Lifting The Lid Too Much
Unlike ovens and gas grills that lose heat when the lid is opened, the opposite happens with charcoal grills. Opening the lid feeds extra oxygen to the coals, which causes them to burn even hotter and ups the potential for burning food.
Follow this tip: Open the lid to flip food and check its progress, but keep the lid closed as much as possible. This is especially important when cooking larger items that benefit from cooking over indirect heat for a longer period of time, like ribs or a pork shoulder.
Basics Of Heat & Charcoal
Charcoal is pretty amazing stuff that dates back millennia. Wood is transformed into charcoal through pyrolysis, a contained burn with little to no oxygen. Whats left will burn very hot and typically very clean when re-ignited.
In a controlled environment with air blown into the mix, charcoal runs as high as a couple thousand degrees Fahrenheit. In an open grill the burn temp is about 1000, radiant heat is running about 700. Distance diminishes the temperature very rapidly.
So your goal in cooking with charcoal is to find the right mix of volume of burning coals, distance from the food to be cooked and duration of time for the cooking process. You can basically think of distance as two broad choices for cooking direct or indirect heat.
Direct cooking, or grilling, you fire up the heat to a very high level and sear your food directly over the top.
Indirect usually has the heat to the side, or beneath a shield, with heat circulating naturally around the food via convection. That is very simply put, we will look at the nuances within the categories and approaches to get there.
How To Keep Charcoal Hot
Use your tongs to keep the coals together. You dont want them so well packed that they can’t get air, but you also don’t want them separated.
HOT TIP: Cooking temperatures on a charcoal grill are controlled by opening and closing the vents. Opening the vents feeds the fire, raising the temperature. Closing the vents deprives the fire of oxygen, lowering the temperature.
Keep the top and bottom vents open to get the hottest temperature. The more air you get to the fire, the hotter it will cook.
Empty the ash frequently. Ash takes up space for air and will smother the coals as it builds up.
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Bbq Tip: How To Use Charcoal Grill Vents
Controlling barbecue temperature doesnt need to be difficult. Heres how to use your charcoal grills vents in 3 easy steps.
There a lot of factors that contribute to good grilling, but of all of them temperature control is the most important. Its also one of the most difficult.
Or at least thats the myth. In my guide to using charcoal grill vents, Ill show you exactly how to keep on top of the heat at your barbecue.
Using your grill vents comes down to three key stages: The first is to fully open both the upper and lower vents to feed your charcoal with oxygen. The next is to partly close them to keep the heat at a consistent 225°F . The last is to close them completely in order to allow the heat to die out.
Good charcoal grilling is all about temperature. If its too hot, youll obliterate and dry out your food. If its to cold, your meat could be unsafe to eat. Its a fine balance, but if you get it right then youll soon be presenting perfectly barbecued meat.
Your charcoal grill essentially has two fuels. One is the coals sitting at the bottom of chamber. The other is the oxygen flowing through it. Control of both is hugely important to the success of your cooking.
The key lies in whether your vents are set open or closed, and knowing when to set them. Theyre not just a chimney or exhaust for heat to escape, but instead a way for you to directly control the temperature in your grill.
With charcoal grills, we need to take a lot more care with our vents.
Using The Air Vents To Control Smoker Temperature
Having a steady smoking temperature will be more beneficial for a fully smoked, cooked, tender meat. In most of the low and slow cooking, what we need to do is see how we can get our smoker to range between 225 250°F and try keeping it there for 4-16 hours.
There is a lot that is involved in temperature control other than firebox loading up. It is important for one to know how to make most out of their smoker air vents.
Majority of the smokers are known to have two vent types. One is located at the bottom while the other is located at the top. The intake vent is that one that is usually situated at the bottom near and under the firebox. The exhaust vent is the top vent.
Air comes through the intake vent with the warm air circulating from the firebox out through the exhaust vent. Since hot air rises, the exhaust vent will act as vacuum being tasked with drawing air into the intake vent. The hot air will heat up the smoker as it rises up.
Meathead goes into more detail into how the intake and exhaust work over on amazingribs.com
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Do I Open The Vents Or Close Them When Lighting Charcoal
As we said above, fire needs oxygen to burn. So, open the lid, lid vent and vents on the bottom of the grill to let in air to fuel the flames. This will help oxygen reach the coals once theyre lit so they can burn hotter. Once theyre fully lit, you can adjust the vent opening to control the cooking temperature.
How Hot Should My Grill Get
Most grills should reach a surface temperature of approximately 500 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, if you shine a laser thermometer directly on the cooking grate, it should read between 500 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, youll be able to grill delicious meats with a charred exterior and juicy interior.
