Need a grilling 101 refresher? Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about grilling.

The start of grilling season usually means firing up your memory, too. If you're new to grilling or haven't used the grill in a few months, use this guide to get started and learn a few basics like lighting the grill, differentiating between direct versus indirect grilling, testing food temperatures without a thermometer, preventing food from sticking on the grill, and more. Before you know it, you'll be ready for our fast-and-easy grilling recipes.

Should I use charcoal or gas?

Both get the job done. Gas grills are undeniably convenient as well as affordable and better for the environment, but many people prefer charcoal for the smoky flavor it imparts to food.

A metal chimney helps start a charcoal grill.
A metal chimney helps start a charcoal grill.

How do I light the grill?

For a charcoal grill, you'll need to light the briquettes 25 to 30 minutes before grilling. Start by removing the cover and opening all vents. Mound charcoal on the bottom grate and light it using an electric or chemical starter. (Allow about 30 briquettes per pound of meat.) When the coals are glowing and ashed over, you're ready to grill. Alternatively, use a metal chimney to light the briquettes, then dump them to the bottom grate. A chimney is faster and reduces the chance of the fire going out.

Preheat a gas grill following manufacturer's instructions; open the lid, ignite the flame, turn the burners on high, then close the lid. It will take 10 to 15 minutes to heat.

Indirect grilling: Food is adjacent to the heat source.
Direct grilling: Food is placed on the grill rack directly over the heat source.
Left: Indirect grilling: Food is adjacent to the heat source.
Right: Direct grilling: Food is placed on the grill rack directly over the heat source.

What's the difference between direct and indirect grilling?

Direct grilling means cooking the food directly over the heat source (the lit charcoal or the gas burner) at medium to high heat (350° to 400°). Direct grilling is best for thin foods that will cook in less than 30 minutes, such as steaks, burgers, sausage, boneless chicken pieces, chops, firm fish and veggies.

Indirect grilling involves cooking food near but not directly over the heat source. In a charcoal grill, use long-handled tongs to move lit coals to one side of the grill (creating an open area on one side) or push them to both sides (creating an open area in the middle). Set a drip pan in the open area, then place the grill rack over the briquettes. In a gas grill, indirect grilling just means turning off one burner. Indirect grilling works best for foods that cook longer, such as bone-in poultry, ribs, brisket, or whole chickens or turkeys.

How do I gauge the grill temperature?

Hold your hand above the coals at the level where you will be cooking. Count the seconds until you have to pull your hand away.

Grilling temperature guide

How do I adjust the grill's temperature?

  • Control heat using the bottom vent. Partially closing it will lower the temperature; opening it fuels the fire. (Always leave the vent on the lid of a charcoal grill open so you don't smother the fire.)
  • Lower the temperature of lit charcoal by spreading the coals out for a few minutes.
  • Increase the temperature by tapping coals gently with tongs to shake off ash and pushing them closer together. (The best way to maintain heat is to use a generous amount of charcoal and replenish regularly with additional briquettes, adding 8 to 10 every 30 to 45 minutes.)

When should I cover the grill?

  • Cover when grilling large foods over indirect heat so the heat circulates evenly.
  • Cover to control flare-ups by reducing the amount of oxygen reaching the fire.
  • When you smoke foods.

When should I leave the grill uncovered?

  • When you are grilling thin foods over direct heat, leave the grill uncovered so you can prevent overcooking.
  • Don't cover the grill when you need to monitor foods that could burn, such as foods with brushed-on sauces.

How do I keep food from sticking to the grill?

  • Clean grate regularly and apply vegetable oil while still warm to season the grate.
  • Preheat grill to full temperature before putting food on the grill.
  • Use a wide spatula.
  • Don't rush to flip food; it needs to sear before it will release from the grate.

When you're ready to cook, check out our favorite grilling marinades and rubs, delicious grilled vegetable recipes and grilled chicken recipes.