All Fired Up: How to Grill

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a gal who gravitates to water and fire. If there’s a body of cool, deep water to plunge in, I’m yanking my suit on. My preferred spot for morning coffee or evening glass of wine will forever be a dock — or crackling campfire. During these strange times of social distancing (when my pool is, alas, closed), I appreciate the sensual pleasures of a fire more than ever.

As luck would have it, my last two cookbooks (Any Night Grilling and Thank You for Smoking) were devoted to grilling and smoking. The projects cemented a life-long friendship with my trusty PK Grill and taught me that grilling shouldn’t be relegated to weekends — think about grilling up a Saturday night ribeye, for instance. Grilling creates big flavors fast, so these days I fire up the grill multiple nights a week for everything from vegetables to chicken thighs and skillet-sizzled shrimp tacos.

"But there are other reasons why there’s a deep, primal satisfaction in gathering around the warmth of a fire."

Anyone who’s ever sat cross-legged around a crackling campfire knows the sensual pleasures of the wafting aroma of burning hardwood, the snap and pop of embers, glowing red coals, and expectation of the meal (or toasted marshmallow) to come. For me, lighting a chimney of coals is a moment to pause and soak in the colors and sounds of the evening.

What follows are a few tips to get you "all fired up" — and some pointers for how to grill.

Which Grill Is for You?

The question of gas versus charcoal grill is a bit of a personality test to match your priorities (speed and control or flavor and sport).

When it comes to speed and reliability, gas grills are a game-changer. Turn a few dials, push a button, and whoosh — smoking hot grates in minutes. However, most gas grills don’t get as hot as charcoal grills, and the internal temperature drops dramatically when you raise the lid. But, the biggest difference is flavor. Gas grills don’t infuse foods with the same deep, chargrilled goodness that cooking over a fire provides. I’m a charcoal junkie because I love the deep, smoky flavors and the interactive challenge of cooking over a fire. Factors like the elements and the charcoal or wood you're using make it different every time, and that’s precisely why it’s fun. Since gas grilling is pretty straightforward, the following tips teach you how to lay a charcoal fire.

Choose Your Fuel

Like most chefs, I prefer lump hardwood charcoal that’s made by burning whole logs or large pieces of wood in a kiln without oxygen. The result is a pure product made from hardwood (oak, mesquite, hickory) that burns cleaner and longer than products made with chemical additives or fillers. Briquettes are uniformly shaped and easy to light, so they burn steadily and consistently. They’re typically made from charcoal and other ingredients like compressed sawdust and binders. Natural briquettes are made from pulverized charcoal held together with natural starches. Bottom line: read packages carefully, so you know what you’re getting and seek out a natural variety. Instant charcoal starts quickly because it’s soaked in lighter fluid and other chemical additives; I don’t use them.

Light the Fire

The best way to light a fire for a charcoal grill is with a charcoal chimney. Place some scrunched up newspaper in the bottom compartment and fill the top canister with coals. Tilt the chimney slightly to encourage airflow, and light the paper with a match. Give the paper a few seconds to catch, and then stand chimney upright. When the flames appear at the top of the chimney (15 to 20 minutes later), the charcoal is ready to be dumped onto the bottom cooking grate and banked to one side for two-zone cooking.

Create a Two-Zone Fire

Banking hot coals on one side of the grill and leaving the other side empty, for indirect cooking, creates a two-zone fire. This is my go-to because it provides flexibility and a cooler “safety zone” to help you manage the heat. For instance, when you have flare-ups, you can quickly move food away from flames (and/or close the grill to snuff out the flame). Ditto for food items that might be blacking too quickly.

Clean and Oil Grates

After the top cooking grate has preheated, use an oiled paper towel or grill rag to wipe away the initial layer of black, sooty carbon left from your last meal. Next, use a grill brush to scrub the grates free of any remaining debris. Finally, use a clean paper towel to oil the grates a second time just before cooking.

