I like my grill and I'm a picky snob about it. I have a simple Weber grill that uses real charcoal. Gas grills are just not real grilling as far as I'm concerned; if you need to add all manner of accoutrements to get "real charcoal flavor," yur doin it rong. Oddly enough, you get real charcoal flavor from real charcoal. Wet wood, smoke chips, special rocks, blah, blah, blah. You're not doing anything I can't do with a broiler in my oven.
But, just not any charcoal will do. Use real wood charcoal like Royal Oak, Cowboy, or any other stuff that actually is recognizable as wood when you open the bag. If there's a logo on your briquettes, again, yur doin it rong. Kingsford pastes spent wood palettes together and you can taste the nasty chemicals of both the wood and the process to make the briquettes themselves. DON'T USE THEM. Ick. Really.
To start the coals, I use a chimney starter (actually it's a #10 can from a restaurant with the top and bottoms cut off) stuffed with 2 sheets of newspaper and filled with good charcoal. It can be a sort of pain to light, but you can avoid the second great sin of most barbequers -- lighter fluid. Would you take a drink of it? A long, deep breath of it? No? Then why are you allowing it to "flavor" your food? I look forward to the day when this stuff is outlawed and even the simplest burgers and dogs are freed from the stench of petrochemicals. Of course, I imagine those that can't wait the 15 minutes for the chimney to do its work will just use gas, but they'll end up killing themselves off soon enough...
Real wood charcoal burns faster and you may need to use more of them for a long spell for larger items and they also tend to cost more than briquettes, so look for deals in places like Menard's or Home Depot and purchase a couple bags when they're on sale. Real wood charcoal has the advantage of burning hotter than regular briquettes, so you don't necessarily need more at the beginning, but you'll have to add them with a bigger cut. This is truly an advantage when using indirect heat because the smoke flavors will fill your grill and your meat will benefit from the extended exposure. You'll get that great pink layer of smokey taste without having to resort to the messy nonsense of soaking wood chips or other silly tricks.
There are two basic ways of controlling the heat of your grill; amount of coal burning at one time and the amount of air that you allow in the grill. Carburation is a more of an art than a science as each grill, the contents and the desired effects vary with each grilling session. The basic rule of air flow is the more the air vents are opened, the hotter and less smokey the fire will burn. If you start to close the vents, the more smoke you'll get and the cooler the fire will burn. The position of the vents also matter as the smoke will drift in the direction of the upper vent.
But don't think that you have to only cook animals on the grill, smokey asparagus, peppers and onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes and other roots take on the smoke also. You can cook whole roots (potatoes, parsnips, turnips, beets and carrots) for about 40 minutes, onion halves (this keeps them from falling through the grill) and peppers for 20 minutes and romaine lettuce drizzled with olive oil for about 7 minutes and served with bleu cheese and olives as a salad.
A couple of examples of heat control:
- Cooking tuna steaks - I like mine hot outside and raw inside, so a big pile of coals with the lid off is the way I typically do them. 5 minutes or less a side.
- A large (+4 pounds) cut of meat - I recently did a bone-in leg of lamb on the grill with two small piles of coals pushed to the sides so the meat is not directly heated. I placed the grill's top vent in line with the leg and left it open about 50% and added a couple of coals every 30 minutes until the leg's temperature was about 130F (nearly 3 hours for this one) and then took it off and let it set to come to 140-145F the perfect rare/medium rare for lamb.
- Potatoes (sweet and regular), beets, carrots and parsnips benefit from indirect heat also, but you can build a regular pile in the center and then put the spuds towards the edge of the grill and put the vent over them half open to draw the smoke and heat without burning the skins. Make sure to roll them every 15-20 minutes to prevent burning.
- Burgers can go either way depending on if you want a nice rare char (use direct heat with no lid) of if you want a nice smokey flavor (really nice for cheeseburgers - cook 'em like the beets, and spuds mentioned above).