Most people think of grilling as a quick, high-heat method of cooking small pieces of food over a hot fire. This is direct-heat grilling, and when done over charcoal, this method gives grilled foods an appealing charred exterior and slightly smoky flavor.
Ignite coals using a chimney starter. Dump the coals in the fire bed when fully lit. If needed, pour in more coals; the new coals will ignite from the heat of the already-lit coals.
Use a graduated approach to give you room to deal with flare-ups or food that cooks too quickly. Spread the coals two or three layers deep in one-third of the fire bed, one or two layers deep in another one-third of the fire bed, and leave one-third of the fire bed free of coals.
Be sure the grill rack is clean and well oiled. Position the grill rack in its slots over the coals—if your grill has an adjustable rack, move it closer to the coals for high heat, farther away for medium heat. Allow the rack to heat for several minutes before placing food on it to prevent the food from sticking. Start grilling directly over the highest heat and after the food is seared, move it to areas with lower heat.
Controlling the Heat with Charcoal
Managing the heat on charcoal grills can seem complicated and imprecise, but it actually comes down to two basic methods: direct-heat grilling and indirect-heat grilling.
Opening them feeds oxygen to the fire, which raises the cooking temperature. Partially closing them reduces air flow, which lowers the temperature.
Telling the Temperature
There are two low-tech ways to gauge the heat on a charcoal grill: Look at the coals, or hold your hand about 4 inches above the fire, or at the point where the food will be cooking. Keep your hand there as long as you comfortably can and count. If you have to move your hand in less than
1 second: the fire is very high heat, about 450°F, and glowing brightly.
1 to 2 seconds: the fire is high heat, about 400°F, and glowing brightly.
2 to 3 seconds: the fire is medium-high heat, about 375°F, and coals have a faint coat of ash.
3 to 4 seconds: the fire is medium heat, about 350°F, and coals have a light coat of ash.
4 to 5 seconds: the fire is medium-low heat, about 325°F, and coals have a moderate coat of ash.
5 seconds or more: the fire is low heat, 300°F, and the coals are barely glowing and have a thick coat of ash.
For a more precise measurement, use a special grill thermometer that clips onto the grill, an instant-read thermometer inserted into one of the top vents, or an oven thermometer that rests inside the covered grill.