Grilling is a method of quickly cooking food over high, dry heat. This technique shares many similarities with barbecuing and smoking. Although backyard cooks often choose to grill meat, you can also grill vegetables or almost any other type of food.
Enthusiasts almost always use charcoal or propane for fuel. If you’re in the market for a new grill, consider gas for convenience or charcoal for quality. The small amount of smoke emanating from glowing coals gives meat a light smoky edge that grilling aficionados love. In this article, I’ll focus on grilling over a charcoal fire.
Most stores that sell grilling supplies offer both lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes. Lump charcoal is made from hardwoods burned in an environment where oxygen is excluded. Because it burns hotter and faster than briquettes, you’ll need more lump charcoal – and, unfortunately, it’s more expensive. Lump charcoal is best for steaks and thick pork chops.
Charcoal briquettes are made of a variety of things, including wood, coconut shells, or peat. They typically contain a small amount of coal, and they may also include petroleum products. To make briquettes, these materials are reduced to small particles, mixed in a slurry, and then pressed together and dried. A binder, usually some form of starch, makes them hold their shape once dry. Briquettes burn longer than lump charcoal but give off less heat. They’re more convenient, mostly because of their uniform size, and less costly than lump charcoal. However, because they’re made from a variety of things, different briquette brands will burn at different temperatures. As you might expect, you get what you pay for.
Briquettes are great when grilling hot dogs, sausages, brats, hamburgers, or anything that doesn’t benefit from a very hot fire. You can also use briquettes and lump charcoal together to good effect. Either type of charcoal is fine for chicken.
The best way to start a grilling fire is to place charcoal in a chimney starter and light it with a paraffin cube, wadded-up newspaper, or anything that burns cleanly. The chimney’s tall, upright shape lets the fire spread quickly to all charcoal inside. Once all coals are fully ignited and the flames have mostly died down, you can pour them onto the bottom grate of your grill. Avoid using lighter fluid on charcoal, as its pungent smell may carry over to the food.
The most basic arrangement of charcoal is a roughly even layer, at a thickness of one or two briquettes, covering the bottom of the grill. With this arrangement, food can be grilled directly over fire everywhere on the grate. A second common arrangement is to spread coals over only half of the grill bottom. This will give you a hot side and a so-called “cold” side. With this two-zone fire, you can cook food directly over the heat to sear it and get good grill marks, and then move the food to the cooler side to finish cooking.
A third arrangement I also use involves putting charcoal briquettes over two-thirds of the grill bottom, then adding lump charcoal over half the briquettes. This will give you three zones – ”cold,” hot, and very hot – each comprising about a third of the grill. In practice, this technique will produce a fairly smooth gradient of heat rather than three distinct zones. It will allow you to grill more than one type of food at a time, and you can move your food around to make sure it’s always cooking at the right temperature. One drawback is that you must time the addition of the lump charcoal correctly, because it burns quickly and can burn itself out before the briquette flames settle down.
After you’ve arranged the burning charcoal, you’ll need to let it turn to coals. If flames are still coming from the charcoal, they can cause flare-ups, especially with meats rich in fat, such as chicken. The amount of time this takes will vary depending on your charcoal and how well air circulates through your grill. Fifteen minutes is a reasonable estimate, but be sure to keep an eye on the fire. When the charcoal shows a thin covering of gray ash, you’re almost ready to grill. Open the grill’s vents, if they aren’t already. Clean and oil the grate with a bit of olive oil and place it inside the grill. Close the lid and wait for five minutes.
The fire will decline as you cook. After the five-minute rest, the temperature at the grate will likely be in the range of 500 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, but will only stay there for 8 to 10 minutes. (The exact temperatures and times will depend largely on the charcoal and how much oxygen the fire is getting.) A lot of foods can be grilled to completion, or mostly finished, during this time. From 15 to 25 minutes after the start of grilling, the fire will drop into the 350-to-400-degree range.
This will allow you to finish larger pieces of food, or food you’ll put on the grill later. After another 30 minutes, the temperature will drop to about 300 degrees. At this point, you should be wrapping things up. You can finish cooking food in your oven if necessary, or you can refresh the fire. Plan ahead for foods requiring longer cooking times by lighting a chimney of charcoal roughly 15 to 20 minutes before you want to refresh the fire, and you’ll have coals ready to add when you need them. Don’t add unlit charcoal, because it’ll produce a lot of unwanted smoke.
Start preparing the food while the fire spreads throughout the chimney. Ideally, it should be ready at the end of the five-minute rest period.
Consider the shape and size of the food you intend to grill. Thin cuts of meat and small pieces of food will cook fairly quickly, especially over a hot fire. Thicker cuts and larger pieces will take longer to cook through, and their exteriors will be hotter than their interiors. You can cut up larger pieces of food to make them easier to grill. Chicken breasts these days are huge, and it’s difficult to cook them thoroughly without overcooking the outside. Counteract this by cutting the breasts into medium-thin slices – a little thicker than a fast-food burger patty – or into chicken fingers. You can also slash pieces of meat to expose more surface area to the heat. For example, when grilling large chicken legs, make four or five slices into the thickest parts of the leg, parallel to the bone but not all the way down to it.
Consider the temperature of uncooked food when you put it on the grill. If you want something to cook evenly, take the food out of the fridge up to two hours ahead of time. Letting chicken warm up a bit will speed the cooking process and help avoid undercooked meat on the inside and charred meat on the outside.
Conversely, when you want to grill medium or rare steak or hamburgers, you’ll want a hot exterior and a cooler interior. Leave these foods in the fridge until you’re ready for them. The same holds true for thinly sliced foods, which will cook relatively quickly. Keep them cool until you’re ready to grill.
If you read many online sources, you may come to believe that the ultimate goal in grilling is to produce “juicy” meat. In my mind, this is a myopic view of grilling. “Juice” from meat is just water, with a few other compounds dissolved in it. Grilled food has other appetizing qualities besides water. Intense dry heat will brown food in a set of chemical reactions between amino acids and sugars known as the “Maillard reaction.” To a certain extent, cooking for shorter times or to lower finishing temperatures – in order to maximize “juiciness” – decreases the pleasant flavors that come from the Maillard reaction. In practice, you’ll want to achieve some semblance of balance between the two. Most of the time, cooking food quickly and pulling it off the grill as soon as it’s ready will do the trick.
It takes time for food to lose water as it cooks. If you grill over high heat for a short period, the water inside your food won’t have time to drip out. You’ll need a hot fire and a quick-read thermometer to know when to remove the food, when the internal temperature is 4 or 5 degrees lower than your target. The heat from the outer regions of the food will continue to raise the internal temperature to the target. Although many online sources urge cooks to pull meat off the grill immediately when it approaches the minimum safe temperature, a longer exposure to heat will produce more browning. I find that cooking chicken to the minimum safe temperature of 165 degrees yields meat lacking in flavor, while cooking it to 170 to 180 degrees produces better-tasting pieces, especially the skin.
My final grilling advice, before relating the following chicken recipes, is to keep the grill lid closed while you cook; open it only briefly to flip the food. This will trap heat and moisture inside and help the food cook faster. You can spot-check food with your thermometer while the lid is open. Don’t overdo the flips. For steak and pork chops, I aim for three flips, with a quarter-rotation after the second flip for diamond-shaped grill marks. For chicken and burgers, I flip once.
Chris Colby lives in Bastrop, Texas, with his wife and cats, and he regularly writes for Grit on brewing, cooking, and gardening. His most recent book is How to Make Hard Seltzer.