Tips to Master Charcoal Grilling

My Meco 4100 Swinger

Image A - My Meco 4100 Series Swinger grill after more than two years of extensive use.  Keep your charcoal grill clean and dry to preserve its charming appearance and extend its useful life.
Image A - My Meco 4100 Series Swinger grill after more than two years of extensive use. Keep your charcoal grill clean and dry to preserve its charming appearance and extend its useful life.

Nothing Beats Grilling with Charcoal

We've all seen those commercials where a dutiful but frustrated father simply cannot light the charcoal in a grill after several bungled attempts. Or the lit charcoal somehow doesn't generate enough heat to cook the food properly. These advertisers obviously want us to abandon the longtime tradition of charcoal grilling in favor of purchasing a gas grill, taking the family to a restaurant or following some other costlier alternative.

Well, don't let them sway you. Grilling with hardwood charcoal offers an ideal opportunity to spend some pleasant time outdoors. Moreover, it produces some of the best cooking results that you will ever taste. No adequate substitute exists for the smoky flavor that it imparts.

My passion for grilling with charcoal developed when I was a child. My parents would grill outdoors at least once a week during the summer. Through observing them and later helping them, I began to learn what to do and what not to do with a charcoal grill.

Of course, living in college dormitories and apartments prevented my being able to grill with charcoal as often as I would have as a young adult. However, since becoming a homeowner, I have gradually increased the frequency of my grilling with charcoal. As a resident of the Deep South, I now grill outdoors almost year-round. During the summer, I try to avoid cooking with the stove or the oven, which generates extra heat in the house. So I fire up my grill just about every summer day that it does not rain.

My extensive practice of charcoal grilling has endowed me with exceptional skill in and knowledge of this craft. I have adopted and developed techniques that enable me to produce a viable, lasting fire that sufficiently cooks the food every time I choose to grill with charcoal. I have implemented methods that actually facilitate the use of a charcoal grill, ensuring that it remains the delightful activity that it is intended to be. The continued success that I have experienced from following these techniques and methods has inspired me to share them here so that others may benefit from what I have learned over the past few decades.

Dobie Pads

Image B - Use Dobie pads to scour the stubbornly stained surfaces of your grill without scratching them.
Image B - Use Dobie pads to scour the stubbornly stained surfaces of your grill without scratching them.

A Clean, Dry Grill Works Best

Image A shows the Meco Series 4100 Swinger charcoal grill that I have used extensively for more than two years. The grill that I owned previously was also a Swinger, which I used for more than seventeen years. Obviously, I like the stylish, durable Swinger. Its features include a hinged hood that can be easily raised or lowered. The lowered hood seals the bowl, or bottom half, of the grill. The top of the hood and the front and back of the bowl contain adjustable vents that allow you to grill while the hood is lowered, which retains heat and enhances the smoky flavor.

Thus, if you happen to be in the market for a charcoal grill, based upon my long-standing satisfaction, I highly recommend the Swinger or another model from Meco Corporation. However, Weber also manufactures some high-quality products that would certainly warrant your consideration.

Regardless of what manufacturer or model you choose, keeping your charcoal grill as clean and dry as you possibly can will preserve its pleasing appearance, maximize the quality of its performance, maintain the safety of its operation and extend its useful life.

The scope of this discussion is limited to conventional charcoal grills. Thus, most of the remarks herein do not apply to ceramic cookers, which include the immensely popular Big Green Egg. Among the many features that distinguish these ceramic smoker grills is the fact that they are completely weatherproof. Therefore, they can safely remain outdoors on a permanent basis.

However, conventional charcoal grills are primarily constructed of steel. Since extended exposure to moisture causes steel to rust, which essentially means decompose, you should protect your conventional grill from this destructive element.

Do not allow your conventional charcoal grill to be exposed to rain. If you anticipate a shower or if one commences and your grill does not contain any burning charcoal, move the grill to a garage or some other appropriate shelter. If a shower commences while your grill does contain any burning charcoal, move the grill to a covered porch or some other sheltered but thoroughly ventilated area. If your grill does get rained upon, when the first opportunity arises, remove as much water from the grill as you can with a sturdy rag or towel. Then place the grill in the location that offers the optimal available drying conditions. This may be your garage, especially if rain is still falling or night has arrived. However, a warm, sunny spot would be ideal.