Keep in mind that the temperature of your burning charcoal or wood will likely be higher than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Its not uncommon for burning charcoal or wood to reach 2,000 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. But your meat wont be exposed directly to the fire. Because cooking grates are typically placed several inches over the fire, your meat will cook at a lower temperature.
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Fastest Way To Keep Your Charcoal Grill Hot
Add coals regularly to keep your grill burning hot. Don’t wait until you’re almost out of briquettes to add more. Instead, add 5-10 pieces of charcoal when you have roughly half of your charcoals remaining, usually every 30 minutes or so.
HOT TIP: Wearing gloves while lighting charcoal will help protect your hands from the intense heat.
Direct And Indirect Cooking
When you are using a charcoal grill, you must be familiar with direct and indirect cooking. Both methods are important when you use your unit, as they help you achieve different cooking results. Whichever method you are using, there is one thing you need to keep in mind: when they are lit, coals represent the source of heat, and when they are unlit, they represent the source of fuel.
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Start your grill with a charcoal chimney this is the easiest way to get your charcoal going. You do not need lighter fluid.
Stuff newspaper loosely in the bottom of the chimney , then fill the chimney with charcoal. Remove top grate from grill, place chimney inside, and light the newspaper.
But how long should you let the coals burn? Let the charcoal or briquettes burn until they’re covered with white-gray ash .
Take the top grate of your grill off and, wearing protective grill gloves, hold the chimney by its handles and pour charcoal into the grill. Then take a paper towel soaked in vegetable oil, and spread it over grate with tongs. This is the trick to keep food from sticking to the grill.
Trouble Shooting Your Grills Heat
Controlling the temperature can be challenging especially with lower priced grills and smokers.
Typically, they leak adding air from around the doors, screw holes or seams. You can reduce the leakage by adding gasket seals to the door or cover and fill gaps or holes with a high heat sealer.
If you dont want to bother sealing everything tight, just think of these as a permanent vent opening and adjust the other vents accordingly.
If youre having a problem getting up to the right temperature, the grill may not be getting enough air. Typically, that means ash build up in the bottom vent.
Always empty ashes before starting a new fire. Make sure the coals arent directly on the vents but supported above them on a grate. Replace the grate if it burns through.
Also, make sure you thermometers are properly calibrated and reading the correct temperatures. Theres nothing worse than doing everything right, but failing because your thermometer doesnt read right.
And, one more thing to check. Mice and birds can make nests in the grill or smokestacks, especially if they are tipped sideways for storage and you dont grill very often. Hey, it happens, or I wouldnt mention it.
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How To Start A Charcoal Grill Fast & Keep The Charcoal Hot
Our guide to starting your charcoal grill will give you a couple different techniques for lighting your charcoal fast. Youll learn what it takes to keep your charcoal hot for searing, how to maintain low temps for slow cooking and keep the fire burning for hours. Well answer your most frequently asked questions and link you to the products that make charcoal grilling a whole lot easier.
Do You Close The Grill When Cooking Brats
Grill the brats for 15-20 minutes.
Keep the grill lid up so you can watch the sausages closely. Since brats can vary in size, thickness, density, and juiciness, each batch will cook a little bit differently. If youre grilling pre-cooked brats, theyll really only need to stay on the grill long enough to heat them up.
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Lighting Charcoal With Lighter Fluid
Ready to have your mind blown? You dont actually need lighter fluid to light your charcoal. And there are a couple of really good reasons to skip the lighter fluid. Chief among them are fire hazard and fumes. Lighter fluid fumes can affect the smell and taste of your food. In addition, charcoal lighter fluid is made of either petroleum or alcohol which are regulated and even restricted in some areas because they have the potential of causing photochemical smog.
If it just doesnt seem right to light your grill without lighter fluid, all we ask is that you dont go crazy. The most you should use is 1/4 cup of fluid per pound of charcoal. Allow the lighter fluid to soak in for 30 seconds before lighting. And NEVER douse a burning fire with lighter fluid.
Cant Get My Charcoal Grill Hot Enough
If your grill is full of ashes from previous grilling sessions it can impede the proper flow of air inside of the kettle, which makes the coals burn cooler. If enough ash builds up it can make it next to impossible to get the coals to stay lit. Keep your grill clean so it works better and lasts longer!
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Dont Get Trigger Happy Adjusting Your Vents
You can still control the temperature by adjusting the vents. However, you should wait until the temperature has been stable for around 20-30 minutes before you start fiddling with them. That way you know what your starting temperature is.
