The act of cooking over an open flame is as old as modern humans themselves—older, in fact. Homo erectus, our evolutionary predecessor, was the first human species to unlock the culinary potential of fire. They were the first to grill.

Fast forward to present day, we continue to grill. We take delight in the texture and flavor that flame and smoke impart upon food; we find novelty in the fact that this method of cooking links us to our prehistoric past. Luckily, we stand on the modern edge of the divide and, thanks to millennia of trial and error, have more knowledge of the ins and outs of grilling.

Before you fire up a heaping pile of charcoal at your next BBQ, take into consideration these basic pointers. They’ll help you grill with more precision, and may even prevent you from looking like a caveman that can’t cook worth a lick.

A Basic Understanding of Fire

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Not everything you’re going to grill will require the same cooking temperature; therefore, you’ll need to learn how to control the temperature through the charcoal. To ignite the charcoal, you’re obviously going to need fire. To control how hot the charcoal gets, you’re going to need to understand a little about fire. What does fire need to burn? Oxygen. The level of oxygen—also known as the draft—is regulated by the opening and closing of the vents on the grill. Opening them will allow for more oxygen, which will result in a stronger fire/more heat. Conversely, closing the vents will deprive the fire of air and lower the cooking temperature.

Indirect Grilling

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Before you begin grilling, consider what it is that you want to cook. Larger, thicker foods are best grilled through what’s known as indirect grilling. In short, this is accomplished by lighting the charcoal (always be sure that the charcoal is coated by a thin layer of ash before cooking!), placing it on one side of the grill, positioning the food on the opposite side, and then placing the lid on top. This keeps the food away from direct-heat, which would potentially scorch the outer layer and leave the center undercooked.

Direct Grilling

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For lighter, thinner foods that require less cooking time, you’ll want to use direct grilling. First, light the charcoal. At first, the coals will be very hot. Open all the vents and leave the lid off for approximately 10 minutes. Then you can proceed to adjust the temperature. As mentioned previously, this is done by regulating air flow with the vents. Here’s how:

High heat: fully open the vents. 

Medium-high heat: close all the vents ¼ of the way. 

Medium heat: open the vents halfway. 

Medium-low heat: close all the vents ¾ of the way. 

Low heat: close the vents entirely.

The best way to accurately check the specific cooking temperature is by using a grill surface thermometer. They’re usually rather inexpensive and come in handy especially when cooking meat and fish.

Pretty simple stuff, right? Now go out, give it a try, and continue to enjoy one of our species’ most beloved activities—grilling.

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