How to Barbecue for Beginners: A Complete Basic Guide

by Chris Johns | Updated: March 8, 2021

How to Barbecue for Beginners

Learning how to barbecue for beginners can be a fun and challenging task. There are so many things you need to know about: equipment, techniques, recipes, and more.

In this guide, we’ll show you the ins and outs of grilling for beginners and teach you how to go from a beginner to a pro in no time!

What makes barbecuing so popular?

Barbecuing has an ancient history in many parts of the world. Since the 1950s, it has become increasingly popular in areas where the tradition is much more recent or even non-existent. It has become an engrossing hobby for many people.

BBQing is so tightly woven into American culture that almost everyone has something to say about the way to do it.

This is hardly surprising because there is nothing more pleasant than being with a gathering of friends and acquaintances around the barbecue, enjoying the delicious smells and atmosphere that accompany the barbecuing process – not to mention the culinary delights that it provides.

It is no longer simply skewered meat kebabs that sizzle above the embers. As well as making delicious, healthy side dishes, grilled vegetables can form mouthwatering main courses that appeal to gourmets in general and the many vegetarian barbecue enthusiasts in particular.

All of us have had experiences that help us to be better grillers. What separates the master grillers from the beginners is really an understanding of the fundamentals. What follows here is a guide for how to BBQ for beginners.

Types of Barbecue Equipment

The first step to learn how to barbeque is to understand the equipment.

As barbecuing has become progressively more popular in recent years, it has also grown more inventive. As a result, there is now a wide variety of different types of barbecues and BBQ accessories.

Whether the barbecue grill uses charcoal, gas, or electricity as fuel, the food’s flavor and aroma will not differ very much. The choice be­tween one type of grill and another is mainly a matter of convenience and personal taste. But there are differences in design and materials.

Choosing a Barbecue Grill

The most important aspect when choosing a bar­becue is that it should stand firm. The structure that supports it must be stable so as not to collapse or fall over if accidentally knocked, which would be dangerous for people and/or the surround­ings.

Another thing to consider when buying a bar­becue is the quality of construction and compliance with local safety standards. The height of the grid and spit above the heat should be adjustable. The height of the barbecue itself depends on where it will be used and the owner’s preference.

Should I buy a charcoal or gas grill?

BBQ Equipment

That decision depends a lot on what kind of griller you are.

Some grillers put a high priority on enjoying the food as quickly, cleanly, and conveniently as possible. For them, a gas grill makes the most sense. The fire is ready in 10 to 20 minutes. The temperature stays right where you need it for as long as you need it, and cleanup is minimal.

Then some grillers relish the opportunity to build their own fires and tend the coals. Glowing embers and wood smoke thrill them so much that charcoal grilling is well worth the extra time and cleanup required. They believe with every last taste bud that the flavor of food cooked over a live fire is better.

So, you tell me: which type of griller are you?

The Classic Charcoal Grill

Charcoal Grill

The charcoal barbecue is the commonest type. Its chief advantage is its mobility, enabling it to be used easily wherever permitted. Both direct grilling and indirect barbecuing can be carried out on the charcoal barbecue. Indirect grilling, the charcoal is distributed evenly, and the food is placed on a grid above it.

For cook­ing large pieces such as joints of meat or a chicken, an electric spit is easier because it saves the need to turn the meat continuously by hand.

Strictly speaking, the term “barbecuing” specifically means cooking indirectly. In this case, the charcoal is stacked to one side, and the grid is cov­ered with a lid or cover so that the air heated by the charcoal surrounds the food evenly.

A spit is not re­quired with indirect heat. This method is used mainly for roasting larger pieces of meat. Recently charcoal barbecuing has been the cause of some concern regarding possible health risks.

When dripping fat burns on the open fire, benzopyrenes can be formed, and the food may absorb these carcinogenic substances. To prevent this from happening, the food can be put on aluminum foil trays on top of the grid instead of directly on the grid itself. These trays are widely available.

Some modern barbecues offer an alterna­tive solution – the charcoal can simply be tossed to the side in a container to prevent fumes from developing. The new types of bio-barbecues collect the dripping fat along specially designed rods, transferring it to another container.

Charcoal

Charcoal Briquettes

Today, charcoal is manufactured industrially from beech or other hardwood. With good quality charcoal, all the pieces are the same size, and they should not be too small. Tiny pieces are a sign of low quality; they burn much too quickly and cannot hold the heat. Cheap charcoal is also often polluted.