If you already know that you will not be using your grill for an extended period, go ahead and store it in a garage or some other appropriate shelter. That especially applies for winter and the colder months. However, storing your grill would also be worthwhile for shorter periods--for example, the two weeks during the summer that you will be out of town. No need to expose your grill to harsh elements, especially the snow and freezing rain of winter, when no reason or benefit whatsoever exists for doing so. Storing the grill is also an excellent security measure, although thieves rarely target this item.

What about a grill cover? A grill cover may be suitable for temporary protection. However, I do not recommend its long-term use. The cover may not fit the grill snugly. Thus, during a violent storm, a strong wind can blow the cover away from the grill, allowing it to get wet anyway. Also, to protect the grill from getting wet, the grill cover must be impermeable, which means that water cannot pass through it. This impermeability is both a blessing and a curse. Sure, it protects the grill from the precipitation that lands on the external surface of the cover. However, evaporation can enter through the lower end of the cover, which is open. The impermeability traps this water vapor under the protective cover. Whenever the temperature drops sufficiently, such as at night or during colder weather, this trapped vapor condenses, causing water to collect on the grill. This prolonged contact with the trapped moisture will cause the grill to rust. And, depending upon how long the cover remains in place, you might not notice this damage for quite some time.

In addition to keeping your grill dry, keeping it as clean as possible is equally important. The external surface of your grill endures extended exposure to outdoor elements: dirt, pollen, bird droppings, etc. As you grill, spattering grease collects on the internal surfaces of the hood and the bowl. An even greater amount of grease and other drippings drop onto the fire grate/ash pan, which rests at the bottom of the bowl and serves as a removable bed for the burning charcoal. These drippings combine with charcoal ashes to create the unsightly "crud" that accumulates on the fire grate/ash pan. Also, the mostly charred residue of grease and other extracted juices stain the cooking grid, the panel of spokes on which the food rests for grilling. You must remove these undesirable substances at the appropriate times to preserve the pleasing appearance of your grill, maintain the safety of its operation, maximize the efficiency of its combustion and protect the delectability of the food it cooks.

As you know, any buildup of grease presents a possible fire hazard. Thus, whenever a thick layer of grease covers the internal surface of the bowl, you should remove it. The need to handle this task serves as an ideal prompt to go ahead and perform a comprehensive cleaning of your grill.

You should restrict this undertaking to a warm, sunny day. Try to begin no later than the early afternoon. You want to allow sufficient time for the cleaned and rinsed grill to dry thoroughly in sunlight. Of course, you should never conduct such an extensive cleaning if rain or other precipitation is expected within the next few hours. Also, if you choose to perform this project on a driveway or similar surface, be sure to put down some rubber mats to prevent the metal surfaces of the grill from being scratched.

Remove the cooking grid. Using a handyman's scraper or an adequate substitute, scrape as much food residue as you can from the grid. Then apply a multi-purpose cleaner and degreaser to the grid. I have experienced consistent success with Greased Lightning by HomeCare Labs. However, regardless of which product you choose, you should follow all directions and heed all warnings on the label.

Allow the proper interval for the degreaser to take effect. Then, to enhance your cleaning effort, wash the grid with a solution of detergent and water. Upon completing this task, rinse the grid thoroughly. Then place it in a sunny location to dry, preferably by suspending it from or propping it against the side of a deck or similar outdoor structure. Obviously, you should avoid placing your clean grid on the ground or wherever it would be overly susceptible to contact with dirt and other debris.

Since the degreaser has dissolved the foreign substance, you can probably achieve an acceptable result by implementing a sturdy rag to wash the grid with soapy water. However, you may have chosen not to apply a degreaser, or you may simply prefer to implement a utensil that is better suited for this task. Just remember that whatever utensil you implement must not scratch the nickel plating of the cooking grid, which protects this steel component from rusting. And, if you have not applied degreaser to the grid or it is exceptionally dirty, you must use a pad that scours.

Throughout my years of experience, I have consistently used Dobie pads by Scotch-Brite to scour my cooking grid clean without scratching its nickel plating. I've yet to find an adequate substitute to handle this task.