Similarly, if you have adjusted the vents, allow around 20 minutes for the temperature to reflect the change.
You will need to experiment a little with your grill to see what vent settings work for you. Some home grillers have found that setting both top and bottom vents to half is a good starting point.
Wrapping it up
Using a charcoal grill does not mean that all you can do is sear steaks and flip burgers. In fact, there is not much you cant cook on a grill.
The secret lies in being able to control the temperature of your grill. Once you have some techniques down pat and some basic knowledge about how temperature control works, the skys the limit as to what you can cook on your grill.
We hope you have found this article helpful, and you feel enthused to head out and try some of the techniques on your grill this weekend.
Do you have any tried and true techniques that work to control the temperature on your grill? Or are there still some burning questions you would still like answered that were not addressed in this post? Please be sure to let us know in the comments section below. And if you found this article useful, be sure to share!
Feature CC Image courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr
Build A Two Zone Fire
To build a two zone fire:
The area that is directly above the coals is now your grilling, or direct cooking area.
Heres how it looks:
If you want to stop grilling your food, or wish to cook it indirectly, simply move the food across to the side of the grate without coals underneath.
Food sitting in the indirect cooking zone will be cooked by convection, that is, warm air circulating around the food. This will result in even cooking of the meat both inside and out, not just on the surface.
If you are wondering how much charcoal you need in your hot zone, we share some tips in a separate post on the matter.
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Clean And Maintain Your Grill
Keeping your grill clean and your grates well-oiled delivers the best tasting food and prevents it from sticking. It will also make your grill last longer and prevent grease fires. So, before you get started, clean your grill thoroughly. Remove any ash or grease left behind from the last time you grilled and wipe down the grate with fresh cooking oil.
Clean your grill grates with a grill brush before and after use. Scrub the interior monthly and detail the interior and exterior at least every season.
Not Using The Vents On A Charcoal Grill
Unlike a gas grill, charcoal grills have vents, typically located on the hood and on the bottom of the grill. These parts of the grill control air flow, which is essential to keep the charcoal burning, and for controlling temperature. Two things can happen when you forget to either open or close the vents: The charcoal may burn out before your food is finished cooking, or the heat may soar way too high, potentially burning your food.
Follow this tip: Adjust the vents as you preheat the grill and during cooking to control the temperature. For extra air flow, keep the vents open when lighting and preheating the grill. If it seems like your food is cooking too quickly, try closing the vents a bit to lower the temperature. Or if you want to raise the heat, try opening the vents a bit.
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Control The Air Flow With The Intake And Exhaust Vents
For the coals to stay lit, they need air .
The more air that rushes in, the more intense the fire gets. To reduce the heat, you just do the opposite, decrease the amount of air.
Air comes in through the bottom vents or dampers. And as heat rises, the heat, smoke and burned gases escape through the top vent, sometimes call the exhaust vent or smokestack. This, in turn, draws in more air from the bottom that oxygenates the flames further.
Four Ways You Can Use To Control Heat
There are four effective techniques you can always use in temperature control. Understanding these techniques will mean you are on your way to grilling greatness. Depending on the way you use your grill, you will end up relying on one or two of these temperature control methods. However, it is still important for one to know all the available options.
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Direct Heat For High Temperature Grilling
The direct heat grilling method is best for steaks, chops, hamburgers, kabobs, vegetables and food that cooks quickly. There is basically one way to arrange the coals when cooking with direct heat. Charcoal is spread evenly across the charcoal grate for even heat distribution. Once the coals are lit, close the lid and preheat for 20 to 30 minutes.
Open Or Close The Vents
Another way to control your charcoal grill temperature is by opening or closing the vents. Firstly, you must know that almost all charcoal grills come with two oxygens entries:
- The intake damper it can be found near the charcoal
- The exhaust damper is found on top of the grill.
Whichever entry you use to bring in the oxygen, if the amount of oxygen in your unit is high, it will cause the fire to be hotter. That is why we recommend you reduce it by closing the vent. This will decrease or cause the fire to cease. When you find out that the fires level is too low, you can reopen the vent to bring in the oxygen.
Another best way to understand how vents works are by knowing that the exhaust damper controls the oxygen that gout out of the grill. Concerning the intake damper, it controls the amount of oxygen that comes in it.
Whether you are using your grill without the lid, always controlling the intake damper is important. The more it is opened, the more oxygen comes in and lights the charcoal. On the contrary, if you are cooking with the lid on, you must control the exhaust damper. Like we previously mentioned, its role is to enhance heat escaping. If you dont want a high temperature, you can partially open it.
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