For large barbecues, charcoal briquettes are ideal. These are made of powdered charcoal that is pressed into briquettes. They take longer to reach the state where the charcoal is glowing right through, but as a result, they hold the heat much longer than ordinary pieces of lump charcoal.

Coconut Barbecue Charcoal Briquettes

Slightly more expensive but environmentally friendly is charcoal made from coconut shells. This is a recent development that is popular because it bums for a long time and holds the heat well. The use of coconut shells is environmentally friendly because no trees have to be felled to provide them.

Wood fire vs. charcoal grilling

Wood Fire Barbecue

What’s the difference between cooking over a wood fire versus a charcoal fire? Is one better than the other? This is one of those BBQ basics you need to know.

It’s all about ease and time management. Barbecuing began over a wood fire, which imparts a wonderful flavor, but it has its drawbacks.

A wood-log fire tends to create huge amounts of smoke and often requires waiting up to an hour or more for the flames to settle down and the embers to reach a manageable level of heat.

Charcoal is essentially pre-burned wood, which means it reaches ideal grilling temperatures faster than wood and much less smoke.

It is made by slowly burning hardwood logs in an oxygen-deprived environment, like an underground pit or kiln. Over time, the water and resins are burned out of the logs, leaving behind big chunks of combustible carbon.

These chunks are then broken into smaller lumps, hence the name lump charcoal. It’s also known as “charwood.”

Lighting the charcoal grill

Charcoal Chimney Starter

Learning how to start a BBQ can be a bit tedious at first, but I’ll try to break it down into some easy-to-follow steps for you.

First, line the barbecue’s fire bowl with foil and open the vents. To light the charcoal, use proprietary barbecue starters and place the cubes, crum­bled pieces, or jelly directly on the foil. Build a charcoal pyramid around and over the starter, then light with a match.

As soon as you see a few pieces of charcoal glow­ing, start fanning the fire with a pair of bellows or a folded newspaper. Then scatter the glowing charcoal or briquettes evenly over the fire bowl using a poker.

Let them burn until the flames have died down and the charcoal has formed a light gray layer of ash on its surface, under which a red glow can be seen. This usually takes about 30 to 45 minutes. Do not start cooking until this stage is reached.

Oil the grid first so that the food will not stick. Then replace the grid above the embers to heat the grid itself.

Judging the heat level

As soon as briquettes are lightly covered with gray ash (or lump charcoal is lit around the edges of all the pieces), and you’ve poured the coals onto the charcoal grate, you have very high heat, actually too high for almost any food to handle without burning quickly.

Spread the coals out the way you like, set the cooking grate in place, and close the lid. It’s important now to preheat the grill. You should do this for 10 to 15 minutes to make the cooking grate hot enough for searing and make it easier to clean your grill. The heat will loosen all the little bits and pieces clinging to the cooking grate, leftover from the last time you grilled, and a grill brush will easily remove them.

There are two reliable ways to judge when the coals are ready:

One is to use the thermometer in your grill’s lid if there is one. With the lid closed, the temperature should climb past 500°F initially. Then, once it has reached its peak, the temperature will begin to fall. You can begin grilling whenever the temperature has fallen into the desired range.

Grilling Heat Chart

The second way is less technical but surprisingly reliable. It involves extending the palm of your hand over the grill at a safe distance above the charcoal grate.

Imagine a soda can standing on the cooking grate, right over the coals. If your palm were resting on top of the can, it would be about five inches from the cooking grate. That’s where you should measure the heat of the charcoal.

Hand over grill

If you need to pull your hand away after 2 to 4 seconds, the heat is high. If you need to pull your hand away after 5 to 7 seconds, the heat is medium. If you need to pull it away after 8 to 10 seconds, the heat is low. Use common sense and always pull your hand away from the heat before it hurts-you don’t want to get burned.

Adding more fuel to the charcoal grill

For a large barbecue party, the fire will have to last longer, remaining at constant heat all the time.

To achieve this, more charcoal or briquettes must be added. This should only be done when there is no food on the barbecue. Otherwise, charcoal dust or ash may be blown onto the food.

One solution used by many barbecue experts is to divide the glowing charcoal into two smaller heaps. One heap is used for cooking the food while more charcoal is added to the other heap.

When the second heap is glowing right through, it can be used for cooking the food.

How much charcoal should I use?

Lump Charcoal

That depends on your grill’s size and how much food you want to cook.

