Ideal Charcoal Placement and Arrangement on the Grill

Spring is in full swing and the backyard grills are being fired up around the nation. Steaks, chicken, pork and veggies are being marinated, seasoned and cooked up for family and friends to enjoy. You will find, too, that there is no shortage of advice on what to cook, how to spice, how to grill it, how long to marinate it, etc..

You may even find that there are different theories as to how to arrange your charcoal briquettes in the grill. Many people will tell you that you need to arrange your charcoal into a pyramid, douse it with lighter fluid, set it ablaze and let it burn until the charcoal starts to turn white around the edges. They would then tell you at this point you need to spread your charcoal out evenly so that your meat gets cooked evenly. There is nothing wrong with this method, nothing at all. I’ve used it dozens of times, if not more.

But my preferred method of grilling varies slightly from the one just mentioned. I also arrange my charcoal into a pyramid, douse it with lighter fluid and then light it. After the charcoal starts to turn a little white around the edges I don’t spread them out evenly across the grill. Instead, I do something a little different-nothing! I leave the charcoal to burn in the form of a pyramid the entire time I am cooking.

This type of charcoal placement does require the outdoor chef to pay very close attention to what he/she is cooking, as the grill will remain hotter in the center. What are the advantages of cooking this way, you might ask? The first advantage of this type of charcoal placement is that your grill will remain hotter, longer. You will be able to cook more food for a longer amount of time, if you wish. But the reason that I grill using this method is that everyone in my home likes their meat cooked a little differently. My wife likes the outside of her steak, chicken and pork steaks to have a nice char on them, but still be juicy in the middle and not burned. My children like their meats just pretty well done and I like mine a little pinker in the middle, but with a nice char on the outside.

With traditional charcoal placement you could still have a char on the outside, but it would mean that the middle of the piece of meat would probably be pretty well done. With all of the charcoal remaining in the middle of the grill, the outside edges of the grill are quite a bit cooler (but still warm enough to cook smaller pieces of chicken and hot dogs thoroughly.) Here’s how I do it: I first wait until I can hold my hand about 6″ from the center of the grill for about 4 seconds without it burning. I then place the larger pieces of meat into a circle or ring around the outer edges of the grill, with all pieces pointed towards the center. The portion of each piece that is pointing towards the center will cook faster as it is getting the brunt of the heat. After a short while, I flip all pieces end over end and side to side as space permits. It’s just that simple.

As you’re cooking, the charcoal pyramid will get smaller and smaller but will still retain a good amount of heat. If your meat needs more cook time, you just move each piece closer and closer to the center. As mentioned earlier, this method of charcoal placement does require a little more supervision than others, as the portions of the meat that are pointed towards the center will burn quickly if not monitored closely. But, if done correctly, you will be left with very juicy, thoroughly cooked meat that has a beautiful char on it that can be tailored to your guests desire.