How to cook on a charcoal grill: tips for cooking steak, fish, pork and more on a BBQ

Our guide for how to cook on a charcoal grill has all the info you need for a BBQ feast

how to cook on a charcoal grill: bbq food on grill
(Image credit: Beata Haliw/Alamy Stock Photo)

Need to know how to cook on a charcoal grill? It's more than a case of simply slapping on a steak and hoping for the best – in fact, grilling with fire can be seen as a rather fine art. But, once you've got the know-how, a meal cooked over flame (or near to – more on that later) can be downright delicious.

Maybe you've already wheeled out the best BBQ and rounded up the guests to celebrate the good weather. There's the promise of a delicious summertime feast on the cards, so to ensure you deliver, we're here to help. 

You'll find all you need for how to cook on a BBQ below. Before long, you'll have all the basics for whipping up the best pulled pork (and more) in town.

How to cook on a charcoal grill: tips for different types of BBQ food

The experts at Bar-Be-Quick share their top tips on how to cook on a BBQ below. Whether you're a lover of barbecued chicken or fancy a spot of grilled veggies or seafood, it's easy to cook up a storm in your outdoor kitchen ideas with this advice.

bbq food on table

Learn how to cook on a charcoal grill and make delicious food just like this

(Image credit: Stuart West/Future)

What is the difference between direct and indirect cooking?

Before you get started with learning how to cook on a charcoal grill, you'll need to know the difference between what's known as direct and indirect cooking.

Direct cooking is when food is cooked directly on top of the flames. Not only does it cook from the intense heat of the fire itself, but also from the heat of the grill, which results in those well-loved grill marks. As the experts at Weber say, anything that can cook in 20 minutes can be done this way – that includes the likes of burgers, chicken, and seafood.

Indirect cooking, on the other hand, is where food is cooked above an unlit area of the BBQ or grill. When learning how to cook on a charcoal grill, this is as simple as ensuring the charcoal is kept to one side of the BBQ – your indirect cooking will take place on the other side. The heat is therefore less intense, which means that this technique is useful for food that takes longer to cook. Think whole chickens or ribs, for example. For a lot of cases, you'll want to keep the lid down with this method, too.

Once you get to grips with the difference between indirect and direct cooking, you can even combine the two. For instance, you may wish to sear thicker cuts of meat using direct cooking, before moving them across to an unlit area of the grill to ensure they cook all the way through without burning.

bbq vegetables on grill

Veggies and small cuts of meat can be cooked quickly over direct heat

(Image credit: Tat'âna Maramygina/EyeEm/Getty Images)

How to cook chicken on a BBQ

For cooking chicken on direct heat, the team at Bar-Be-Quick suggest to opt for either kebabs or breasts. For kebabs, cut up the chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces and thread them onto a skewer. If you're opting for whole chicken breasts, pound them with a rolling pin first to make them flat – this means they will cook more evenly.

It's better to cook the legs and thighs of chicken using indirect heat, for a longer period of time. You'll want to keep them on the grill until the thickest part reaches 74°C (165°F) – use a cooking thermometer to check before serving.

If you want to try something a little more impressive when learning how to cook on a charcoal grill, try using the beer can technique. This is when a whole chicken rests on a can – again, cook it using the indirect method until it reaches the correct temperature inside. It's a great choice if you're looking to feed a few for your garden party ideas.

Marinade your chicken first for extra flavor – the Bar-Be-Quick team recommend a classic mix of four tablespoons of olive oil with two tablespoons of smoked paprika and one teaspoon of lemon juice.

bbq chicken on grill

Chicken cooks up beautifully on a BBQ

(Image credit: Charlotte Tolhurs/Future)

How to cook steak on a BBQ

Steak is many people's favorite choice for cooking over outdoor grill ideas. As the Bar-Be-Quick team explain, hanger steak (or onglet) and skirt need to be cooked over the highest direct heat and won't take long at all. But, most other types (think sirloin, fillet, and porterhouse) will need to be cooked to preference. A food thermometer makes it easy to get this right – aim for around 140°F (60°C) for rare, 158°F (70°C) for medium and 167°F (75°C) for well done.

If you're going for brisket or ribs, you're in for a much longer cooking time. Cook them on indirect heat for at least two hours, with the lid of your grill shut. 

To make a tasty BBQ marinade for steaks, try combining two tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce with one tablespoon of olive oil, adds the team.

beef and bell pepper skewer on bbq

Steak can be cooked as kebabs – add chunks of bell pepper for a pop of color

(Image credit: Chris Alack/Future)

How to cook lamb chops on a BBQ

Want to whip up some barbecued lamb as you learn how to cook on a charcoal grill? Lamb chops and neck fillets can simply be seared over the hot flames. 