Let’s assume you have a classic 22-inch-diameter kettle grill and you are cooking for four to six people. The simplest way to measure the right amount of charcoal is to use your chimney starter. (See, aren’t you glad you got one?)

Use it as a measuring cup for charcoal. Filled to the rim (with 80 to 100 standard briquettes), a charcoal chimney starter will provide enough charcoal to spread in a single, tightly packed layer across about two-thirds of the charcoal grate.

That’s usually enough charcoal to grill a couple of courses for four to six people. If you plan on grilling longer than 45 minutes, you will probably need to add more charcoal.

Because lump charcoal comes in irregular shapes and sizes, it is harder to pack tightly in a chimney starter. So do yourself a favor; after you have spread the burning lump of charcoal across the charcoal grate, fill in any gaps by adding a few more fist-sized lumps to the fire.

The coals’ bed should extend at least four inches beyond every piece of food on the cooking grate above to ensure that every piece of the food cooks evenly.

Working the air vents

Grill Air Vents

The vents on the grill’s top and bottom help control the airflow inside the grill. More air flowing into the grill makes the fire hotter, and the more often you will have to reload it.

To slow the rate of your fire’s burn, close the top vent as much as halfway and leave the lid on as long as possible. The bottom vent should be left open whenever you are grilling, so you don’t kill your fire.

Many various types of charcoal will leave behind some ash after all the burnable carbon has been consumed. If you allow the ashes to accumulate on the grill’s bottom, they will cover the vent and deplete the air to the coals, eventually extinguishing them.

About once every hour, give the vent a slight wiping to remove the ashes by opening and closing the bottom vent several times in a row.

Extinguishing the fire

Hot Charcoal Briquettes

The easiest way is to let the charcoal burn out com­pletely. The vents should be closed while this takes place.

If this is not possible, the fire can be extin­guished by sprinkling sand on top. Never pour water over the charcoal – this will result in scalding steam and spluttering drops of dangerously hot water that could cause serious burns.

When cold, the ashes should not be thrown away. They can be used in the garden as an excellent fertilizer for flowering plants or added to the compost heap.

Additional tips for barbecuing with charcoal

The Gas Barbecue

Gas Grills

Gas grills make no smoke, so they are more “neighbor-friendly” than charcoal barbecues.

They can be located quite close to the house, on a terrace, patio, or deck.

Admittedly, a gas barbecue is not as mobile as a charcoal barbecue since it must always be connected to a gas tank. But a gas barbecue is extremely conve­nient for this very reason since it does not need pre­heating.

The grill develops its full heat more or less immediately after being lit. Also, the tempera­ture can be controlled by turning a knob.

The radiant heat is transferred to the food from above, and there is no risk of any health hazard from the burn­ing of drippings.

Another type of gas barbecue uses lava stones. Lava stone is a porous material that radiates heat when heated from below by gas jets until it glows. This creates an effect similar to that of a charcoal barbecue.

Because the stone absorbs any dripping fat, no smoke with carcinogenic substances is pro­duced.

Cooking with direct heat on a gas grill

It’s not difficult to learn how to grill on a gas barbecue. On a gas grill, simply turn all the burners on and adjust them for the heat level you want.

For example, if you want direct medium heat, turn all the burners down to medium, close the lid, and wait until the thermometer indicates that the temperature is in the range of 350° to 450°F. Then set your food on the cooking grate right over the burners.

If your gas grill does not have a thermometer, use the “hand test” described earlier.

Cooking with indirect heat on a gas grill

You can switch from direct to indirect heat almost immediately on a gas grill. Just turn off one or more of the burners and place the food over an unlit burner.

If your grill has just two burners, turn off the one toward the back of the grill. If your grill has more than two burners, turn off the one(s) in the middle of the grill.

The burners that are left on can be set to high, medium, or low heat, as desired. Whenever the food is over an unlit burner, and the lid is closed, you’re grilling over an indirect heat source.

The built-in gas barbecue

Built In Gas Grills

A built-in gas grill is an ideal solution for peo­ple with a garden who often organize large barbecue parties.

All that is needed for such a barbecue are a foundation, three walls made of bricks, building blocks of stone, and a grid placed across them. This can be home-built, or a self-assembly kit can be used.

The site is important.

Because of the danger of fire, it should not be placed too close to the house. The wind direction is also a significant considera­tion in that the barbecue should be located where the smoke will not blow towards the house or your neighbors.

You should also make sure that there is enough room around the barbecue for the guests to eat and enjoy themselves comfortably.

