What Is a Charcoal Barbecue?

Dan Cavallari

A charcoal barbecue is a cooking device that uses charcoal as the primary fuel for creating heat. The structure of the barbecue, sometimes known simply as a grill, features legs that support a barrel in which the charcoal can be placed for heating. A grate or grill is placed over the coals, and a lid covers the barrel to contain the heat. Other features of the charcoal barbecue include vents both on the lid and on the barrel, an ash catcher or tray, a lid handle, and wheels mounted to the legs to make transporting the unit very easy.

Hot charcoal briquettes in a barbecue grill.
Hot charcoal briquettes in a barbecue grill.

Charcoal is essentially wood or bone that has been burned sufficiently enough that water is no longer present in the matter. Carbon residue is all that is left, and this material can burn quickly and hot. Charcoal briquettes are commonly used as fuel for a charcoal barbecue, and some users will douse the briquettes with lighter fluid to get the coals lit. Barbecue purists, however, will not use lighter fluid at all; instead, they will use a device known as a charcoal chimney, which is a metal cylinder in which the briquettes can be packed. Newspaper or other fuel can be lit beneath the charcoal, and the briquettes can be heated within the chimney until they glow red. Once they are hot enough, they can be dumped in the charcoal barbecue and spread for use.

Bratwursts can be cooked on a charcoal barbecue.
Bratwursts can be cooked on a charcoal barbecue.

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This type of cooking device has both advantages and disadvantages in relation to propane grills. Starting a charcoal barbecue takes much longer and is more difficult than the process of starting a propane grill, which essentially involves turning on the gas and pressing the lighter. Propane grills are also usually larger and create far less smoke, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Larger grills take more energy to heat, and less smoke often translates into less flavor in the foods being cooked.

Hamburgers cooking on a grill.
Hamburgers cooking on a grill.

Charcoal grill models do have the advantage of providing a more even heat, which means foods will be cooked more thoroughly than they would on a propane grill. The temperature of the grill will fluctuate more quickly, however, since the coals will burn down over time, producing less heat. The charcoal will also produce an ash by-product, which can be messy and can end up on the foods being grilled when the wind is blowing hard enough.

Some grills do not use charcoal, but are fueled by propane or natural gas.
Some grills do not use charcoal, but are fueled by propane or natural gas.

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