If you want to cook a leg of lamb quickly, ask your butcher to butterfly it first. This cut is a prime example of where both direct and indirect cooking can take place – start with it over direct heat for fifteen minutes or so, then move it to cook through over indirect heat for the final half hour. You'll want the core temperature to reach 65°C, says Bar-Be-Quick (which is 149°F).

You can also slow cook a leg of lamb on the bone over indirect heat. Keep it on a low heat for around three hours, until the meat is tender. For a delicious marinade, Bar-Be-Quick suggests mixing two tablespoons of harissa with four tablespoons of natural yoghurt and one teaspoon of lemon juice.

lamb cooking on charcoal bbq

Butterfly a leg of lamb and try cooking with lemon and rosemary

(Image credit: Emma Lee/Future)

How to cook pork on a BBQ

Pork sausages are one of those BBQ food that sounds simple enough, but they can actually be quite problematic. No one wants to eat one with a burnt outside and a raw middle. The trick, as Bar-Be-Quick explain, is to cook them carefully over direct heat but ensure they don't cook too quickly. 'If in doubt, stick a probe in the middle to check it reads at least 72°C,' they add (161.6°F).

Pork belly is another crowd-pleasing way to cook on a BBQ and when done right, will make a great centerpiece to your outdoor dining ideas. It needs to be cooked low and slow, over indirect heat with the lid on (check on it now and then) until soft and tender. You can also cook pulled pork in this way: opt for the Boston butt cut and keep it over indirect heat until it falls off the bone.

For your marinade, mix two tablespoons of runny honey with two tablespoons of Dijon mustard, says Bar-Be-Quick – simple but delicious.

bbq pulled pork in buns

Pulled pork burgers are a definite winner when it comes to BBQ food

(Image credit: Charlie Richards/Future)

How to cook seafood on a BBQ

Whether you're cooking over a charcoal BBQ or one of the best gas BBQs, fish can also make a tasty barbecued treat.

As Bar-Be-Quick explain, most fish and seafood in general is best when cooked quickly at a high temperature – that way it will stay lovely and moist. This includes mackerel, prawns, sardines and octopus, as well as fillets of fish wrapped in foil or pancetta.

Whole fish or thick steaks, on the other hand, can be cooked over indirect heat to ensure their core reaches 70°C, they add (which is 158°F). 

Try marinading them in four tablespoons of lime juice, one tablespoon of brown sugar, and a finely chopped red chilli.

bbq prawns with chilli and lime dressing

Whip up some barbecued shellfish for your next summer party – it'll go down a treat

(Image credit: Sean Calitz/Future)

How to cook vegetables on a BBQ

Barbecued veggies can taste just as delicious as meat when cooked correctly. As Bar-Be-Quick explain, most kinds can be done over direct heat, and quickly. This includes courgettes, bell peppers, and aubergine. You can barbecue new potatoes too – try parboiling them first then threading onto skewers to finish on the grill.

For large root vegetables (think onions, beetroot, or bigger potatoes), wrap them in foil and cook them indirectly in the embers.

vegetable kebabs cooking on grill

Vegetable kebabs cooked over a grill have a deliciously smoky flavor

(Image credit: Plattform/Getty Images)

How do you season a steak for the BBQ?

Any meat-lover will want advice on making the perfect steak when learning how to cook on a charcoal grill. Here's a few tips: 

  1. Remove the steaks from the refrigerator, cover, and leave to sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes before you start grilling them.
  2. Get your BBQ to a high heat.
  3. Now, add your seasoning. Brush olive oil or clarified butter on both sides before liberally adding course-grained salt and freshly-ground black pepper. Or, if you want to go a step further, try sprinkling smoked paprika or garlic granules over them, too. Once seasoned, you're ready to start cooking.

bbq steak with butter

If you want to learn how to cook on a charcoal grill, you'll definitely want the tips for preparing a good steak

(Image credit: Charlie Richards/Future)

Now you know the basics in how to cook on a charcoal grill. But, for the ultimate alfresco experience, you'll want to make sure you've got a perfect set-up to enjoy it. Our outdoor seating ideas, patio ideas, and decking ideas have all the inspo you'll need to refresh your space in time for summer and host a fabulous BBQ bash.

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Holly Crossley
Acting Deputy Editor

The garden was always a big part of Holly's life growing up, as was the surrounding New Forest where she lived. Her appreciation for the great outdoors has only grown since then. She's been an allotment keeper, a professional gardener, and a botanical illustrator – plants are her passion.