The most important aspect of grilling and barbecuing is learning to control the grill temperature. The fact is, too many amateur grillers toss a ton of charcoal in the grill, pour lighter fluid all over it and fire it up. That’s not BBQ, it’s burned food. Plus it wastes a lot of charcoal.
I use the “Minion Method”, named for Jim Minion, a champion BBQer. I use this in my Weber Performer and my Weber Smokey Mountain smoker, but it will work in any charcoal grill.
Put the amount of charcoal in the grill that you think you may need. For grilling it’s probably half of what you normally would use. Seriously. Then light 10-12 briquettes in a chimney starter. If you don’t have a chimney starter, get one. However, since you need to cook now just go ahead and use the lighter fluid and light the small pile of briquettes, NOT the WHOLE pile! A better way to light the charcoal is with paper towels with one of them soaked in cooking oil to act as a wick.
When the starter coals are lit at least half way you can begin placing them on TOP of your main pile of coals, spreading them evenly around. I wear a welding glove or tongs when moving coals around.
Leave the vents fully open and the lid cracked open, NOT off. This promotes more airflow, but you can still read the temperature on the lid. If you don’t have a thermometer in the lid, drop an oven therm through a vent hole.
If you’re BBQing and want the temp to be 250*, you’ll start adjusting temps at about 200*. If you’re going for 350*, start at about 250*. The point is, the higher target temp you’re looking for, the more lead time you need to slow the heat build up. Yesterday I was looking for 400* and started messing with the vents at about 300*.
Start by putting the lid fully on and closing the BOTTOM vents to 50%. You’ll notice the temp will start climbing more slowly after a few minutes. With about 50* to go, shut the vents down to 25% or less. I had mine nearly closed to maintain 400* for about an hour and a half.
If you’re going to use your grill like an oven, called “indirect grilling”, put the food on the grill opposite the fire and close the lid. Don’t open it! Every time you open the lid you give the fire a nice breath of oxygen which can cause temperature spikes.
The fact is, if a potato takes and hour in the oven, it’s going to take about an hour on the grill. Don’t peek, just watch the temperature.
As for the top vent, leave it open unless you just can’t get the temp under control.
If you need to cook a steak, or burgers with your meal, cook the veggies first and move them as far from the fire as possible, then remove the lid, open the vents and let the fire heat up. Your veggies will stay warm while you grill the other food directly.
When done cooking, close all vents and put the lid on. You might be amazed by how little charcoal you’ll need cooking this way. Just give yourself time. It’ll take at least 30-45 minutes to get the grill up to temp without wildly over-shooting the target temperature.
Hope this helps you save some food from the burnt bin. Now get cooking.