Beginners Guide on How to Use Kettle BBQ

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Last Updated on July 15, 2021
Doug Stephen

A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.  

Doug is a hardcore barbeque enthusiast and connoisseur. While he spends most of his time on editing and research, he sometimes moonlights as a product tester for particularly interesting things he comes across.

how to use kettle bbq

A kettle BBQ provides you with the option to cook with direct or indirect heat and grill or smoke meat and vegetables. Their versatility makes them an excellent choice for any outdoor cooking enthusiast who likes to vary their cooking styles to keep lunches and dinners interesting.

Because a kettle BBQ uses charcoal instead of gas, you can infuse your food with the delicious smoky flavors and aromatic smells associated with outdoor grilling. You can achieve amazing results when cooking on a kettle BBQ, but you need to know how to prepare the grill and control the heat level.

Fortunately, you can follow some simple tips when learning how to use your kettle BBQ.

1. Setting Up Your Kettle Grill

The first step is to prepare your grill correctly. However, the most suitable setup depends on whether you are grilling or smoking your meal.

Preparing Your Kettle Grill for Grilling

Grilling requires high heat, so you need plenty of charcoal. Your fuel choice is also crucial. Lump wood charcoal is the premium choice, as it contains pure carbon, burns at high heat, and does not produce large amounts of ash that could block the air vents. 

If you use briquettes, you can still grill, but you’ll find it takes longer and produces more mess. These problems arise because briquettes contain impurities such as sawdust that don’t burn as well as pure carbon

When adding charcoal to the bottom of your kettle grill, don’t just pour it in. Place larger charcoal pieces on the bottom to encourage air circulation. Spread the charcoal evenly to ensure there is even heat distribution in the cooking chamber when you light the coals. Stack the charcoal until it is around four inches below the cooking grill’s height.

Preparing Your Kettle Grill for Smoking

When smoking your meats and vegetables, you want a consistent low heat to avoid burning the charcoal too quickly. In this scenario, it’s best to cook using indirect heat. You can position a flame-proof tinfoil tray to cover one-half of the kettle grill’s bottom. The tray is a placeholder to prevent the charcoal from spilling into the other side of the grill. However, you can also half-fill it with water to help keep your meats moist during smoking. Place your charcoal pieces on the other side of the bottom of the grill. 

Because you are cooking at a lower heat, you don’t need as much charcoal. However, take care to ensure you don’t stack the pieces too tightly to allow for sufficient air circulation.

2. Lighting Your Kettle Grill

Lighting the grill with fire

When learning how to use kettle bbq, it can be tempting to use lighter fluid to burn the coals. However, you may find your food has an unpleasant chemical taste. It’s just as easy to add two or three firefighters to the charcoal bed and light them with a match. Evenly space the firelighters throughout the coals to ensure they light simultaneously.

You can also use an electric lighter that uses hot air and a fan to light the coals. These lighters require an electricity supply to operate, but they’re an excellent option if you don’t like to use matches.

A charcoal chimney is another effective way to light coals. You place newspaper at the bottom of the cylinder and add coals to the top. When you burn the newspaper, it begins to light the coals, and you then add them to the kettle grill. The main downside with a charcoal chimney is you lose control of coal placement. 

No matter which lighting method you choose, remember to keep all the air dampers open. If the charcoal does not receive enough oxygen, it takes longer to light, and the fire could extinguish altogether.

3. Cooking on Your Kettle Grill

About five to ten minutes after lighting the charcoal, you should notice they begin to turn gray. When all the coals have a light coating of ash, this indicates they are burning efficiently, and it is time to place your food on the grill.

Grilling on a Kettle Grill

When grilling, you want to keep the heat high, so it’s best to close the lid when food is on the cooking grate. Keep the bottom and top vents fully open, and allow the internal cooking temperature to rise to approximately 400°F. When you reach your target temperature, half-close the top vent. 

Maintaining a steady temperature on a kettle grill can be challenging. You need to make the correct adjustments to your vents and continuously monitor the temperature. The wind speed and direction can quickly raise or lower the heat level, so you need to remain vigilant to avoid overcooking or undercooking meats. As you learn how to use kettle bbq over time, temperature control becomes second nature. 

Depending on your foods’ thickness, you should expect it to be ready in no more than twenty minutes. If you have thicker cuts of meat that could take longer to cook, smoking is the better option.

Smoking on a Kettle Grill

Because you’re smoking using low indirect heat, this process takes longer than grilling. The food that you are smoking can take several hours, allowing you to relax on a sunny day. To avoid smoke escaping, try to keep the lid closed as much as possible. 

A suitable target temperature for smoking meats on a kettle grill is around 250°F. 

Enjoy Your Meal

Use a meat thermometer to check your food is ready to serve. Poultry and fowl should have an internal temperature of 165°F, steaks, pork, and roasts should have an internal heat level of 145°F.


Doug Stephen

Doug Stephen

Final Thoughts: Using Kettle BBQ

These tips rely on your kettle BBQ being clean. You should always use a grill brush to scrape food pieces off your grill after use. When the coals are cool, empty the remaining ash from the ash catcher into a sealed bin for disposal. 

You can quickly wipe down the kettle grill interior with a damp cloth and dry it with some paper towel. Now you’re all set for your next outdoor cookout!