Very practical: the electric barbecue

Electric Grills

Electric barbecues can also be used inside the house so that barbecued dishes can be enjoyed at any time of the year, regardless of the weather or the season.

They work on the same principle as gas barbecues: the lava stones are heated and produce a constant, even heat after a short warming-up peri­od.

Manufacturers have developed a wide range of electric barbecues, from simple table barbecues to combination barbecues with microwave and con­ventional ovens.

Particularly popular: the tabletop barbecue

Tabletop Grills

Tabletop barbecues can be used in the gar­den, terrace, balcony, or house are becoming increas­ingly popular.

These portable barbecues are also very easy to clean because they can just be taken to pieces afterward and washed in the dishwasher.

A word of warning: aluminum foil trays must not be used on electric barbecues. Always put the food directly on the grid, or the barbecue may overheat.

Basic Barbecue Tips

To ensure the best results when barbecuing, follow these important tips:

The grill

The grill should be placed about 2 to 3 in/5 to 7 cm above the fire.

Before using the barbecue, the grill must be cleaned thoroughly and all burnt-on food and fat removed.

If the grill is filthy and encrust­ed with food and fat, you can use a wire brush or crumpled up foil piece.

To prevent food from sticking, it is best to oil the grill with vegetable oil before cooking. Oil is better than but­ter, which burns more easily.

Temperature

The temperature of electric or gas barbecues can easily be controlled by turning the knob.

Charcoal is a little trickier. If charcoal is too hot, push the pieces apart with a poker, or cook the food near the grid’s edge, where it will be cooler.

If the tem­perature is too low, put the food to one side, knock the ash off the charcoal, and increase the combustion rate with a few puffs of the bellows.

Cooking in aluminum foil

If you want the food to be brown on the outside, wrap it only very loosely in foil. To prevent the food from browning at all, wrap it tightly in foil.

Cooking in the charcoal embers

Food wrapped in foil can also be placed directly on the charcoal. Potatoes are particularly suitable for cooking in this way.

Cooking on a skewer

Food cooked on a skewer can be cooked very evenly since they are easy to turn. It is important that the food be arranged evenly and stuck firmly on the skewer. Brush the meat frequently with fat or marinade during the cooking process.

Dealing with flare-ups

BBQ Flare Up

A certain number of flare-ups are to be expected. When oil and fat drip into a hot grill, especially a charcoal grill, they tend to produce flames.

If the flames are barely reaching the food’s surface and then they subside, don’t worry about it. If, however, the flames are rising through the cooking grates and surrounding your food, you need to act quickly. Otherwise, the foods will pick up a sooty taste and color and burn.

On a charcoal grill, most flare-ups begin within a few seconds of putting food on the grill or right after you turn food over. Your first reaction should be to put the lid on the grill and close the top vent about halfway.

By decreasing the amount of air getting to the fire, you may extinguish a flare-up. You can check the flare-up status by carefully looking through the partially open vent.

If the flames are still threatening, open the lid and move the food over indirect heat. That’s one crucial reason why you should always have an indirect heat zone available.

After a few seconds, the oil and fat will usually burn off, and the flare-up will subside. When the flare-up dies down, resume cooking your food over direct heat.

You are less likely to have flare-ups with a gas grill because many of them have a system that prevents fat and oil from falling directly onto the burners. For example, most gas grills have angled steel bars on top of the burners. Not only do they prevent almost all flare-ups, but they also transform dripping juices and fat into wonderfully aromatic smoke.

The solutions to flare-ups on a gas grill are the same as those on a charcoal grill. First, make sure the lid is closed. Then, if necessary, move the food over indirect heat.

Grilling with the lid down

As often as possible, try to grill with the lid closed. Whether using a charcoal grill or a gas grill, the lid is essential. It limits the volume of air getting to the fire, which helps prevent flare-ups, and it helps to cook food on the top and bottom simultaneously.

While the bottom of the food is almost always exposed to more intense heat, the lid reflects some heat down and speeds up the overall cooking time.

Without the lid, the fire would lose heat more quickly, and many foods would take much longer to cook, possibly drying out. Plus, using the lid keeps the cooking grate at a higher temperature, giving you more conductive heat, which creates better searing and caramelization.

Finally, the lid traps all those good smoky aromas inside the grill and surrounds your food with them. Otherwise, the smoke will drift away and serve no real purpose.