I do recommend that you wash the cooking grid with a Dobie pad and a solution of detergent and water as a primary or secondary cleaning whenever you perform a comprehensive cleaning of your grill, . However, if you have used your grill since its last comprehensive cleaning, you should wash the grid as I have described before you place food upon it again. More specifically, I recommend a washing or at least a rinsing of the cooking grid right before every grilling session. Obviously, a recently washed or rinsed grid offers a more sanitary surface on which to cook your food.

After each grilling session, the mostly charred remnants of grease, sauce and other residue stain the cooking grid. If you have not removed this residue before the next grilling session, the application of additional heat from the new fire burns this residue further. Much of this thoroughly burnt residue transfers to the food that you place upon the contaminated grid. The presence of these specks of burnt foreign substances detracts from the flavor and appeal of the food. Why let these crunchy bits of foreign matter spoil your superb cooking?

In addition, remember that each subsequent heating of any lingering residue on the cooking grid entrenches the resulting stains, rendering them virtually impossible to remove.

Proceeding with the comprehensive cleaning, remove the fire grate/ash pan. If it contains any crud, dump as much of it as you can into an appropriate receptacle.

Regarding my Meco model, the mesh upper layer of the fire grate/ash pan is removable from the lower basin. Simply slide the mesh to one side of the basin until the edge of the mesh at the opposite side is free of the basin's retaining groove. Then just lift the mesh away from the basin. Using a scraper, remove the crud from the interior of the basin, where the bulk of this debris collects, and both sides of the mesh.

I actually recommend that you scrape the fire grate/ash pan clean to this extent at some time before every grilling session. Leftover crud clogs the pan, which limits the flow of air through this structure. Of course, a primary component of air is oxygen, which is necessary for the existence of any fire. Thus, the restriction of air in turn limits the supply of oxygen to the fire grate/ash pan, which subsequently inhibits the combustibility of the charcoal placed upon it. This inhibition causes difficulty in starting a fire or enabling it to generate sufficient heat.

Burning charcoal on a crud-clogged fire grate/ash pan causes the leftover grease and other residue to burn and smolder. This ignited grease manifests itself in flare-ups, which can singe the cooking grid and burn the food. Thus, you can greatly reduce the likelihood of flare-ups simply by removing this leftover grease from the pan before you start every new fire.

The less combustible components of leftover crud are more likely simply to smolder during a subsequent fire. This smoldering crud emits a foul odor during the subsequent grilling session. In worst cases, it smells as if the chef is cremating roadkill. This offensively unappetizing odor taints the aroma and flavor of the grilled food. Thus, why allow the stench of smoldering crud to ruin your remarkable cooking?

After you have scraped the fire grate/ash pan as clean as possible, if you are preparing to use your grill, simply slide the mesh layer back into place, ensuring that its edges slip under the basin's retaining grooves . However, if you are performing a comprehensive cleaning, leave these two components separated. Again in accordance with all the manufacturer's directions and warnings, apply some degreaser to both sides of the mesh and the interior of the basin. If some grease has seeped onto the other side of the basin, apply some degreaser there also. Allow the proper interval for the degreaser to take effect. Then, to enhance the cleaning effort, scour the mesh and the basin with a Dobie and a solution of detergent and water. The Dobie will probably need to be discarded after you complete this messy chore, so select an older one for this duty if you can.

Upon completing this task, rinse both pieces thoroughly. Then place them in a sunny location to dry, preferably by propping them against the side of a deck or similar outdoor structure. Try to avoid placing them directly on the ground. Be sure to place the basin so that the excess water drains from it.

Now you are ready to clean the main body of the grill, which includes the hood and the bowl.

As you grill, the bulk of the grease that does not collect on the fire grate/ash pan spatters primarily onto the bowl and secondarily onto the hood. The buildup of this spattered grease does present a potential fire hazard. Thus, the timely removal of this grease is necessary to maintain the safe operation of your grill and serves as a vital function of the comprehensive cleaning.

