There are a lot of people who make a direct connection between the smoky flame-kissed aroma of charcoal and grilled meat. It’s the sort of thing that harkens back to genetic touchstones within us from our ancient ancestors cooking hunks of the random animals they killed over burning wood embers.
Yet in the modern world griddles are taking off as a very popular accessory. There are even some gas grills that come with a removable or permanently installed griddle top to let them fry bacon, saute vegetables, and sear off natural casing hot dogs.
So, if you have a charcoal grill that you’re in love with, yet you don’t want to be left out in the cold, you’re probably wondering if you can use a griddle on a charcoal grill.
The good news is that you can indeed bring a griddle to a charcoal grill, and it will indeed fry a lot of the foods you love. Though the type of griddle, the griddle material, the shape, and the technique you use will all factor into just how functional and convenient it is.
The Best Type of Griddle Material
If you try to take the frying pan or griddle from your kitchen to the grates of your charcoal grill, you’re probably going to be unhappy with the results. Especially if it’s a non-stick Teflon-coated griddle, as the Teflon will break down into toxic components when exposed to high-heat flames. Fortunately, grill accessory manufacturers have been hard at work coming up with some interesting griddle accessories that have the durability and functionality to stand up to the power of a charcoal fire.
Cold-rolled steel griddles are great for developing flavor via a seasoning layer. This is a thin layer of hydrocarbons that are essentially cured onto the surface of the cold-rolled steel. They’re left behind by each of your cooks, and it helps to impart extra flavor to everything you cook on the griddle surface. The hydrocarbons also do a great job of making the griddle non-stick.
Of course, the problem here is that you have to develop the seasoning layer and you have to be absolutely diligent about maintaining every square inch. When you first get the griddle, this takes a few hours, and then adds an extra 5 to 10 minutes to the cleanup portion of every single grilling session. You also have to be smart about how you store it.
If any water or even excess condensation gets on the seasoned griddle top, it can cause rust and corrosion. Leaving you to scrape it down and start re-seasoning it all over again.
This can be a little finicky for what is meant to be a grilling “Accessory.” So, in my experience, it’s better to leave cold rolled steel for outdoor gas griddles that have an affixed griddle top.
Cast iron’s ability to soak up tons of heat energy makes it a great griddle material for searing meat and sauteing vegetables. It’s also super durable, and won’t deform over intense direct heat which can sometimes be a risk with cold-rolled steel griddles.
A lot of the cast iron griddles you find in grill accessory sections have a smooth side and a perforated side. The perforated side is great for marking off seared meat. Though unless you have some pretty serious welding gloves it’s extremely awkward to flip a hot cast iron griddle.
Though here again, you’re dealing with a metal that will rust and develop a pitted surface if you aren’t 100% diligent about maintaining a robust seasoning layer. At the same time, cast iron is not as forgiving as cold-rolled steel when it comes to ease of maintenance.
The surface of cast iron is far more reactive to the elements like water and even high humidity. The surface also tends to have more tiny pits and microscopic textures where rust can develop. Once even a tiny spec of rust attacks one of these miniscule spaces it then manages to spread underneath the seasoning layer causing it to release in black, hydrocarbon flakes.
Porcelain Coated Griddles
One of the ways griddle manufacturers are dealing with rust issues on cold-rolled steel and cast-iron griddles is to apply a layer of high-quality black porcelain. It’s about as non-stick as a traditional seasoning layer and seals off all the underlying metal to prevent it from ever making contact with water.
This means if it gets a little gunky, you can just give it a good soak in warm soapy water. A vigorous scrub down with an abrasive sponge and it’s good as new.
The cost of the porcelain layer is very low, and you won’t pay more than a few extra dollars to get a porcelain-coated cast iron griddle.
Though the one drawback here is that the porcelain doesn’t contribute anything to the flavor of the food being cooked on it. You can’t develop a seasoning layer on it. The food is as it is, without any enhancement to the flavor. Though most people who have used porcelain-coated cast iron griddles will tell you that this is an acceptable tradeoff for all the convenience it buys you.
Best Way to Use a Griddle on a Charcoal Grill
Getting the most out of your new griddle starts with giving it plenty of time to preheat. The metal needs to absorb heat energy in order to transfer it to the food you’re cooking. This calls for at least 15 minutes over a strong charcoal flame for a half to one-inch thick cast iron or cold rolled steel griddle.
Placement is also essential. A lot of griddles come with a small runoff trough to catch the grease and cooking oil that comes off the food. Though in my experience these troughs are easily overwhelmed when you cook fatty foods on them. The grease then pours over the side onto the fire and it causes a massive flareup.
The wise move here is to put the griddle toward the back of the charcoal grill grates. Then put whatever meat you’re grilling, such as steak for fajitas at the front of the grill. That way if a flareup does occur you don’t have to put your arm through the blazing flame to save your steak from being flash grilled to well-done.
Another great way to reduce flare-ups is to put a small aluminum cup or tray under the lowest part of the griddle. You can then put some quarter-inch balls of aluminum foil under the other side of the griddle. The slight incline won’t change performance, but it will allow the grease to naturally flow down the trough to the lowest point where it drizzles into your aluminum cup. Rather than causing a flare-up in the burning charcoal.