Are Charcoal Grills Safe?

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Last Updated on March 4, 2021

A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked, has written widely about the world of barbecue and grilling.

charcoal

Ever since the first briquette was invented back in 1897, charcoal grills have always been the appliance of choice for backyard grilling. While many outdoor chefs are now turning to gas and electric alternatives, the traditional charcoal grill still tops the list as the go-to option. 

If you were to give a seasoned griller a thousand bucks to dump their handy grill for a more modern option, we are dead sure they won’t budge. In any case, nothing can replace the rustic charm these traditional grills have to offer. 

Besides, charcoal grills tend to sear better than modern options and they give so much smoky flavor not available anywhere else. Above all, using a charcoal grill is fun and exciting. The whole process of setting up the grill, loading coal and firing up is more than exhilarating.

Amid all the praise, one question tends to pop up every time – are charcoal grills safe? Well, let’s find out.

1. Setting Up Your Charcoal Grill

Using a charcoal grill might seem like a piece of cake, but the truth is that it’s more complicated than you think. To learn how to use these grills, you have to understand how they work. So let’s break it down for you.

A typical charcoal grill consists of three main parts. These include:

  • The cooking grate/surface
  • Charcoal urn
  • Metal tripod stand

Some more advanced grills come equipped with a lid, warming area and a tiered cooking surface.

The cooking surface is where you place your food while grilling and the urn is the container where you load your charcoal. The metal tripod stand provides support and keeps the grill in place as you sear your steak, pork chops or lamb.

Before you can start using your grill, you have to choose the best type of charcoal depending on what you intend to cook. In this case, you have two options between charcoal lumps and briquettes. 

Charcoal lumps are made from whole pieces of wood. They light very quickly and burn hotter, making them the perfect choice for grilling chops and steaks. Conversely, briquettes come from compressed wood. Even though they take long to fire up, they burn longer, making them ideal for slow cooking.

To set up your grill, position it outside on a flat surface away from any structures or hanging trees.

Next, remove any old charcoal or ash from the grill and clean away any grease left behind from the previous cooking. Old charcoal may make it hard to light your grill and even absorb odors that will transfer to your food while ash will block the air vents, thus reducing the strength of your fire.

If you have a chimney starter, position it on top of the grill grate and add fresh charcoal. Rolls a few pieces of paper, place them underneath the chimney starter, and then light them up carefully using a stick lighter.

Allow the charcoal to burn for about 20 minutes until it stops smoking heavily. Wearing safety, heat-resistant gloves, remove the cooking grate and transfer the burning coal from the chimney to the grill. Spread the hot charcoal and replace the cooking grate accordingly.

Open the lid vents and cover the grill for about 15 minutes. Your charcoal grill is now ready for grilling!


2. The Dangers of Charcoal Grilling

Grilling with charcoal is generally safe, and it is the preferred method of cooking worldwide. After all, charcoal grills like Weber, Pk Grills, Camp chef, and Masterbuilt have been the standard cooking appliances for grilling since time immemorial. Because of the long history of grills, many types have been produced like the portable charcoal grill that's ideal for car trips, or if grillers want flexibility, they can use a combo grill to sear their steak with either charcoal or gas fuel.

However, new research suggests that grilling with charcoal is potentially harmful to your health as well as the environment. Here are possible risks of using a charcoal grill.

  • Charcoal Grills Increase the Risk of Cancer
    Various studies suggest that consuming meat, fish or chicken grilled over charcoal poses a risk of developing colorectal cancer. The yummy charring and smoky flavor that forms when grilling over charcoal contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines, which are compounds widely associated with causing cancer.

    These compounds form when fat drips from the meat onto the charcoal and then deposited back to your food. Since charcoal grills burn hotter than any other type of grill, the chances of these cancer-causing compounds are relatively higher.
  • Charcoal Grills Pollute the Environment
    Grilling with charcoal may not only be harmful to your health, but also to the environment. The smoke and emissions from the charcoal grill will certainly pollute the air and possibly cause damage to the ozone layer. Then again, you need to cut down trees to make charcoal lumps, and this might lead to further destruction of forests and water towers.

    To avoid escalating the damage to the environment, it is advisable to use briquettes, which are a more eco-friendly option, as they are made from sawdust and waste wood.
  • Grilling with Charcoal is a Fire Hazard
    One observable danger of using a charcoal grill is the risk of fire. To make it worse, the cause of the fire is not as predictable as it is the case when using other types of grills. For instance, your grill may tip over and cause a fire or the cooking oils may drip onto the coal and flare up.

    Then again, charcoal grills are not like modern gas or electric grills that you can extinguish or switch off quickly in case of a flare up or fire. Even after you have finished cooking, the charcoal will remain hot until you suffocate the fire by closing the lid and all the vents.
  • Charcoal Grills Produce Carbon Dioxide
    The most dangerous aspect about charcoal grills is that they emit carbon dioxide, which is a toxic odorless gas that could cause death when inhaled. Since charcoal briquettes do not emit smoke, you will never know if there is a risk of carbon dioxide poisoning. For this reason, you should always use your charcoal outdoors.