Again in accordance with all the manufacturer's directions and warnings, apply some degreaser to the interior surfaces of the hood and the bowl. If some grease has seeped onto their exterior surfaces, you may need to apply some degreaser there also. Allow the proper interval for the degreaser to take effect. Then, to enhance your cleaning effort, wash the degreased surfaces with a solution of detergent and water. The utensil that you implement must not scratch the baked-enamel finish of the grill. Thus, I recommend using a sturdy rag or, if you desire more scouring power, a Dobie pad. Just remember that whatever apparatus you use will absorb much of the dissolved grease. Thus, you will probably need to use several rags or pads, and they will need to be discarded afterwards. Consequently, be sure to select these cleaning utensils accordingly.

The remaining surfaces of your grill should not require degreasing or other intensive cleaning. To avoid possibly contaminating these relatively cleaner surfaces, wash them with a solution of detergent and water. Since scouring shouldn't be necessary, simply use a clean, sturdy rag to wash these lightly soiled surfaces. Don't waste a Dobie on this task.

When you have finished washing the main body of your grill, rinse its internal and external surfaces thoroughly. Selecting a sunny location, preferably where the other components should already be drying, place some rubber mats on the deck or other outdoor surface. Fully raising the hood, turn your grill upside down and place it on the mats so that the bottom edge of the hood and the top edge of the bowl rest on the mats. Allow the grill to remain in this position until all the water has drained from the bowl. Then turn it upright, leaving the hood fully raised.

Allow the main body and other components of your grill to remain in this sunny location until they are completely dry. Move them as needed to maximize the intensity and the duration of their exposure to sunlight and to protect them from contact with any unexpected precipitation.

When all the components are thoroughly dry, assemble them accordingly. If you do not plan to use your grill for an extended period, go ahead and store it in a garage or similar shelter.

Kingsford Original Charcoal

Image C - Kingsford Original Charcoal always lights easily and burns dependably.  I highly recommend this product.
Image C - Kingsford Original Charcoal always lights easily and burns dependably. I highly recommend this product.

Light the Fire

Okay, you have a clean, dry charcoal grill, and you want to use it.

Charcoal grilling can be a year-round activity. The determining factor for engaging in this outdoor endeavor is usually whether you are willing and able to tolerate the weather at hand. However, you should avoid grilling outside whenever exceptionally strong winds are blowing. Grilling under those unfavorable conditions would present a potential fire hazard. And the mighty gusts would disperse the heat from your charcoal, rendering it incapable of sufficiently cooking any food.

Always remember that burning charcoal emits the potentially lethal gas carbon monoxide. Therefore, you must always operate your grill in a thoroughly ventilated area. Ideally, that would be some spot with nothing but open air above it: on a deck, on a patio, in a backyard, etc. However, if you operate your grill where a ceiling is present, such as a porch or an apartment deck, you must also ensure that the rising flame and heat do not singe or ignite the overhead structure.

After setting up your grill in an appropriate location, raise the hood and remove the cooking grid. If you have not grilled food on the grid since its last washing, you may simply spray it with a garden hose to remove any foreign particles that might have collected on it. Otherwise, just hang or place it temporarily where it will remain clean. If you have grilled food on the grid since the last time you washed it, simply set it aside for now.

Remove the fire grate/ash pan. If it contains debris from a previous grilling session, remove any pieces of charcoal that did not burn and set them aside. Then dump as much as you can of the remaining debris into an appropriate receptacle.

I have dedicated a traditional galvanized-steel trash can for this sole purpose. Adhering to this method eliminates the possibility of ever having the dumped charcoal set the receptacle or its contents on fire. Consequently, I strongly recommend it. However, if you choose to use a non-metallic receptacle or one that contains other trash, be sure that the fire has been fully extinguished throughout the charcoal before you dump it.

After you have discarded the loose debris from the fire grate/ash pan, separate the mesh layer from the basin and scrape them clean as I have described. Allow these scrapings to collect in the same receptacle in which you have dumped the loose debris. Reassemble the two components upon your completion of this task.

If you have not cooked on your grill since its last comprehensive cleaning, the bowl should be free from any foreign substances, especially if the unit has been stored. Nevertheless, if the bowl does contain any stray ashes or other trash, such as dead bugs, simply wipe away this debris with a sturdy rag. If you have used your grill since its last cleaning, the rag may also absorb some grease from this wiping. So don't use a rag that you plan to use for another purpose or keep for an extended period. When you have completed this step, return the clean fire grate/ash pan to the bottom of the bowl. Fully open any adjustable vents on the bowl.