One exception to this rule occurs when you are grilling fragile food pieces, like bread slices and tortillas. They cook (and potentially burn) so quickly that it’s wise to leave the lid off and observe them.

Grill cleaning

Grill Cleaning

You really should clean the grates every time, not only be tidy but also because any residue left on the cooking grates may cause your food to stick. You will find that food releases from the grates much more easily and with more impressive grill marks if the cooking grates are clean.

The easiest way to clean your cooking grates is to preheat the grill, with the lid down, to about 500°F. Then, while wearing an insulated barbecue mitt, use a long-handled grill brush to scrape off any bits and pieces that may be stuck to the cooking grates.

Once a month or so, you should do a more thorough cleaning of your grill. Be sure to read the instructions in your owner’s manual beforehand.

Wipe down the grill with a sponge and warm, soapy water. Scrape off any debris that has accumulated under the lid. Remove the cooking grates, brush the burners, and clean out the

bottom of the cooking box and the drip pan.

For full care and upkeep instructions, consult your owner’s manual. With charcoal grills, remember that ash naturally has a small amount of water. Don’t leave it sitting in your grill for a long period of time; it can rust some parts of your grill.

Barbecue Accessories

The range of accessories and barbecue equipment is even more impressive than the choice of barbecues. Some are very sensible and should be considered essentials:

Some other useful accessories:

Cooking methods

Grilling

This means cooking the food directly over the heat.

Sautéing

Food can be cooked on a barbecue in a heavy-based skillet (frying pan) in the same way as on an ordinary stove. The pan must be oiled well, and the fire should be scorching. Do not use a pan with a wooden or plastic handle, which the heat might damage.

Roasting

Large pieces of meat can be roasted by moving the charcoal to one side and enclosing the grid with a cover or lid so that the heat comes from all sides.

What to Cook on a Barbecue

Grilled Fish

Meat

Preserved and salted meat are not suitable for cooking on a barbecue. The curing salts may lead to the pro­duction of nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic substances.

When buying grilling meats, check that they are very fresh. There are many suitable cuts for cooking on the barbecue, including the following:

Preliminary preparation of meat

Fish and seafood

Fish with firm flesh such as trout, bream, sea bass, shark, tuna, salmon, snapper, rosefish, and whitefish are ideal for grilling on a barbecue jumbo shrimps (prawns), crayfish, and squid.

You can tell if fish is fresh by its shiny color – fish that are less fresh have a rather lackluster appearance. The eyes must be clear, and the scales should not become detached too easily.

Preparation of fish

Beware of the risk of salmonella

The danger of salmonella is particularly great at the height of summer.

If you are using deep-frozen fish, make sure that it has thawed completely so that there is no risk of the middle being undercooked. Pour away the water resulting from defrosting, wash the fish thoroughly and wipe dry.

Fresh fish must be put in the refrigerator immediately after purchase and only taken out just before cooking.

Vegetables and fruit

Barbecued vegetable and fruit dishes will not only appeal to vegetarians!

Whether as a main dish or a side dish, there is no limit to the range of mouth­ watering vegetable and fruit dishes that can be cooked on a barbecue.

Delicious possibilities in­clude corn on the cob and potatoes, sweet bell peppers, eggplants (aubergines), mushrooms, and tomatoes cooked on skewers or wrapped in foil parcels.

As a dessert, fruit kebabs coated in honey and brown sugar are irresistible. They only need to be cooked on the barbecue for a few minutes.

Drinks

Barbecue Drinks

Don’t forget the drinks you will be serving at the barbecue. It helps to make a list of all the drinks needed before the party, particularly if children will be there.

Put the drinks in the refrigerator the day before the party or ask the store to pre-chill them. Then keep them in insulated cool boxes with cooling bricks. They can also be kept cold for a shorter time in supermarkets’ cool bags.

Make sure that you have enough ice cubes. If you run out of ice trays, you can buy handy plastic ice cube bags from a supermarket.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this basic guide on how to BBQ. With a little time and practice, you’ll learn to BBQ like a pro and enjoy all the benefits of grilling.

If you’re new to barbecuing and haven’t purchased a grill yet, I will encourage you to check out these guides to the best small gas grills or best gas grills under $300; they are a good place to find your first grill.

Happy grilling!

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Chris Johns is the founder of The BBQ Report® and has been an avid barbecue fan for over 20 years. His mission is to make grilling and smoking the best food possible easy for everyone. And each year, he continues to help more people with grilling, smoking, and barbecue recipe recommendations.