or add more as needed.

Last but not least, a neat feature that you’ll find in some of the fancier models is the ability to move your coals vertically. The ability to move them closer to or farther away from your food will help you control heat easily.

charcoal bbq burning Special Thanks to Kreuzschnabel

Lighting a Charcoal Barbecue

There’s a bit more of a learning curve to grilling on a charcoal barbeque than on a propane tank. Don’t let this discourage you though because the end result is most definitely worth the effort.

While a propane burning barbeque lights often with the press of a button charcoal needs to be lit carefully and then allowed to burn a while until they’re white hot. One of the best ways to prepare charcoal for the grill is to light it in a chimney. Once they’re white hot you dump the briquettes carefully into the bottom of your barbeque. You should never use accelerants such as lighter fluid on any charcoal that you’re planning to cook food with. The flavour will be ruined and you may be adding toxic chemicals to your food. Give the grill itself a short time to heat up and you’re good to go. While the grill is heating up it’s a good idea to light a few more briquettes in the chimney if you’re expecting to be grilling for a while – such as when you’re cooking for a crowd or going for a long cook of a roast. This means that when you’re getting to the point where you’ll need more you can add some to the chimney to heat up and then they’re ready to go.

hybrid coal burner bbq charbroil

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Once your coals are white hot and your food is ready to go there are two main ways to regulate heat. The first is perhaps most obvious – the proximity of the coals to your food. For a good sear you’ll want the food right near the heat but for longer cook times, smoking, and indirect cooking you’ll want some space for convection to do the work. This is best achieved by using a two-zone system with the coals at one end and your food on the other side. This also helps to prevent flare-ups and is where a kettle barbeque shines. If your barbeque is so equipped, the ability to raise or lower your coals is also advantageous.

The second method of regulating the temperature is to control how much oxygen the fire is getting. The intake vent is often left wide open for maximum oxygen flow but if you find that the barbeque is too hot then closing the vent some will help achieve this.

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