How to cook on a charcoal barbecue

Looking for the fool-proof way to cook on a charcoal barbecue?

Before you decide what food to grill, you need to get the basics in order: a foolproof lighting method and a bit of know-how when it comes to controlling the temperature will set you up in good stead for cooking on a charcoal barbecue.

How to cook on a charcoal barbecue

    How to light your charcoal barbecue

    Lighting a barbecue can be daunting, but it doesn’t need to be scary! Follow these simple steps:

  • About 30 minutes before you want to cook, remove a lid if there is one, and the cooking rack. Open the vents in the base.
  • Open your bag of charcoal and tip it onto the bottom grate in an even layer. Space out 3-4 firelighters on top.

  • Using a long safety match, light the firelighters, then use tongs to pile the charcoal over the lit firelighters to light all of the coals. Ensure any vents on your barbecue are fully open and the lid (if it has one) isn’t closed. Don’t be tempted to prod or poke the coals – give them time to do their thing. Return the cooking rack, and leave them to burn for 15-30 minutes.

  • The coals are ready when they have ‘white hot’ coals, which means coating of grey ash with a red glow beneath (see picture, below). You can then spread out the coals and top them up with more fresh charcoal as needed.

  • Controlling the temperature

    Control the cooking temperature by moving the food or rack nearer/further away from the coals. You can also use the vents in the base: keep them fully open for very hot coals or close them bit by bit for a less full-on heat. By moving the coals to one side of the barbecue you can create two zones: one that’s perfect for grilling over a hot heat source, plus an indirect cooking zone for chicken, potatoes (with the lid on), or anything that has a tendency to burn before it’s cooked through if placed over a direct heat.

    Which coals should you use?

    Not all coal is created equal: ‘instant light’ coals are usually soaked in chemicals which, while useful for getting things going, can infuse anything that’s cooked above them with a petrol-like flavour if they haven’t burned off properly.
    Hone your fire-starting finesse and opt for lumpwood charcoal from sustainable sources. It burns at a high, consistent temperature that’s perfect for barbecuing.

    Chimney starters

    The easiest, quickest way to light coals is to invest in a chimney starter: a metal cylinder with holes around the bottom and a grate mounted inside it. Add some kindling (normally paper) underneath the grate, fill up the cylinder with charcoal, then light the kindling to create a narrow, concentrated airflow that will get the coals glowing in as little as 10 minutes. The Weber Rapidfire is a classic choice (£21.79).

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