Charcoal/Kettles 101

Types of grills: Charcoal/Kettles

I know everyone is different, I know every grill is different, what I don’t know is what everybody out there has. I don’t want to write about just charcoal and gas grills. I want to write about ALL of them!

I have used several different types of grills with the majority being charcoal. I grew up on my grandfather’s Weber Kettle. He used to have a 20lb coffee can with holes punched in it for a chimney starter…he told me some story about shooting the can with a 22. The jury is still out on that one.

I learned the hard way, as I almost always do, how to master the charcoal grill. Years of lighter fluid heartburn from those “authentic” charcoal flavored burgers and finally learned how to light charcoal with that coffee can.

Luckily for us now, we have the luxury of every known grill gadget on the planet at our fingertips. Thanks, Internet!

With that being said, I would like to talk about charcoal grilling for a minute. Don’t worry; I am going to cover them all. So if you are a regular reader or first time reader, there WILL be info on your grill, or something extremely similar.

First off, no matter what kind of charcoal grill you have…whether it is a small hibachi, kettle, or ceramic egg, you’ll need a few things to make your experience taste the best and get some longevity out of your investment. Most of you will already have many of these essential items, but in my opinion, the following are essential for the charcoal experience.

Let’s look at the chimney starter. This can be had for less than twenty bucks at any major hardware store, big box store, online, or if you’re lucky enough to have one, a grilling specific store. The basic premise for this is to start your coals.  Pour your coals in the top, put some newspaper on the bottom, light (no colored ink or adverts, please) and wait 10-15 minutes until your fuel is getting that grey-white ash color. Not only is it faster, cleaner, and safer, you can ditch that lighter fluid. That is, if you want to; I have nothing against lighter fluid. When it’s used properly it can start a great charcoal fire. This is just personal preference; just make sure all your lighter fluid burns off before throwing your food on. Oh, and this is a big NEVER…don’t ever add lighter fluid to an existing fire (I think that goes without saying) and NEVER through the cooking grate, please and thank you!

Next let’s look at your fuel. There are many types for you to choose from and I am not going to tell you which to buy, we’ll just discuss the differences. I may mention what I like to use but by all means, if you like one brand or another, use it!

Briquettes and natural lump charcoal are the basics and most widely available for purchase. Briquettes are more readily available just about everywhere you may shop. Thankfully, the big box retailers have caught on to the use of lump charcoal, so it’s becoming more readily available. The basic difference is the shape and the ingredients. While I would love to go into the details, it would take a whole other post specifically on this subject to give it the attention it deserves. Google “briquettes or lump charcoal” and have at it.

Summary, lump charcoal has no additives like briquettes and provides a slightly hotter and shorter cook cycle in an average kettle grill (not so in a ceramic egg or smoker).  It provides the most natural taste in my opinion, and is a staple for my Weber Kettle and Primo Oval ceramic egg. Briquettes are very uniform and can be used almost mathematically for very specific and exact cooking times and temperatures. They also come in a variety of styles that can include preloaded lighter fluid and smoking wood flavors.

Now let’s talk utensils, because there are a lot; however, you can get away with only a couple and you can add YEARS onto the life of your grill.

Starting with a cover, this will help you keep your grill outside almost year round depending on your climate. While I would always suggest getting a manufacturer-specific cover because of the fit and design, just about any cover will work. Some will have much higher quality, better thickness or elasticity. Some will be replaced every year…your choice there. Don’t cover a warm grill.

Next would be your grill brush, and again this debate can go on for days, but I will spare you. Get one that has a scouring side and a softer side (or two different ones if you’d rather).  CLEAN YOUR GRILL AFTER EVERY SESSION! A lot of folks say that they are keeping their grill bits on for seasoning. That’s rotting food, plain and simple. Clean while warm for the best results, but always clean. All you need is a little elbow grease and if that isn’t working, add a little oil to the grates with a paper towel or sponge and get back on that elbow grease. Don’t have a full flame going and dump oil on there…that’s always bad. Save your eyebrows and be smart. I like using a small gardening spray bottle with any high temperature oil (grape seed, canola) or my oil drizzle bottle from in the house.

On new grills, I would always consider running a half chimney of charcoal before cooking anything to burn off any chemicals from the factory. Try to get rid of ash after the grill cools down, too.

Last and certainly not least are the tongs and spatula. These are usually very specific to the individual and each backyard grilling aficionado will have a different opinion. I will tell you what you need to consider. Forget about the spring loaded, non-locking tongs, Forget about the silicone ones (although silicone on the handles is fine).  Forget about the short ones and get a long pair. You’ll save knuckle hair and drop less shrimp, I promise.

As far as the spatula, again the longer the better so you can reach all around the grill. Again I would stay away from silicone (handles are fine). My point here is really that you don’t need a specific set of tools that you wouldn’t already be using in the house…unless you’re going to leave them outside for most of the year. If you’re a fish griller, or would like to become one, that is the only time I would recommend buying a specific spatula.

Well, I hope that covers the bases for the charcoal grillers new and seasoned.

To recap:

  • chimney starter
  • briquettes vs. lump charcoal
  • utensils; cover, grill brush, tongs, spatula

Now please, go get grilling!

-J

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About 34BBQ

I am here to share my experiences in the culinary outdoors...and to get people grilling all year 'round! I am "culinary enthusiast" who studied the arts at Culinary and Wine Institute - University of South Carolina. I love food photography and BBQ and I like to cook using my outdoor grills as much as I can. -Jay

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