6 mistakes everyone makes with charcoal BBQs

Thinking of firing up a charcoal barbecue this weekend? Then don't make any of these common BBQ errors

BBQ charcoal
(Image credit: Pexels: by Lucas)

As T3's BBQ expert, a job that has seen me review many of the best BBQs on the market, I have learned a lot of lessons when it comes round to cooking outdoors.

Barbecuing is a great thing when done well, but doing it well is something that is far from guaranteed and too frequently taken for granted, and especially when cooking on charcoal, the most common BBQ fuel.

You want that delicious charcoal smoky finish and infusion to your food, I get it. But cooking with charcoal exposes you to some serious pitfalls that even the most experienced grillist can fall into if not careful.

As such, here are the 6 most common mistakes I've seen people make when using a charcoal grill.

Man BBQ-ing potatoes on a charcoal grill

(Image credit: Future)

1. Starting to the charcoal barbecue too late

Here's a common BBQ scenario that I'm sure you've experienced. Joe Bloggs invites you round for a sunny Saturday barbecue lunch. You turn up as instructed at 1pm and then watch as Mr Bloggs, beer in hand, then proceeds to have a quick chat before saying "just going to go get the barbie up and running".

It is then almost 3pm before any grilled meat, fish or vegetables enters your stomach and Mr Bloggs is getting evils from everyone.

The mistake? Starting your charcoal BBQ too late. Remember, charcoal grills need time to be setup, then you need lighting and burn time until the coals become ready to cook on (when they are grey/white) and then you need the actual cooking time.

Don't leave your guests hungry for hours on end. If you're grilling on charcoal, get that grill up and running before they arrive.

2. Banging bangers on the grill too soon

This mistake often follows from the previous one. Again, picture the scene. A half-cut Mr. Bloggs realises too late that guests are starving and no food is ready so, after lighting the grill, immediately throws all of his meat on. The result? All the meat immediately sticks to the grill and then, when Bloggs goes to turn it, it rips and shreds leaving ugly, mangled produce.

The mistake? Not letting the grill reach temperature before putting food on it. A properly heated grill will markedly reduce the amount food sticks to it. To ensure your grill reaches a good temperature make sure it is covered for 10-15 minutes before putting anything on it. This will reduce sticking and leave the food with those desirable grill marks, too.

3. Getting trigger happy with lighter fluid

Another classic charcoal BBQ mistake I see a lot of people make is playing fast and loose with lighter fluid. And especially so after making some of the previous mistakes, foolishly thinking it is a cheat button to faster food.

In my opinion, you shouldn't have to use lighter fluid at all when barbecuing, but if you do then be sure you don't end up dowsing your coals in it. This is because anything cooked on drenched coals will then have the delicious aftertaste of chemical gas, with the coals infusing the taste of lighter fluid into everything.

Basically, if you can get away without using lighter fluid then don't use it. But if you do then just use a modest amount right at the off and then lock it away. It is the last resort and should be used only in the darkest of times.

4. Opening and closing the BBQ's lid too much

If your charcoal grill has a lid (and most do) then sure you make good use of it, as it is there for a reason.

This is because too many times I see grill 'masters' [cough] opening and closing their BBQ's lid literally every 10 seconds and, well, that's a sure fire way to elongate cooking time and leave food cooked in an unbalanced way.

I understand there is temptation to gaze on the flames and the cooking produce, but trust me, if you want evenly cooked food fast then keeping it closed as much as possible is the way forward.

Every time you open a BBQ lid a huge amount of indirect heat is almost instantly lost, leaving only the surface-infusing direct heat of the grill to cook. Do this too much and you'll spend ages cooking burnt on the outside, undercooked on the inside food for your friends.

And then they won't be your friends much longer.

5. Always directly cooking over the heat source

Lastly, it is a mistake to only cook over direct heat on a charcoal BBQ. Direct heat cooking is where you place food directly over the heat source and, from time immemorial, has been the most obvious way to cook something. For simple produce like burgers it's fine.

However, indirect cooking can often lead to better results for certain produce. Indirect cooking is where food is not placed directly over the heat source but next to it, so that the food cooks indirectly from heat circulating within the barbecue.

This type of BBQ cooking should be considered for larger chunks of meat like steaks, ribs, brisket and birds, as well as fish and vegetables. By mixing indirect cooking with direct you can ensure flavourful, juicy meat and a great charred finish.

Cooking indirect can also help you stagger cooking times so that multiple foods are ready to come off the grill at once.

6. Not using a meat thermometer

Ok, so this is more of mistake you can make with any BBQ, but I'd say it is more important than ever when cooking on charcoal, as the cooking temperature can vary wildly over the grill plate. The best meat thermometers let you quickly and easily ascertain the internal temperature of your BBQ food, which is especially important when cooking things like poultry and steak. Often charcoal grills can leave food looking nicely finished on the outside but undercooked on the inside, so by using a meat thermometer you can quickly check how done a piece of meat is before it leaves the grill and without having to cut it open. Meat thermometers are cheap and super portable, so make sure you add one to your charcoal barbecuing tool armoury. 

Robert Jones

Rob has been writing about computing, gaming, mobile, home entertainment technology, toys (specifically Lego and board games), smart home and more for over 15 years. As the editor of PC Gamer, and former Deputy Editor for T3.com, you can find Rob's work in magazines, bookazines and online, as well as on podcasts and videos, too. Outside of his work Rob is passionate about motorbikes, skiing/snowboarding and team sports, with football and cricket his two favourites.