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A detailed breakdown of the Charcoal BBQ

The charcoal BBQ has an ancient and compelling story. Discover the history, learn the design evolution and explore how to buy and set up your own.

Out at sea, reality is different. Here there is no conventional space and time. Rather things are defined by a constantly evolving mass of blue. But what about that round buoy bobbing up and down? What’s its story? These useful spheres help vessels to navigate seas and lakes, indicating the location of channels and particular hazards. But what you might not know is that a buoy birthed the design of the modern charcoal BBQ as we know it. Look at that round bit of BBQ kit in your garden, seems familiar now? We’ll let you bask in the glow of your light bulb epiphany for a moment.

How to use a charcoal BBQ? Understand the main mechanics and tools
OK OK, we were focusing on one particular kind of charcoal barbecue here for narrative purposes. Actually, the land of the charcoal BBQ is super diverse from culture to culture and continent to continent. However the universal principals of grilling meat over flame have remained unchanged – since their inception close to 2 million years ago, right up to the times of today’s £7.8 billion BBQ industry. Can’t quite wrap your brain around such an epic idea? No problems. We’re here to guide you through the BBQ concepts.

A whirlwind trip through charcoal BBQ time
Evidence of cooking meat over charcoal, and fire in general, is littered throughout history. In fact it has been integral to our evolution. That’s right people; we have developed a ‘BBQ gene’ – an alteration in our DNA allowing the body to handle certain kinds of smoke exposure thanks to cooking over open flames. Fire up Google and enjoy some BBQ biology.  So our ancient ancestor Homo erectus was the initial catalyst for the great BBQ epic, learning how to make and control fire over 1.8 million years ago. Very soon after this point, ancient man also discovered that the black lumps left behind from their initial fires (rudimentary charcoal) burned hotter and longer than their wooden counterparts.  The charcoal saga began.

Fast forward to the back end of the Middle Paleothic period some 30,000 years ago. Neanderthals and the first modern Homo sapiens were marauding on the terra firma using charcoal for heat, cooking and artistic purposes. Manipulating the space-time continuum we jump into the wormhole and emerge in the Caribbean in 1526. Spanish explorers saw the local Taino tribe cooking meat on a wooden grill over a pit. The indigenous peoples called this barabicu ‘(translated as ‘sacred fire pit’) and the Spaniards renamed named the cooking style barbacoa. The BBQ concept was taken by these explorers and spread throughout the southern states of the soon to be USA. After four centuries of charcoal BBQ popularisation, and comercialisation (the charcoal briquette was patented in 1897 by Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer, of Pennsylvania don’t you know) we arrive at a key moment in charcoal BBQ grill time.

A steak lies cooking on a charcoal BBQ

Before we go any further, it’s time for a quick explanatory detour. To understand the evolution of the charcoal BBQ, we need to grasp the fundamental physics behind cooking meat over flame. Enter thermodynamics. Don’t let the terminology intimidate you; we’re just talking about a branch of physics that deals with heat, temperature and their relation to energy.

Whether it’s 1.8 million years ago or yesterday afternoon in your garden, the laws of thermodynamics stay the same.

Let’s unpack this a little further. In any form of charcoal barbecue we have a charcoal fuel source and some kind of food – all contained within a ‘chamber’ be it a rectangular container, pit or spherical BBQ. This forms a mini ‘environment’ within which heat is produced. This is known as a thermodynamic system. When charcoal is burned, it releases its potential energy (thanks to good old combustion with oxygen) as heat on its surroundings (in this case your charcoal BBQ). This heat is transformed and transferred into your food as ‘cooking energy’ if you like.   So why the scientific details? Well once you understand that when you’re grilling you’re actually dealing with a thermodynamic system, changes in the system – such as the quality and quantity fuel, the volume of air in the chamber and the position of the food in relation to the heat source – affect the outcome your cook.

Now where were we? Oh yes Mount Prospect, Illinois 1952. This is the birthplace of the current day mainstream charcoal BBQ ‘product’ as we know it. George Stephan was a humble man working at the Weber Brothers Metal Works. George was deep into his charcoal barbecues but found things rather crude. Up until this point in the USA, charcoal BBQs were essentially shallow sheet metal pans stood on thin legs. Charcoal was burned on the base of the pan, however this thermodynamic system was too unstable, offering minimal cooking control. The result was often carbonised exteriors, undercooked interiors and ash-covered food. Not too appealing in any stretch of the BBQ imagination. Here comes the game changer. George took a metal buoy, cut it in half, added legs and placed a wire grate over the empty bottom shell. He then placed the top half of the buoy on top acting as a lid. The lid created a fully contained heat environment delivering more control over the cooking process due to the improved heat distribution. Meet your fine tuned thermodynamic system AKA the contemporary charcoal BBQ grill. The design has stood the test of time with 46% of UK households having some variation of this classic charcoal BBQ.

Flames rise out of a burning charcoal pile in a charcoal BBQ

Different shapes, sizes and functions. Choosing your charcoal BBQ.

There are literally hundreds of different charcoal BBQ grills out there.  We don’t want to overload you, so here’s a quick summary.

