Food & Drink

How to Use a Charcoal Grill: Tips and Tricks to Master your Grilling Game | What’s Cooking

The basics of how to grill with hardwood lump charcoal from a Nordstrom chef; photo by Jeff Powell.

Nordstrom Culinary Logistics Manager and former Executive Chef Dan Wood takes us through the basics of charcoal grilling, with expert tips to ensure optimal results—including how to achieve those elusive grill marks.

Charcoal grilling tips from a pro chef.

#1. Fuel. We prefer and recommend using hardwood lump charcoal over briquettes. It burns cleaner and hotter, and produces very little ash.

The basics of how to grill with hardwood lump charcoal from a Nordstrom chef; photo by Jeff Powell.

How much charcoal to use? Testing is the best method. Try a dry run by covering just over half the bottom of your grill with the raw lump charcoal, then add it to your chimney (see below). Mark this amount for the next time. If you’re planning on cooking a lot of food, start another batch of charcoal in your chimney to feed the grill when the first round dies down. Lump charcoal can be relit and used later. If you have any left over after grilling, cover your grill and close the vents to extinguish the coals. Or make s’mores. 🙂

The basics of how to grill with hardwood lump charcoal from a Nordstrom chef; photo by Jeff Powell.

Invest in a chimney starter for easy and even ignition. Use a paper towel or newspaper sprayed with a little oil under the chimney to light your charcoal—it will take about 15-20 minutes to light completely. Avoid lighter fluid, which can impart unwanted flavors and isn’t necessary.

The basics of how to grill with hardwood lump charcoal from a Nordstrom chef; photo by Jeff Powell.

#2. Fire. Once your charcoal is covered in a thin layer of white ash, pour it over half the bottom of your grill. Placing your charcoal to one side gives you two cooking areas: a hot direct-heat zone above the charcoal and a cooler indirect-heat zone.

Place your grill grate over the charcoal and cover with the lid, ensuring the lower and upper vents are halfway open. Leave the grill covered to preheat for 5-10 minutes before cooking. Give the heated grates a final cleaning with a wire brush, and prepare them for grilling with a light coating from a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil.

The basics of how to grill with hardwood lump charcoal from a Nordstrom chef; photo by Jeff Powell.

#3. Temperature. A grill thermometer can be handy; if your grill isn’t equipped with one, use these guidelines to approximate the temperature.

Hold your hand 4 inches above the grates and count until the heat from the coals makes you remove your hand.
• 2-3 Seconds = High Heat (500º F)
• 4-5 Seconds = Medium-High Heat (400º F)
• 6-7 Seconds = Medium Heat (350º F)
• 8-10 Seconds = Medium-Low Heat (325º F)
• 11-15 Seconds = Low Heat (300º F)

#4. Masterpiece Grill Marks. A properly prepared grill will help with those much-coveted grill marks—and the 2-zone fire will help ensure you don’t overcook anything. To achieve great crosshatch marks, place food at a 45-degree angle to the grate, so the marks will be angled on the finished product. To achieve the diamond crosshatch, rotate after 1-2 minutes at 90 degrees and sear again for the same amount of time. Turn the food over and repeat crosshatching on the other side, if desired. Once the marks are firmly imprinted, you’ll want to avoid overcooking the outside and to preserve your masterpiece by moving the food to the cooler side of the grill. Cover and continue to cook until it’s done to your liking or as called for in your recipe.

The basics of how to grill with hardwood lump charcoal from a Nordstrom chef; photo by Jeff Powell.

#5. The End Goal. You’re aiming to achieve golden-brown to dark color on as much of the surface as possible, while minimizing tan and black colors. Dark-brown, caramelized crusts are the most flavorful part of grilled meat. This process—called the Maillard reaction—occurs when heat changes the structure of amino acids and simple sugars, creating hundreds of new fragrant and flavorful molecules.

The basics of how to grill with hardwood lump charcoal from a Nordstrom chef; photo by Jeff Powell.

Ready to put your new tricks to the test? Check out all our recipes for your grill.

[Photos by Jeff Powell]