The time has arrived to add the charcoal briquets, the square nuggets of charcoal. The amount of charcoal to use depends upon many factors--including what selection of food you plan to grill, the amount of food you plan to grill, and the level to which you want to grill it. Thus, I recommend that you consult some of the many available references, including experienced grillers, for guidance on how much charcoal to use for your specific circumstances. I will say, however, that implementing the proper amount of charcoal--not too much and not too little--is crucial to achieving optimal results.

In regard to grilling, I have always been a traditionalist. Thus, I have always relied upon charcoal, not gas. And I've always drenched the briquets with lighter fluid as the method to start a fire. Since adding the lighter fluid to the briquets is what I know and, more importantly, what has always garnered satisfying outcomes throughout my experience, I will limit my discussion to that particular method. However, I readily acknowledge that other options for starting a fire do exist. For example, you can now purchase "instant" charcoal, which already contains lighter fluid. Or you can purchase single-use bags of charcoal. If these and other alternative methods interest you, please consult some of the many other references out there.

Given that I prefer to add the lighter fluid to the briquets, I have concluded that Kingsford Original Charcoal is my absolute favorite among this traditional variety. Throughout my lengthy experience, the Kingsford briquets have consistently been the easiest to light and the most reliable to burn. The performance of this high-quality product has always impressed me. Consequently, although I have tried other brands in the past, I now use Kingsford charcoal exclusively. I highly recommend it with absolute confidence.

Sure, Kingsford costs a little more. However, this product's consistently superior performance over that of other brands truly justifies its price. For example, I once tried a generic brand of charcoal that a major discount retail chain sells. The price of this product is a few dollars less than a similar-size bag of Kingsford, and each briquet is about 60% larger than a Kingsford briquet. However, I found the generic-brand briquets to be extremely difficult to light and burn. These fat chunks of charcoal would often fail to ignite or cease to burn during the grilling session. This lack of combustibility leads me to believe that the excess size of these briquets probably results from their retention of extra moisture.

Of course, each failure of a briquet to burn reduces the amount of heat that the charcoal fire can generate. That in turn leads to longer cook times or undercooked food.

What benefit is saving money if the performance of the less expensive product consistently disappoints me? If possible, I'd much rather avoid that frustration by spending slightly more to purchase a product that I know will meet or exceed my expectations.

In stark contrast to my experience with the cheaper brand, whenever I light Kingsford Original Charcoal, every briquet eventually reduces mostly or completely to ashes, the sign of a reliably burning charcoal. That is why I only buy Kingsford now

Here's a shopping tip for you: The Home Depot and Lowe's usually offer some remarkable savings on the purchase of Kingsford around Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. So check these home improvement chains and their flyers whenever one of these holidays of summer approaches. Since charcoal is nonperishable, I always stock up on Kingsford during these irresistible sales.

Anyway, to start a charcoal fire through the traditional method, stack the briquets onto the fire grate/ash pan. Start the stack at the front edge of the pan to minimize the amount of the subsequent flame that may extend to the raised edge of hood. The excess heat from these flames may char the baked enamel on the hood's exterior over time. Assemble the briquets into a pyramid as you stack them. Retrieve any pieces of unburnt charcoal from your previous fire and incorporate them into the top of the pyramid.

When you have stacked the proper amount of charcoal, drench the pyramid with lighter (starter) fluid. Avoid being stingy with this step. Indeed, failure to use enough lighter fluid is probably the most common reason for encountering difficulty in starting a charcoal fire. You must administer an ample amount of fluid to set the briquets on fire sufficiently. Thus, be sure to saturate each briquet with lighter fluid.

In direct contrast to my observations of the various brands of charcoal, I have not discerned any differences whatsoever in the performances of the various brands of charcoal lighter fluid. Basically, lighter fluid is lighter fluid. The generic brands perform just as well as the famous brands do. Thus, you can confidently purchase lighter fluid according to which selection offers the cheaper price.

Give the applied lighter fluid a minute or two to soak into the briquets. Then strike a match and apply the tiny flame to several points at the bottom of the stack. Be careful not to burn yourself as you light the fire. Use longer matches if necessary. A large flame gradually emerges from the pyramid. Just let it burn.