Open Grill
The most basic charcoal barbecue with simplicity in its DNA. Think a metal or stone box, charcoal at the bottom and food located directly over the fire. Open grills mainly offer high-heat direct grilling (indirect grilling is also possible but not as efficient) so they are great for satés, kebabs, steaks, chops, fish fillets, and vegetables.

Covered Grill
Take an open grill and add a lid to form a covered grill. Covered grills offer high heat direct grilling and low heat indirect grilling. This means they are perfect for 2 phase direct and indirect grilling of thicker steaks and chops. The covered option also allows for, and greatly improves, both indirect grilling and smoking (low and slow cooking). A grilling method that is perfect for tougher and fattier cuts of meats such as shoulder and ribs as well as whole chickens.

Vessel Grill
Picture deep, thick walled ceramic chambers that rely on heat radiation from their large sidewalls and direct heat from the charcoal at the base – all covered with a lid or other covering. Food, such as breads, can be cooked directly on the walls, or it can be placed on a vertical spit in the firebox as well as on a grill gate. Vessel grills deliver high heat roasting and are used for bbq styles such as Indian tandoor and Iran’s tanoor. You may also have heard of a Kamado cooker that is another type of vessel grill.

Meet the BBQ king of low and slow cooking. Smoking is one of the oldest methods of cooking and preserving food. The smoker itself is an American 20th century invention, a self contained and fully enclosed grilling chamber that mimics the traditional method of cooking meat over flame and smoke. It delivers low to moderate indirect heat with wood smoke, making a smoker the perfect partner for tough and flavourful meat cuts such as ribs and brisket. Check out our blog on low n slow cooking for a delicious deep dive.

A hand holding tongs moves around burning charcoal in a charcoal BBQ


Where to buy charcoal for BBQ?  Big K is the place. 

Your charcoal lies at the very heart of the grilling process. It is the fuel that determines everything from the taste and texture of your food, to the aroma and on-palette sensation of every bite. So needless to say you need high quality, high performing charcoal you can trust.

As a general rule of thumb, try to buy high quality sustainably produced charcoal made from coppiced wood or forestry commission approved wood where possible.  Of course there are other products out there, such as instant light charcoal, which you can use on your charcoal BBQ. It all just depends on your preferences. Whatever your BBQ needs, Big K has you covered. We have spent over fifty years in the industry, developing, producing and refining all kinds of charcoal products for professionals to the casual weekend griller. To us quality matters and it is this philosophy that drives everything we do. From premium restaurant grade charcoal and more sustainable options, to minimal smoke outputs and disposable choices, you’ll find everything you need at


What do you need to light a charcoal BBQ? How do you do it?

Now you have your charcoal BBQ grill and your charcoal it’s time to activate your inner fire starter. First thing, stack your charcoal pieces into a mound or pyramid, leaving multiple gaps between the pieces. This increases airflow through the mound, making lighting your charcoal barbecue quicker and more efficient.  The pyramid shape also increases coal-to-coal contact, helping the flames to spread.

Next we are going to need something to start the fire. How to light a charcoal BBQ without chemical firelighters)? Just scrunch up some small balls of newspaper and insert them into some of the gaps in your charcoal stack. You can also do the exact same thing using natural firelighters such as wood chips or wool. Finally all you need to do is light the paper or natural firelighters and let the flames catch. Be patient. Let the flames burn and spread in their own time. Once a few coals are lit, the rest will follow and catch. To get all your charcoal cook-ready we’re talking about anywhere between a 15-30 minute process depending on your chosen charcoal type.

How can you tell when your charcoal is ready?

  • Grey or black with flames:Slow your roll. Your charcoal isn’t there yet.
  • White-hot glow with red center: Ready to rock for direct heat cooking.
  • White ash and extreme heat: Approval for some serious indirect heat cooking.


Recently lit charcoal burns brightly with flames in a charcoal BBQ

How long does a charcoal BBQ last?

The answer to this question depends on the charcoal you are using. Our Lumpwood Charcoal  delivers about 90 minutes of cooking time. However our Professional Restaurant Grade Dura Charcoal offers a whopping 3-hour cook. To know how long your charcoal BBQ will last, simply check the cook time of your charcoal before you buy. FYI we list all the cook times of all our charcoal products on our website making things clear.


Once your charcoal BBQ is lit, simply arrange your coals to create different heat types

Direct heat 

Spread out your charcoal in an even layer to create a uniform high temperature ‘stove top’ effect. The heat created is direct, even and of course very hot.  Think of it as having everything on the highest heat in a very hot pan. This direct heat is perfect for slim cuts of meat that cook quickly, such as burgers and thin-cut steaks. Word of caution here, direct cooking will decimate slow cooking food into a blackened vortex.

Indirect heat 

A great fit for the control freaks and multi-taskers out there. All you need to do is push the charcoal to one side of your charcoal BBQ grill.  This creates two heat areas, direct heat from your pile of charcoal and indirect heat from the empty section. This charcoal arrangement means that you can cook on one side and keep food warm on the other. Or you can use the indirect heat for the low and slow cooking of larger joints, thicker steaks and meats on the bone as well as fish.

We could wax lyrical about these little black pieces of magic all day long. But you’ve got grilling to do. Good luck and flame on!