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Temperatures are warming up and grilling season is here. This summer, with social distancing still a necessity, grilling out will likely be an even more popular way to spend time at home.
Gas grills have been the go-to option in recent years because of convenience ― they’re easier to light, clean and cook on, and have a lower carbon footprint than charcoal grills. But home grillers are showing more interest in charcoal grills these days.
Sales of charcoal grills grew 9% from 2014 to 2019, according to The Freedonia Group, which predicts grill sales, especially online sales, to remain steady as the pandemic continues and people stay home.
“Charcoal is kind of the next evolution where you sacrifice just a touch of convenience for so much more flavor,” said Matt Moore, author of “Serial Griller.” “Charcoal grilling is primarily done for the flavor, for the atmosphere and the smoke.”
If you’re new to charcoal grilling, there are a few things to know when shopping for a charcoal grill. Moore and other grill masters share some insights, including their favorite grills and types of charcoal.
What to look for in a charcoal grill
Do plenty of research, said Atlanta-based chef Devika Patridge, who works with the subscription meal plan Hungry@Home.
“I personally have bought too many to count because with each one I realized there was something else I needed or wanted in a grill,” Patridge told HuffPost. “Before you shop, know what size grill you need for your family and for entertaining purposes. If your grill is too small, your grilling time will be longer because of limited grilling space.”
Charcoal grills come at a variety of price points, from $50 to several thousand dollars, said Thinh Phan, grilling expert and editor of Barbecue In Progress. Cheaper isn’t always the best option, though.
“You can buy a cheaper grill, but you find out later that you don’t like cooking on it at all,” Phan said.
Charcoal grills also come in many shapes and sizes. How much outdoor space do you have? How many people do you regularly feed? Thinking about these questions will help you purchase the right sized grill for your needs. But when in doubt, go bigger if you can.
“I’d always recommend going one size up,” Phan said. “You might think you only need to cook for four people, but things will happen.”
Check that the grill has intake vents that allow you to control oxygen levels, and exhaust vents to let smoke and heat escape. Both let you control the internal temperature in the grill, which is necessary for cooking, Phan said.
“Controlled airflow is really what makes a charcoal grill a grill. Otherwise, it’s just a box to light a fire in,” said Tony Matassa, chef with Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based online retailer BBQGuys, which reports a charcoal grill sales increase of more than 100% in April from the previous year.
Adjustable-height grates also offer more cooking control, Matassa said. High-quality charcoal grills are made of thick-gauge metal with solid welding, and feature removable ash pans, trays and other parts for easy cleaning.
Here’s a rundown of some of these experts’ favorite charcoal grills:
Phan calls this grill a “classic American icon.” Its spherical shape allows for indirect-heat cooking, and he likes the built-in thermometer and removable ash pan.
“It’s easy to use, in terms of both temp control and cleaning up,” Phan said
The grill also comes in an 18-inch or 26-inch version.
The open, hibachi-style grill is made of cast iron and the grate heights are adjustable. Moore recommends the grill for small balconies and those new to grilling, because it’s simple to use and portable.
“It sits in the back of my truck all the time,” he said. “You can take it on the go, and it’s affordable and will outlast you.”
“You can count on this grill for weekend after weekend of cookouts,” Matassa said, noting it’s made of cast aluminum, which won’t rust.
“This grill also comes with a unique venting system that makes it easy to grill using direct or indirect heat, meaning you can perform a variety of cooking styles,” he said. It also doubles as a smoker.
Matassa recommends this 29-inch grill for newbies, since it has an electric ignition system that lets you light the coals by pushing a button. It also has built-in rotisserie with three height settings.
“From a practicality standpoint, you have the freedom to use this grill on a pedestal or take it on the go,” he said.
Kamado-style grills and smokers are egg-shaped, ceramic and wood-burning, and they’ve become popular over the past few years, with The Big Green Egg brand one of the best known.
Moore prefers Goldens’ Cast Iron Cooker, which he says is more affordable than other kamado-style grills. It features cast iron grates, a thermometer and a weather-resistant powder coating.
Lump vs. briquette charcoal
Charcoal comes in two main varieties: lump and briquettes.
Both are made by burning wood in an oxygen-controlled environment. The remaining carbon is what becomes charcoal. Briquettes are further processed into a uniform shape and often contain additives and sometimes lighter fluid.
Many grilling experts say lump is a purer form of charcoal.
“Lump and briquettes mainly differ in the way they produce heat,” Phan explained. “Lump burns hotter than briquettes. Yet lump is irregular in shape, making it unpredictable. One piece of lump will burn differently than another one.”
Because they’re uniform in shape, briquettes offer a more consistent, reliable heat output, and work well for long and slow cooking, Phan said.
“My choice of charcoal usually depends on what I am grilling,” Patridge said. “When I want an earthy smoke I use lump charcoal. It’s made of burned wood, so naturally it adds a sweet smokiness to what is on the grill.”
How to light a charcoal grill
Lighting a charcoal grill takes some finesse, but try not to use lighter fluid, Patridge said.
“Although it is definitely a time saver, I personally choose to avoid lighter fluid,” she said. “Maybe because I am a chef, I want each aspect of my food to be created by me starting from the kindling of the flame to the garnish.”
Lighter fluid can also leave a “chemical aftertaste” in food cooked on the grill, Patridge said.
The most convenient way to light a charcoal grill is to use a chimney starter, a metal cylinder that you stuff with newspaper, fill with charcoal and light. Once the coals are hot, dump them into the grill, Moore said. Another tool is a charcoal igniter, a device with a heat fan that you place directly onto charcoal, and it heats within a few minutes.
No matter which way you light your charcoal grill, Patridge urges grillers to use their time at home during the coronavirus lockdown to experiment and break the rules when cooking out.
“Don’t wait for an evening meal to light up the grill ― the quarantine has us at home more than normally, so take advantage and light up the grill first thing in the morning,” she said. “Grilling brings people together outside, so take advantage of this time and enjoy.”