Needless to say, small children should not be around the grill at this time. However, if they are, watch them closely. On the other hand, if you have no children or other individuals to protect from the fire, you have approximately fifteen minutes to handle some other chores while the stack of briquets burns.

This interval presents an ideal opportunity to wash the cooking grid as I previously described. Let me reiterate that you should wash the grid if you have cooked any food on it since its last cleaning. And you should do so before you place the food for the current grilling session upon it.

When you have finished washing the grid, or if it has not been used since its last cleaning and therefore does not need to be washed at this time, rinse the grid with a garden hose and place it in a nearby location where it will not come into contact with dirt and other debris. For example, using some nylon cord and a plastic clip, I hang my rinsed grid from the top rail of my deck until I am ready to place it back onto the grill, which of course sits nearby.

The time necessary to set the briquets on fire will vary according to several factors--including humidity, wind velocity, etc. However, after approximately fifteen minutes, more or less, white ashes should cover at least half of the surface of each briquet. Upon attaining this description, the briquets have been successfully set on fire and should burn sufficiently to generate the heat necessary to grill your food. You should spread the briquets at this time. Try to handle this task promptly to maximize the time and the quantity of the burning charcoal's heat that will be available to grill your food.

The common practice has always been to use a stick to move the briquets. However, the tip of the wooden stick usually ignites from this contact with the burning briquets. Now also on fire, the stick gradually reduces to ashes, especially if it is used for multiple grilling sessions. Also, this burning stick presents a possible fire hazard, especially if it is carelessly discarded.

Therefore, I recommend using the poker from a fireplace set to move the fiery briquets. Consisting of metal, the poker will never catch on fire. Thus, regardless of how often you implement it for this purpose, the poker will retain its original length--which indeed is intended to enable the handler to operate this device at a safe, comfortable distance from a source of heat--and will never present a possible fire hazard.

Designating the poker from your current fireplace set for this extra duty shouldn't create any conflicts, especially since most fireplaces are usually inactive during the time of year that outdoor grilling occurs more frequently. However, you can easily dedicate a poker for this sole purpose simply by saving one from a fireplace set that you are replacing. Or you can simply purchase an inexpensive poker at a yard sale or from a secondhand store.

For several years now, I have used the same poker for the sole purpose of spreading the ignited briquets whenever I grill. Thus, these long-lasting devices will provide many years of reliable service. However, do remember that fireplace pokers are typically designed for indoor use. So you should always protect them from rain and excessive moisture.

Thus, applying the tip of a poker, rearrange the briquets so that each one rests on the top layer of the fire grate/ash pan in a row. To achieve an even distribution of heat, shift the briquets until they are an equal distance from each other. When you have arranged the briquets as I have described, put the cooking grid in place over the fire grate/ash pan. Place the food on the cooking grid and commence to grill it.

Of course, the specific instructions on how to grill the food will vary according to many crucial factors--including what you are grilling, the amount you are grilling and to what level you want to grill it. Therefore, please consult some of the many available references, including experienced grillers, for guidance in regard to your specific circumstances.

The Fire Grate/Ash Pan

Image D - Always build your charcoal fire on a clean fire grate/ash pan.
Image D - Always build your charcoal fire on a clean fire grate/ash pan.

The Charcoal Pyramid

Image E - Stack the pyramid at the front edge of the fire grate/ash pan to minimize the amount of the subsequent flame that may extend to the raised edge of the hood.
Image E - Stack the pyramid at the front edge of the fire grate/ash pan to minimize the amount of the subsequent flame that may extend to the raised edge of the hood.

Drenched Charcoal Pyramid

Image F - Be sure to saturate each briquet with lighter fluid to ensure that the start of your fire is sufficient.
Image F - Be sure to saturate each briquet with lighter fluid to ensure that the start of your fire is sufficient.

Ready to Grill

Image G - White ashes sufficiently cover the surfaces of these briquets.  Consequently, the briquets are ready to grill the food and should be spread at this time.
Image G - White ashes sufficiently cover the surfaces of these briquets. Consequently, the briquets are ready to grill the food and should be spread at this time.