When the coals are glowing red and covered with fine gray ash, it’s time to cook. With your two-zone fire, you have a choice: you’re able to cook hot and fast over the hot coals, or more slowly over a moderate heat with the grill closed away from the coals. This set-up works particularly well with chicken, a weeknight staple (thighs are my favorite thing in the world to grill, because they’re so forgiving). I typically give cuts like thighs, drumsticks, and wings or drumettes a char over direct heat, and then move them (using tongs and a vented fish spatula) to indirect heat to finish cooking through at a gentler heat.

Grilling a Better Bird – A Quick Guide

Breasts: Because they have less fat, be sure to coat them in plenty of olive oil. Cook them over direct heat, flipping as needed for even cooking, until lightly charred and cooked throughout. For faster cooking, pound the breasts to an even thickness before placing them on the grates.

Thighs, drumsticks, wings/drumettes: Toss them with enough olive oil to lightly coat and season as desired. When the grill is ready to cook, crisp the skin over direct heat and then move the chicken to the indirect side to finish cooking until an instant-read thermometer registers 165°F.

Whole chicken: Lightly coat the inside and cavity of the chicken with olive oil, and season as desired. Fill the cavity with aromatics (quartered onions, garlic cloves, lemon wedges, and herb sprigs) and truss the chicken. Cook the chicken directly on the grates over indirect heat until an instant-read thermometer registers 165°F, or cook in a cast-iron skillet to retain the delicious pan juices (recipe follows).

Grill-Roasted Chicken with Lemon and Rosemary

Serves 4 to 6

You can season this chicken simply, with salt and pepper, or use your favorite chicken rub. Placing aromatics in the cavity of the chicken infuses the meat with incredible flavor. I typically roast the chicken on a bed of rosemary sprigs because I have plenty in the backyard. You can skip this step, or place it on a layer of sliced onions. You’ll want plenty of crusty bread to sop up the delicious pan juices.


  • One 4-to-4 ½-pound chicken
  • Olive oil, for drizzling
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ onion, quartered
  • 1 lemon, sliced into 6 wedges
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 sage or thyme sprigs (optional)
  • 6 to 8 fresh rosemary sprigs
  • Thick slices of grilled country-style bread or steamed rice, for serving


1. Rinse the chicken and pat it dry with paper towels.

2. Drizzle the carcass and outside of the bird with enough olive oil to lightly coat and season generously with salt and pepper.

3. Use your hands to distribute the spices evenly and spread the chicken with the spice paste.

4. Place the rosemary sprigs in a large cast-iron skillet, then place the chicken, skin-side up, over the herbs.

5. Drizzle the top of the chicken with olive oil, top with a generous amount of freshly ground pepper, and allow the chicken to marinate at room temperature while you prepare the grill. (Alternately, the chicken can be marinated in a baking dish or a sealable plastic bag for up to 12 hours in advance; remove from fridge an hour before grilling).

6. Prepare a charcoal grill for two-zone cooking and build a medium-high fire, or heat a gas grill to high.

7. Clean and oil the grill grates.

8. When the coals are glowing red and covered with fine gray ash, place the skillet with the chicken over direct heat, close the grill vent for smoking, and cook for 10 minutes. Open the grill, move the skillet to indirect heat, and rotate it 180 degrees. Close the grill, and continue roasting until the bird’s juices run clear when the skin is pierced with a knife and the skin is crispy, about 25-30 minutes longer.

9. Remove from heat and let the chicken rest for at least 10 minutes (or up to 30). While the chicken rests, grill the bread (if desired) over direct heat until lightly charred on both sides.

10. Carve and serve the chicken (discarding rosemary sprigs) over toasted bread, with the delicious pan drippings spooned over the meat.

Tags: Healthy Recipes

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Written By

Paula Disbrowe

Paula Disbrowe writes about the endless adventure of food and travel. Her stories have taken her to vanilla plantations in... See Full Bio

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