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Everything you need to know about using a charcoal grill

Plus, a skirt steak salad recipe that lets you test your skills.

Traditional barbecue skirt steak sliced as close-up on a wooden board
Adobe Stock
Skirt steak off the grill.

Anyone who has ever grilled knows that fire is as delightfully primal and instinctual as heat sources get. Nonetheless, following some basic guidelines and techniques will help you get the best results from your charcoal grill.

FUELS AND TOOLS

Charcoal Briquettes and Lump Hardwood

Charcoal briquettes are uniformly shaped and burn at an even rate. They’re fine for high-heat grilling, and a good choice when foods require medium or low heat because they’ll burn down and maintain lower heat levels for a while. I avoid self-starting briquettes, which are infused with lighter fluid, because they can impart off flavors to the food.

Pieces of lump hardwood charcoal are irregularly shaped, with a more natural appearance than briquettes. They also burn hotter and faster than briquettes, letting steaks, chops, or burgers quickly develop a crust without overcooking.

Charcoal briquettes vs. lump hardwood charcoal: Which should you use?
Anthony Tieuli
Charcoal briquettes vs. lump hardwood charcoal: Which should you use?

The Grill

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Go big, so you’ll have space for plenty of food and for a two-level fire with hot and cool zones. Air vents that adjust easily are another important feature.

Chimney Starter

Some modern charcoal grills have a gas-powered fire starter. If yours doesn’t, light your charcoal with a chimney starter (above). Crumple two or three sheets of newspaper and put them in the bottom chamber (don’t overstuff). Add the charcoal to the upper chamber and light the paper. Make sure the charcoal in the chimney starter is covered with a layer of fine gray ash before dumping it into the grill.

A chimney starter for a charcoal grill.
A chimney starter for a charcoal grill.

Grill Brush

A clean grill grate is essential, and, therefore, so is a good grill brush. I prefer the type with replaceable steel mesh pads rather than bristles. Clean the grill grate when it’s hot so gunk will be loose and easier to remove. In a pinch, you can use a crumpled piece of aluminum foil with long-handled tongs.

Tongs

These are essential for both repositioning the lit charcoal and moving food on the grate. The best ones are easy to squeeze, have scalloped pincers for a sure but gentle grip, and have a tab-operated lock that won’t trigger accidentally. Many grillers prefer extra-long tongs (16 inches or more) to put more distance between their hands and the heat.

Grilling tongs.
Grilling tongs.

A Large Offset Grill Spatula

To move delicate foods that could break apart with tongs (think fish fillets), use a heat-safe spatula with a long handle and a blade that’s offset for maximum leverage.

An offset grill spatula.
An offset grill spatula.

Instant-Read Thermometer

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A thermometer is as essential for grilling as it is for cooking indoors. Always check the internal temperature of grilled foods to ensure that they’re cooked sufficiently and to avoid cooking them to death.

TECHNIQUES AND TIPS

Keep the Grill Clean(ish)

Empty ash catchers and scrape away the accumulated soot and food matter that can ignite or make your food taste funky.

Use Enough Charcoal

You don’t want a raging inferno, but neither do you want the fire to die down too quickly, especially if you’ve spent a bundle on expensive steaks.

Make a Cool Zone

Build a multilevel fire, with hotter and cooler areas, so you can move food away from the direct heat if necessary. After dumping out the hot charcoal, move most of it to one side of the grill, creating a cooler zone on the other side.

Put hot charcoal to one side of the grill to create a cooler zone on the other side.
Anthony Tieuli
Put hot charcoal to one side of the grill to create a cooler zone on the other side.

Heat Up the Grill Grate Sufficiently

Before cooking, heat the grill for at least 5 minutes, covered.

Judge the Heat Level of the Fire

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Hold your hand, palm down, about 5 inches above the grill grate. If you have to move your hand within 2 seconds, the fire is hot; 3 to 4 seconds, the fire is medium-hot; 5 to 6 seconds, the fire is medium; and 7 seconds, the fire is medium-low.

Don’t touch the grill to test the temperature. Instead, hold your hand about 5 inches above the grill great to detect the heat.
Anthony Tieuli
Don’t touch the grill to test the temperature. Instead, hold your hand about 5 inches above the grill great to detect the heat.

Always Clean and Oil the Grill Grate Just Before Cooking

To oil the grate, hold a wad of paper towels in tongs, then dip it in vegetable oil and run it over the hot, cleaned grate.

Avoid Cross-Contamination

Never put cooked food back on a platter used to transport raw meat, poultry or fish. Always use a fresh platter.

RECIPES

Simple grilled skirt steak salad.
Photo by anthony tieuli; styling by Sheila jarnes
Simple grilled skirt steak salad.

Simple Grilled Skirt Steak

Serves 3 to 4

Prized for their rich, beefy flavor, skirt steaks are long and thin, with pronounced grain. If overcooked or cut incorrectly, they can be chewy. The essential factors for a tender grilled skirt steak are: high heat; cooking it to no more than medium (medium-rare is better); and slicing it very thin, across the grain.

Skirt steaks are too thin to use an instant-read thermometer, so you’ll have to rely on the look and feel of the meat or on nicking it to get a glimpse of the interior.

1 pound skirt steak, halved crosswise if necessary, to help it fit on the grill

Kosher salt and pepper

Neutral oil, for the grill grate

Sprinkle each side of the skirt steak with a generous amount of salt and pepper and set aside at room temperature while the grill heats. Prepare a very hot fire in a charcoal grill, or preheat a gas grill on high for 15 minutes. (If using a gas grill, leave the burners on high and grill with the lid closed.) Clean and oil the grate and grill the steak directly over the flame, undisturbed, until it is well seared, grill-marked, and cooked rare or medium-rare, about 5 to 8 minutes, turning once halfway through grilling time.

Transfer the steak to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil, and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. Divide the steak crosswise into 3- or 4-inch pieces and slice them very thin, across the grain. Serve at once or use in the accompanying salad recipe.

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Simple Grilled Skirt Steak Salad

Serves 4

1½ teaspoons red wine vinegar

1½ teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon dried oregano, plus extra for sprinkling

¾ teaspoon pressed or grated garlic (about 1 medium clove)

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

8 cups (about 4 ounces, loosely packed) baby arugula or torn romaine, or a combination

¾ cup very thinly sliced sweet onion, such as Maui or Walla Walla

1½ cups halved grape tomatoes

2/3 cup Parmesan or pecorino Romano strips, shaved with a vegetable peeler

1 recipe Simple Grilled Skirt Steak, rested and sliced

In a large bowl, whisk the vinegar, lemon juice, oregano, garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste to dissolve the salt. Vigorously whisk in the olive oil to blend. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary. Reserve about 1½ tablespoons of the vinaigrette.

Add the arugula or romaine, the onion, and most of the tomatoes and cheese strips to the bowl and toss to coat. Add ¼ teaspoon salt and pepper to taste and toss to coat. Adjust the seasoning with more salt and pepper if necessary, and spread the salad on a large serving platter to form a bed for the meat. Arrange the sliced steak over the salad, drizzle with the remaining dressing, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and the remaining tomatoes and cheese strips, and serve at once.

Adam Ried appears regularly on “America’s Test Kitchen.” Send comments to cooking@globe.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.