The Biggest Mistake You Could Be Making With Barbecue Coals

Barbecuing with coals is the best way to get that charred, smoky flavor you want from a grill, but the tradeoff from easier methods like gas is that cooking with charcoal is subject to a lot of mistakes. With coals you need to take the time to light them evenly, arrange them properly, and manage the temperature levels on what can be an unpredictable heat source that you can't just adjust with the turn of a knob. Coals have a bit of a life of their own, and that's why the biggest mistake you can make with them is giving up control too soon. That means not spreading out your coals and starting to cook until they are fully heated through.

The hardest part of barbecuing with charcoal isn't necessarily the coals themselves, the challenge is patience. It's too easy to expect that with fire, and maybe a little lighter fluid, you can get a roaring heat and toss that meat on the grill in a matter of minutes, not to mention the simple temptation of eating your delicious smoked ribs or chicken that much faster. But coals take a while to heat up and they need the shared environment of a pyramid stack, or chimney starter, to take on a consistent level of heat. Wait until they are extremely hot, which will be signaled by an even ashy gray color, before you consider arranging them for cooking.

Spreading out your coals too soon can lead to big temperature fluctuations

When coals are still black it means they are still heating up. Even if your grill feels warm enough, spreading them out at this point means they could spike in temperature and burn or overcook your food. Similarly, coals that are hot on the outside and turning gray can still be heating up on the inside, which is why you need to be patient and trust the process. Remember that the more oxygen your coals receive, the hotter they get, so spreading out your coals and exposing them to more air actually makes things even hotter at first. Once you've started cooking, you want to manage the heat of your grill by moving your food and coals around, or adjusting vents and the lid (things you actually have control over), and not by the unpredictable fire in the coals themselves.

The time it takes for coals to get fully heated can vary from 10 to 20 minutes on average, so you want to depend heavily on visual clues. In addition to your coals being fully gray, they should have stopped smoking. Only then should you be pushing them into a two-zone or three-zone setup and breaking out the food. It's not easy to stare down a stack of burgers and wait 20 minutes to lay them on the grill, but it's the only way you'll ensure the best result.