Charcoal grilling can offer more flavor and higher temperatures, but what it does not offer is an obvious way to control the heat or burning time. With gas grills, temp control is simple in that all you have to do is turn the knobs; with charcoal, heat-control is not as simple.
The principle that you have to keep in mind when cooking with charcoal is that using more coals results in a hotter temperature. While this is generally true, there are several other factors that can affect how hot your grill gets and how long it stays at a particular temperature.
How to measure charcoal
Knowing exactly how many briquettes will give you a particular temperature and burning time can allow you to get the same temperature every time you grill. The easiest and most obvious way is simply to count out briquettes. If you use a chimney, you can judge the number of briquettes by how full the chimney is.
If you are a charcoal newbie, it is recommended that you start out with briquettes. Judging the amount of lump charcoal you need is a little more complicated since the pieces are not uniform. Smaller pieces will burn up faster and give you more heat for a shorter length of time, so your heat and burn time can be inconsistent. As you gain experience with lump charcoal, you will be able to make rough guesses based on the number of small pieces versus the number larger pieces. Of course, you can always start with more than you think you will need and extinguish what you don’t use.
- Fast-cooking foods on low heat (fish, delicate vegetables, hot dogs): Use 15-20 briquettes. This equates to a chimney that is 25 percent full of lump charcoal.
- Fast-cooking foods at high heat (steaks, ranging from porterhouse to flank and skirt): Use 100 briquettes (extinguish when you are done cooking; you won’t use them up). This equates to a chimney that is 75-100 percent full of lump charcoal.
- Longer-cooking foods at medium heat (burgers, chicken breasts): Use 30-45 briquettes. This equates to a chimney that is 50-75 percent full of lump charcoal.
- Long-cooking foods at low heat (ribs, pork shoulder, brisket): Use 15-30 briquettes and add more as they burn down to keep the temperature constant. This equates to a chimney that is 25-50 percent full of lump charcoal.
Positioning your charcoals
How you position your charcoals can affect how much heat you get from a given amount of charcoal. For example, piling it all on one side of the grill allows you to have a hot zone and a cool zone. This is important when grilling fast-cooking items at high heat such as steaks; you can also use it when grilling longer-cooking items at moderate heat. This method allows you to quickly move the food to the cool side in the event of a flare-up.
Spreading the charcoal out in a single layer on the bottom grate can give you low heat and even cooking, which may be useful when grilling fast-cooking foods at low heat.
For long-cooking items that require low heat, you can use the hot-zone/cool-zone method and place them over the cool zone so that they are heated indirectly. This will allow you to cook large pieces of meat for several hours without them charring or drying out.