3. Safety Precautions When Grilling with Charcoal – The Dos and Don’ts

From the sounds of the searing chops to the inviting smoky flavor of the charred steaks, no doubt, grilling with charcoal offers a more authentic barbecue experience. However, as you enjoy the BBQ season, it is important to follow safety guides when cooking with a charcoal grill.

In any case, charcoal grills are only as safe as you want them to be. If used improperly, your favorite grill could turn into a safety hazard. Here are the dos and don’ts of grilling with regular charcoal, briquettes, and charcoal lumps.

Dos

  • Never leave the charcoal grill unattended after firing up
    When your grill is already fired up, make sure you stick around to prevent pets and naughty kids from playing near the fire.
  • Do not use gasoline or kerosene as a starter
    Never use kerosene, gasoline or any volatile liquid as a starter. These liquids are extremely dangerous as they may cause your grill to explode and cause physical harm or even death.
  • Do not add lighter fluid to coals that are already hot
    Adding lighter fluid to a charcoal grill that is already lighted is a potential fire hazard. In any case, lighter fluids contain volatile chemicals that could cause a fire.
  • Do not use an electric starter to light the grill in the rain
    To avoid electric shock, do not use an electric starter in the rain. Also, avoid standing on wet grounds when lighting the grill using an electric starter
  • Never use a charcoal grill indoors
    Coal usually emits an odorless gas known as carbon dioxide. When inhaled, carbon dioxide can lead to poisoning, suffocation or even death. To avoid exposure to carbon dioxide, make sure you use your charcoal grill outdoors, in a well-ventilated spot.
  • Do not use starters with instant light briquettes
    Instant light briquettes are prone to flaring up and catching fire. To avoid taking chances, do not use starters with this type of charcoal.
  • Do not touch the briquettes to see if they are hot
    Some people make the mistake of touching their briquettes to check whether they are ready for cooking. Instead of touching the coal, keep the lid and vents open until ready for cooking.
  • Don’t wear loose clothing
    When grilling, always wear tight-fitting clothes made from inflammable materials. This will significantly reduce the chances of your clothes catching fire.

Don'ts

  • Never leave the charcoal grill unattended after firing up
    When your grill is already fired up, make sure you stick around to prevent pets and naughty kids from playing near the fire.
  • Do not use gasoline or kerosene as a starter
    Never use kerosene, gasoline or any volatile liquid as a starter. These liquids are extremely dangerous as they may cause your grill to explode and cause physical harm or even death.
  • Do not add lighter fluid to coals that are already hot
    Adding lighter fluid to a charcoal grill that is already lighted is a potential fire hazard. In any case, lighter fluids contain volatile chemicals that could cause a fire.
  • Do not use an electric starter to light the grill in the rain
    To avoid electric shock, do not use an electric starter in the rain. Also, avoid standing on wet grounds when lighting the grill using an electric starter
  • Never use a charcoal grill indoors
    Coal usually emits an odorless gas known as carbon dioxide. When inhaled, carbon dioxide can lead to poisoning, suffocation or even death. To avoid exposure to carbon dioxide, make sure you use your charcoal grill outdoors, in a well-ventilated spot.
  • Do not use starters with instant light briquettes
    Instant light briquettes are prone to flaring up and catching fire. To avoid taking chances, do not use starters with this type of charcoal.
  • Do not touch the briquettes to see if they are hot
    Some people make the mistake of touching their briquettes to check whether they are ready for cooking. Instead of touching the coal, keep the lid and vents open until ready for cooking.
  • Don’t wear loose clothing
    When grilling, always wear tight-fitting clothes made from inflammable materials. This will significantly reduce the chances of your clothes catching fire.

4. The Pros and Cons of Charcoal Grills

Charcoal grills have their fair share of upsides and downsides, but the biggest advantage of these traditional grills is that they are the least expensive. You won’t have to pay through your nose to buy a charcoal grill. In fact, you can find a good quality charcoal grill going for less than 30 bucks. The cost notwithstanding, here are the pros and cons of charcoal grills.

Dos

  • Charcoal grills heat better than gas or electric grills
  • Charcoal grills are more portable since they come with very few components
  • Charcoal grills deliver a smoky flavor unlike other types of grills
  • Charcoal Grills can create proper char marks on different types of food

Don'ts

  • Charcoal grills are somehow messy since you have to handle coal
  • Charcoal grills do not have high-end features such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity
  • Charcoal grills emit dangerous gases such as carbon dioxide
  • They require more charcoal for slow cooking and longer cooking sessions

jim bob

Author: Jim Bob

Final Thoughts

Charcoal grills can be messy, and they require a lot of work to use them to great effect. In the same breath, they are hotter and cook better than other modern options. If you remember the inviting aroma coming from the charring meats and burgers, it is hard to imagine if we can really do without charcoal grills.

However, cooking with charcoal is akin to playing with fire. And if you play with fire, you must be ready to get burned. This means that if you use your charcoal grill inappropriately, it could cause great harm to you, your household and the environment around you.

Fortunately, by adhering to the above-mentioned safety guidelines, you can use a charcoal grill safely without much hassle. It is now up to you to commit yourself to do the right thing by practicing safety. Happy grilling!