We’ve tested gas grills at Consumer Reports for decades, and we find huge differences in heating patterns, pre-heat times, and the level of control they provide when cooking. We haven't tested charcoal grills as regularly, and each time we do, it confirms our long-held belief that the results are largely dependent on the skill of the user, who has to be ready to adjust dampers, monitor cooking temperatures, and handle coals to get outstanding results.

Despite all the oversight, charcoal grill enthusiasts think it's well worth the effort. “Smoke is a byproduct of combustion, and the smoke from burning gas and charcoal are different," says Craig "Meathead" Goldwyn, a celebrated grilling expert and judge on the professional barbecue circuit, on his website, Amazingribs.com. "Charcoal makes more smoke than gas, with a broader range of tasty flavor molecules, because it's burning complex organic molecules.” In other words, the smoke from charcoal makes food taste better.

Here's a step-by-step guide to how to cook on a charcoal grill. Try it and see if you can taste the difference. 

The Charcoal

Choose the right coals. Novice grillers should start with charcoal briquettes. In our tests, they heat more evenly than irregularly shaped lump charcoal. Seasoned grillers can give lump hardwood charcoal a try. It burns slightly hotter, which makes it a good choice for searing.

How much to use. One charcoal chimney’s worth, give or take. Charcoal starter chimneys hold about 3 pounds of coal, a good amount for most grills 16 to 26 inches across. If you want to be precise, check to see if your grill has a maximum fill line—otherwise, consult the manual.

How to light the charcoal. Fill the chimney to the top and rest it on a level, heatproof surface, like an asphalt driveway—or directly on the grates of your grill. Place a single, natural fire starter under the chimney—crumpled newspaper will suffice—and light the starter with a long match or electronic igniter. Allow the starter to ignite the coals and let the flames travel to the top of the chimney, burning until all the coals are lit and slightly ashed over, a process that takes about 20 minutes.

Controlling the Heat

How to arrange the coals. For foods that cook quickly without much risk of burning, like hot dogs, burger patties, and cut-up veggies, dump the coals in the center of the grill and distribute them evenly across the grill’s lower grate.

For foods that require a hot sear, like a steak, or that take a long time to cook through, like a bone-in chicken breast, you’ll want to build a two-zone fire. Arrange all the lit coals on one half of the grill’s lower grate. That creates a searing surface over the side with coals, and an indirect cooking area on the side without. With either method, add coals continuously every 30 to 60 minutes to roughly maintain the quantity that you started with.

Charcoal Grill Face-Off
Two iconic charcoal grills face off in this barbecue showdown

When to close the lid. There’s no hard and fast rule about when to use the lid, so you’ll need to take clues from what you’re cooking. Generally, most foods that cook quickly, over a single-zone fire, can be cooked without the lid in place. You’ll want the lid for foods that take longer to cook because it helps trap hot air, producing indirect convection heat, which cooks foods through without scorching the surface from direct contact with flames. 

Adjusting the dampers. Most charcoal grills have two sets of dampers, one near the bottom and the other on top of the lid. Both can be opened or closed, as needed, to control the flow of air through the grill and, in turn, the heat inside. Opening the dampers makes the coals burn hotter, and closing them does the opposite.

Grilling and Smoking

Monitoring the temperature. When grilling, there are two temperatures worth tracking: The internal temperature of your grill and the internal temperature of your food. For food, we recommend an instant read digital thermometer, like the Polder Stable Read THM-379, $18.

For monitoring the temperature of your grill, you can use any leave-in digital meat thermometer. Just make sure to choose one like the Oregon Scientific Wireless BBQ/Oven AQ131 Meat Thermometer, $40, which has a braided steel sleeve over its wires, designed to prevent crimping or melting where it touches the hot surfaces of the grill. Position the probe on the grates, without the tip touching metal, so that it measures the temperature at the cooking surface.

Adding smoke. Pros of the barbecue circuit use smoke the way chefs use salt—to develop deeper flavor profiles of whatever they're cooking without overwhelming the senses. Whole muscle cuts of meat, like pork ribs or lamb shoulder, tend to take smoke best. To get that smokey flavor, use one to two handfuls of wood chips for every chimney of charcoal.

We won't weigh in on what wood varieties to try—it's purely a matter of preference learned best through trial and error—but whatever you choose, soak the chips for 20 minutes in water to help them burn slowly and minimize flare-ups. Don't add the chips until you add your food. Meat is best able to absorb smoke flavor in the first few minutes of cooking, so you don't want chips to burn away before they've worked their magic.

Getting Rid of the Coals

When you're done with the grill, close the lid and shut both sets of dampers. That will tamp down or extinguish the coals. Anything unburned can be transferred to a metal can and saved for future use.

To get rid of any residual ash or embers, place them in a waterproof metal can, saturate with water, and allow them to sit overnight or longer before throwing them away. Char-Broil recommends wrapping the cooled ash in aluminum foil and throwing the packet in a noncombustible garbage bin.