Before

Image H - I've spread the briquets and put the clean cooking grid in place.  Now I'm grilling two juicy hamburger patties.
Image H - I've spread the briquets and put the clean cooking grid in place. Now I'm grilling two juicy hamburger patties.

After

Image I - My burgers are ready!  You'll never taste a burger better than one that has been grilled with charcoal.
Image I - My burgers are ready! You'll never taste a burger better than one that has been grilled with charcoal.

Wrap Up the Session

Some experts recommend that you douse the briquets to extinguish their fire at the end of every grilling session. Some have even suggested that you should then allow these soggy briquets to dry out and reuse them. However, I recommend that, unless you are subject to a rule or statute that requires you to follow this practice, you should not do so.

Keep in mind that an advanced charcoal fire is extremely difficult to extinguish. Thus, you will need to apply an abundance of water to accomplish this goal. In addition to the time that you devote to this activity, you must also pay a fee for the water that you expend. Moreover, many municipalities now face shortages of clean water that are projected to become even more critical in the near future. Thus, the precious resources that you expend to douse a contained charcoal fire--which include time, money and water--can certainly be put to many other more worthwhile functions.

Dousing the briquets while they are still on your grill allows water to spill onto the fire grate/ash pan, the bowl and possibly other places. As you know, wetting the components of your grill and allowing them to stay wet causes them to rust. You never want to do that.

On the other hand, if you dump the briquets onto the ground before dousing them, the burning remnants will probably scorch that underlying spot before you are able to put out their fire. Also, if you subsequently do not apply enough water to the dumped briquets--which is a distinct possibility, especially if you try to rush--the fire within one or more of them might fail to become fully extinguished and ignite some surrounding material, leading to a hazardous fire.

Upon adding water to the dump, you create a mound of soggy ashes and briquets that will be extremely difficult to clean up later. If you dump the briquets from subsequent fires onto the same spot, you will increase the size of this mess. If you dump the briquets from subsequent fires onto several different spots, you will create multiple messes. At any rate, one or more such unsightly dumping spots ruins the appearance of your landscaping, which in turn detracts from the value of your residence.

When you consider the expenditures, detriments and risks involved, dousing briquets to extinguish their fire and reuse them simply does not appear to be a worthwhile endeavor. Because I have never followed this practice, I have no idea how long it would take for these water-soaked pieces of charcoal to dry out sufficiently to be reused. However, my guess is that it would probably take several days of lying under hot sunlight, which of course is not always available. Thus, they may not be ready by the time you want to use your grill again. Remember that at least some of these remnants may have been soiled by grease, sauce and other food drippings. Who wants to maintain a collection of these messy, unsightly nuggets? I sure don't. Also, these remnants may retain enough moisture to the point that they never light as easily or burn as consistently as they did before their dousing. Why risk being frustrated by such an inferior performance?

If you do wish to reuse your briquets, simply leave them in place on the fire grate/ash pan. Fully lower the hood until it seals the bowl. Close all the adjustable vents. Since the briquets will continue to burn for some time, you must leave the grill in its thoroughly ventilated location. However, the lack of oxygen will usually extinguish the fire before the briquets become completely reduced to ashes.

This method allows you to leave the fiery briquets inside the grill, which indeed is the safest and most appropriate place to keep them. It prevents your having to expend precious time, money and water to douse the briquets. And it prevents your grill from enduring the detriment of having rust-inducing water splashed upon it.

I, however, have never followed the practice of deliberately trying to save charcoal briquets so that they can be used again. Even without having been doused, these bits of partially burnt charcoal are messy and unsightly. They tend to crumble, releasing an abundance of particles and ashes wherever you place them. I simply prefer not to keep trash like that around my home unless the prevailing circumstances warrant my doing so.

The most common reason that some briquets do not burn entirely is that they have absorbed an excess of amount of the extracted food juice that has dripped upon them. Thus, the combustibility of their remnants has probably been weakened. Consequently, I greatly prefer to use fresh briquets whenever I build a new fire in my grill.

Also keep in mind that charcoal is a relatively inexpensive product. Thus, no critical need to reuse it exists. Consequently, my practice of building every charcoal fire primarily with unused briquets does not detrimentally affect my financial status.

