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How to start a charcoal grill

Take the time to set up your grill right and you'll be rewarded.

Sarah Mitroff Managing Editor
Sarah Mitroff is a Managing Editor for CNET, overseeing our health, fitness and wellness section. Throughout her career, she's written about mobile tech, consumer tech, business and startups for Wired, MacWorld, PCWorld, and VentureBeat.
Expertise Tech, Health, Lifestyle
Sarah Mitroff
3 min read
Skewer and meat on grill
Andreas Lindlahr / Getty Images

Charcoal grills are revered for their high, meat-searing temperatures, the smoky flavor they give grilled food, and the flexibility they offer – you can grill and smoke meats with them.

At the same time, there's a learning curve with a charcoal grill. Unlike gas grills, which have knobs and buttons to get started, you've got to do manual work to start a charcoal grill.

Don't be intimidating by the effort required though. Set it up right with the steps below, and you'll be rewarded with delicious grilled food cooked to perfection.

Read more: CNET's guide to grilling smarter this summer.

Clean out old ash and open the vents

If there is ash and leftover charcoal from your last barbecue in the grill, you'll need to clean it out. Make a habit of doing this, because if you leave ash in the grill, it can collect moisture and cause damaging rust.

Next, open the vents in your grill, both at the bottom and in the lid. While grilling, the charcoal needs oxygen to keep burning. Fully open vents feeds more oxygen to the coals, but also allows them to burn quicker. Consult your grill's manual for its venting recommendations.

Watch this: Here's how to clean your grill safely

Should I use a charcoal chimney starter?

Yes! You should always start your charcoal grill with a chimney starter. It's a metal cylinder with a handle that you fill with charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal, and it's great for heating up coals quickly.

Cropped hands of man putting coals in barbecue at backyard

Use a chimney starter to heat your charcoal faster and more evenly.

Cavan Images

Here's how to use one:

  • Stuff some newspaper or any scrap paper into the bottom compartment of the chimney, and rest it on your grill's lower grate.
  • Fill with charcoal and then ignite the paper with a long lighter or match.
  • Let the charcoal burn until the briquettes look mostly white or gray, about 15-20 minutes.
  • Always refer to your chimney starter's manual for specific instructions.

More on Chowhound: How much charcoal to use while grilling

Oh, and ditch the lighter fluid -- it can give your food a funky chemical taste, which is the opposite of delicious. You won't need it with a chimney.

If you don't have a chimney starter, you can use lighter fluid to ignite the coals in the grill, but I implore you to get a chimney. They are inexpensive and you won't regret it.

Close-Up Of Coal In Barbecue Grill

Once your coals are starting to turn gray, they are ready to go into the grill.

Marlin Seigman / EyeEm

Spread the coals

Once the charcoal is hot and creating ash, it's time to dump the hot coals onto the lower grate in your grill. Make sure to use a heat-proof glove or oven mitt to grab the handle and pour out the coals.

Arguably the best way to grill is to create a thick layer of coals on one side of the grill, leaving a few coals in the middle and no coals on the other side. This creates three heat zones and allows you to cook over both indirect and direct heat.

  • Direct heat is great for foods that cook quickly, such as shrimp, salmon (and all other seafood), hot dogs, vegetables, and burgers.
  • Indirect heat is cooks food more slowly and gentler than direct, which is great for chicken, ribs, and large pieces of meat.

More on Chowhound: When should you use the lid on your grill?

With the three heat zones, you get the best of both worlds. You can get those lovely grill marks by putting a chicken breast over direct heat and then move it to indirect to finish cooking.

Preheat the cooking grates

Once your coals are hot and arranged in the grill, allow them to preheat the grill grates for a few minutes. This is a great time to brush off any charred food and debris on the grate and apply a thin layer of cooking oil (or rub a potato on it!).

Now your grill is ready to cook burgers, chicken, vegetables, and whatever else is on the menu for your next cookout.

Master your grill with CNET's guide to everything you need to know about grilling

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