Our professional pitmasters at Barbecues Galore have been cooking with charcoal for quite a while now. Over the years, we learned a thing or two, so it's only right that we share our experiences with you. Here's how to arrange your charcoal SIX different ways and the pros and cons of each method.
1. Direct Heat (Hot & Fast)
2. Indirect Heat (Low & Slow)
With this method, you'll be cooking food directly above the heat source (your charcoal or briquettes). Use this method for a crisp, and sometimes lightly charred, crust. Perfect for hamburgers, fish, veggies and chicken breast.
Priorities when cooking: Regulating temperature of grill with vents and turning your meat to ensure no burning.
Pros: You'll get that smoky flavour we all love without spending hours cooking.
Cons: You will inevitably have less of a smoky flavour than the indirect low and slow method because your food will spend less time on the grill.
Cooking indirectly is the choice of many charcoal lovers. It's perfect for those large chunks of meat like briskets, ribs, whole turkeys, or chickens.
With the indirect method, you'll be placing your food away from your burning charcoal, creating a bit of distance from the heat source. Many barbecue enthusiasts will add woodchips or chunks to give the food an even better smoky flavour.
Priorities when cooking: Maintaining the smoke after you have set a constant temperature.
Pros: This will maximize the infusion of smokiness into your food and if you do it right, you can set it and forget it (for the most part).
Cons: You'll have to plan your meals a lot earlier. Also, it may take you a few tries before you get a perfect cooking experience because learning to manage a low burning flame over a long amount of time takes some practice.
Typically if you are wanting to smoke your meat you'll want to keep the grill temperature low and the smoke long-lasting. Fortunately it is not too difficult to create a fire that can sustain for hours (even 6-8 hours) with our charcoal selection.
Now to build on the direct and indirect methods:
Pile a large amount of coals on one half of the grill, and scatter a small amount of coals on the other half. Place your meat on the side with less coals to cook.
Pros: Allows for searing on the full charcoal side & also more mild direct heat on the opposite side. Great for grilling a large amount of food that may need to be cooked in different ways. For example, at a barbecue with your friends and family.
Cons: Again, the direct cooking method will give you less of a smoky flavour.
Pile a large amount of coals on one half of the grill, leaving the other side bare for indirect heat. Place your meat above the bare side to cook.
Pros: Perfect for roasting, lots of room to move your meat around and rest on the less intensely heated side.
Cons: This indirect method will require you to rotate your meat on the grill, or else you'll end up with one half more cooked than the other.
3. Three-Zone Split
Place your meat in the middle of the grill and create two heat zones on either side of it. This will likely require something like a Charcoal Basket.
Pros: You can cook your meat slow without having to rotate your meat nearly as much as in the two-zone method. Not only is there less effort involved, you won't be losing all the built up smoke that escapes when you lift the lid to rotate your meat.
Cons: Although this is technically an indirect method, the large amount of charcoal required means you'll be cooking your food much faster than the two-zone split. You may be thinking, "Why can't I just add less charcoal?". Well, you could, however you should be aware that both sides will be burning at the same time which will result in a shorter cook time in comparison to just a single side in the two-zone split.
4. The Ring of Fire (The Snake Method)
Probably the best named method for an arrangement. The Ring of Fire method is simple and to the point. Line your coals around the perimeter of your smoker and leave an empty space in the middle. This method is often done with briquettes because they stack much nicer than charcoal. Next, make sure there's a space or break in the ring for you to light your charcoal or briquettes. As it lights up, the next one in the ring will, then the next, like a domino effect. You can light just one end, and have the coals burn from one end to the other, or you can light both and have the flames meet in the middle.
Pros: This method is great for those long 6-8 hour cooks, as the coals won't reach it's maximum heat until they're all lit. Additionally, you can place your food right in the middle of your barbecue for an indirect, even cook without rotating your food mid-cook.
Oh, and this is probably Johnny Cash's favourite method, so that's pretty cool… And it burns, burns, burns. The ring of fire...
Cons: Takes much longer to set up, and there is more room for error. For example, if the grill is bumped or shaken somehow, the ring that you stacked may fall into the center, defeating the purpose of the original arrangement. Of course, you may want to restack the coals, but this can be dangerous for you and your food (wouldn't want to drop that brisket on the floor because you have to lift your grill mid-cook). You will likely need briquettes, as charcoal is much harder to stack with their varying shapes and sizes.
5. Bull's Eye
The Bull's Eye is the direct opposite of the Ring of Fire. In this case you will pile your charcoal atop one another, into the middle of the grill, with nothing on the outer edges. This gives you one large area of direct heat and the perimeter with indirect heat. For this you will leave an indentation in the middle of your pile, where you will add a few pre-lit coals. The lit coals will slowly spread outwards and downwards until the entire tower is lit.
Pros: This method will produce a lot of direct heat in the middle, prefect for cooking your steaks, while you have your burgers or side dishes heating up a little slower on the outside.
Cons: If you are going for a super hot and fast cook, this is likely not the best method, as it will take some time for all the coals to light up (you're better off lighting a large amount in the beginning of your cook). If you are going for a low and slow cook, this is also not the greatest method for you, as you'd have limited space for an indirect cook, as the heat source is in the middle rather than off to the side like a two-zoned split.
In essence, the bull's eye method is the best of both worlds, but not the best at either one. Even with a cool name, this arrangement is a jack of all trades, but a master of none.
6. The Minion Method
Coined by Jim Minion, a renowned barbecue competitor, created this method out of pure practicality and coincidence. After he assembled his Weber Smoker, he simply dumped his unlit coals into his charcoal chamber. He then placed a small number of hot coals randomly, but evenly, onto his pile of unlit coals. Next, he used his bottom vents to control the amount of air entering the cooker to keep the fire burning low and slow. Throughout the cook, the other coals will gradually catch fire, resulting in a cook time of up to 18 hours.
Pros: Needless to say, the Minion Method is perfect for the those EXTRA long low and slow cooks, y'know the ones that go overnight you just can't capture the same type of results in a short period of time. This method is great for cooking at a 225-250°F range, whatever the length of the cook.
Cons: Due to the amount of charcoal, there will be tons of ash to clean and manage throughout the cook. You will likely have to shake some of the ash to the bottom and out of your grill. You can do this by gently kicking (don't dent it), or aggressively tapping (whatever works for your), your barbecue so that your ash will sift through the charcoal and eventually exit through the bottom of your smoker.
You can also mix the charcoal around to achieve the same effect, as well as ensure your charcoals will burn more evenly. However, this method is a whole lot messier and could potentially be dangerous as you'd have to remove the top grate with your food, find somewhere to put that hot grate and aggressively mix the charcoal (imagine mixing a bucket of burning rocks... it's not as easy as the soup you ate the other day). Weber recommends that you NEVER move a hot cooker and should never operate your grill unless all parts are in place. So, mix at your own risk.
There you have it, those are our 6 different ways to arrange your charcoal. Of course, whatever method you use, whether on this list or not, is completely up to the cook's preference. Some of you may be hot and fast grillers, while others are low and slow smokers. There's also so much more to charcoal/briquette grilling than just the arrangement.
There's deciding what kind of charcoal you like; deciding if you like charcoal or briquettes; using soaked vs. un-soaked wood chips; deciding what woods compliment which charcoal; whether or not wood chunks or wood chips are preferable; and the list goes on.
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Read more about how to use the accessories and how to light the charcoal in your grill here.
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