Therefore, contrary to what some experts recommend, I always try to achieve the complete reduction to ashes of every briquet. I never try to save charcoal. Thus, here are the steps that I follow and recommend at the conclusion of every grilling session.

Remove all food from the cooking grid. Lower the hood until it seals the bowl. Fully open all the adjustable vents. Leave the grill in its thoroughly ventilated location until the fire in every briquet has extinguished itself. By that time, ideally, all or most of the briquets should be completely reduced to ashes.

The briquets will probably require several hours to burn out on their own, so be patient. For example, since I always grill in the evening, I allow the briquets to burn overnight. After such a relatively long interval has passed, I can rest assured that the fire in each briquet has been completely extinguished.

You should continue to try to protect your grill from rain during this interval. If you suspect that you may not be able or up to moving your grill later on, simply place a clean aluminum pan on the cooking grid and directly under the open vent in the hood. Taking this simple step performs amazingly well at preventing rain from drenching the interior of your grill. Of course, you should later tend to your rain-splashed grill as soon as an appropriate opportunity arises.

Ideally, however, if rain does begin to fall on your grill, you should don some protective gloves and move the grill to a thoroughly ventilated but covered location, such as a porch. If the briquets have burned out sufficiently, you may simply move the grill to a spot under the overhang of your house, where it would receive at least some partial protection from the rain.

When you believe that the fire in every briquet has been fully extinguished, raise the hood and remove the cooking grid. Each briquet should consist wholly or mostly of ashes by now. Verify that the fire has been completely extinguished in each briquet. Upon verification of this fact, remove any unburnt pieces of charcoal and set them aside. Remove the fire grate/ash pan. Dump the remaining ashes and other loose debris into an appropriate container. I recommend a traditional galvanized-steel trash can that has been dedicated solely for this purpose. Adhering to the steps that I have already described, separate the components of the fire grate/ash pan and scrape them clean, then reassemble them.

Using a sturdy rag, wipe the interior surface of the bowl--mainly to remove any stray ashes, any other loose debris and at least some of the spattered grease. Of course, this quick wiping is not intended to accomplish the goals of a comprehensive cleaning.

Carefully scrape any excess food residue from the cooking grid. However, unless you are preparing to fire up your grill again, do not wash the grid at this time. A washed grid could be contaminated by dust, dirt, pollen and other outdoor debris by the time you are ready to grill again. Ideally, you want to wash the grid as close as you possibly can before you put food upon it in order to have the cleanest possible cooking surface. Consequently, I recommend that, except for a comprehensive cleaning, you always refrain from washing the cooking grid until you have commenced the next grilling session.

Replace the assembled fire grate/ash pan at the bottom of the bowl. Place any unburnt pieces of charcoal onto the fire grate/ash pan.

While I do not support putting forth any efforts to save lit charcoal briquets for future use by intentionally extinguishing their fire, I do strongly agree that any pieces that happen to remain after you have attempted to burn them completely to ashes should be reused. Therefore, save these remnants to place at the top of the pyramid that you build for your next charcoal fire. Try to keep them as dry as you possibly can during the interim.

Replace the cooking grid into the bowl. Even if you close the adjustable vent at the top of the hood, rainwater can still seep through it. So go ahead and put the aluminum pan in place on top of the cooking grid. Fully lower the hood to seal the bowl. Close the adjustable vents, especially if you plan to leave the grill outdoors.

If you plan to use your grill again within the next few days and do not expect rain through then, you may leave the grill in place or simply move it under a nearby overhang as a limited safeguard. However, be prepared to protect the grill further if an unexpected shower commences during this interval.

On the other hand, if you do not plan to use your grill for an extended period, or if you expect rain before your next grilling session, go ahead and store your grill in a garage or other appropriate shelter.

The Amazing Pie Pan

Image J - When your grill is not in use, place a clean aluminum pan onto the cooking grid so that it can catch rain that falls or seeps through the adjustable vent at the top of the hood.
Image J - When your grill is not in use, place a clean aluminum pan onto the cooking grid so that it can catch rain that falls or seeps through the adjustable vent at the top of the hood.

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Comments 1 comment

ellis11 5 years ago

Nice topic! I also often use charcoal for grilling. Also I have a fire pit in my backyard that I use as grill in winters.

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