Controlling Cooking Temperatures With Charcoal Grills

temperature gauge

Controlling the temperature of your charcoal grill is vital if you are serious about utilizing your grill the way it was designed to be utilized and turning out cooked foods that are optimally juicy and flavorful.  Every griller wants friends and family to not just eat the culinary creations but savor them!  It becomes personal—and temperature control is at the helm!

Charcoal grills, typically, burn hotter than gas; and its more challenging to control heat on a charcoal grill than it is with a gas grill.   Knowing what variables play a role in controlling the grill’s heat, however, puts YOU in control with how to create an ideal cooking environment, regardless of what type of foods you grill.  Here’s how to control cooking temperature of charcoal grill.

The Coals:

How you arrange the coals will impact how the heat in your grill will be managed; and this is important since different foods require different cooking temperatures.  There are a number of  ‘zones’ that can be used, but the few mentioned here  will cover the basics which will carry you through virtually any cooking demands.

1: The ‘Single Zone’ Fire:

A Single-Zone fire is created when you distribute hot coals evenly over the entire bottom grate—this will create a heat environment of uniform ‘direct heat’ where the food being  cooked will be directly above the heat source.  Unless you like your meat a little on the burnt side, don’t be tempted to use too many briquettes since an increase in briquettes equates to increased temperatures.  If you are cooking a slew of hamburgers and they are all going to be cooked the same way, then a single-zone arrangement would work well. Be sure to keep the lid in place to replicate an oven environment.

2:  The ‘2-Zone’ Fire:

With a 2-zone fire, a wide array of foods can be cooked, but only one-half of the grate will hold the briquettes, which will result in hot, direct heat on one half of the grill while the other half of the grill will have no briquettes, resulting in a cooler, indirect heat.  Direct heat will sear surfaces and enhance flavors and textures for fish fillets, sliced veggies, hamburgers, steaks etc.  Indirect heat, being cooler, will cook slower and more evenly for foods such as roasts, whole chickens and ribs.

Additional temperature control can be achieved by placing coals in two equal accumulations on opposite ends of the grate.  You’ll have two zones of direct heat and one zone, in the center, for indirect heat.   This type of charcoal placement works great for cooking a roast, for example, which would be placed  the center, receiving indirect heat, where it would be allowed to cook slowly.  Also, by placing a disposable, aluminum pan under the center of the grate between both areas of briquettes, you will be able to collect drippings that won’t be allowed to generate excess flames.

3:  The ‘3-Zone’ Fire:

If you really want to micro-manage your heat, then utilizing a 3-Zone fire is effective!  Heat your briquettes in a chimney heater.  Once they are fully heated and ready, empty them along only one side of the grill where you will have a pile of coals, 2 or 3 briquettes deep.  Slope the heated coals down to a single layer across the center of the grate making sure the opposite side (one-third of the grill) receives no coals, at all.  You will have created 3 heat zones to cater to various foods that require different cooking temperatures—high/direct-heat, medium/direct heat and indirect heat.

The Vents:

The vents on your grill will work hand-in-hand with your charcoal placement.   The vents, or dampers, located on the bottom of the grill as well as on the top of the lid, will vastly control the inside temperature.  To be honest, the vents are the real key to temperature control; and it’s the top vents that are intended to trap and release heat and smoke in order to adjust the interior temperatures.

When top and bottom vents are in the open position, air will be drawn through the bottom of the grill and stoke the coals as the air passes through them.  The air will, then, circulate around the food and be pushed out the top.   When the vents are all in the open position, the grill’s fire will burn optimally and the hotter the grill will become.

When you close the vents entirely or partially, this correspondingly restricts the airflow going into the grill, thereby, reducing the oxygen to the coals and reducing the temperature inside.  Closing the vents by 50% is a good way to keep fully-cooked foods warm. Also, vents can be closed half-way if you are experiencing problems with flare-ups and need to get them under control.

The Three Main Temperature Ranges:

1:  Low-and-Slow Temperatures:

Low temperatures will cook meats slowly–ribs and brisket do well with temperatures ranging from 225 to 275 degrees Fahrenheit.  Here, the lower vent should be closed about 50%.  The top vent will be left entirely open.  If you want your grill to reach 250 degrees, you will, at the 225-degree point, adjust the top vent so it’s about two-thirds open.  Once your grill reaches your desired temperature (250 degrees in this case), you can leave the vents completely alone.  If it’s a windy day, the top vent might have to be closed just a bit more to avoid an influx of excess oxygen.

2:  Mid-Heat Temperatures:

Foods that cook at mid-range will be exposed to temperatures ranging from 375-450-degrees Fahrenheit.   Meats, such as whole chickens, cut-up chicken, burgers and even bread dough will use this range of heat.  A searing effect is offered at this level, allowing for golden-browning of foods.  A medium heat would, also be perfect for turkeys and roasts; and with the lid on, you can easily keep temperatures in the medium range for 45- 60 minutes, which is perfect for longer cook times.

For mid-range temperatures, you will position the bottom vent about half-way open.  The top vent will be in the ‘fully-opened’ position which will allow for increased air-flow, called the ‘chimney effect’.  You may have to tweak the top vent, in small increments, to achieve your desired temperature.

It becomes obvious that having a thermometer on board is vital since you’ll need to know the inside temperature.   If your grill didn’t come with a factory-installed thermometer, quality grill-thermometers can be purchased.   A great alternative is to use a candy thermometer or an instant-read meat thermometer that can be inserted into the top vent.

3:  High-Heat Temperatures:

The high-heat range will include temperatures at 450 degrees or higher.    Here, the bottom and the top vents should be fully opened to allow maximum air flow to create those higher heats.  Beef and tuna steaks and thin pork chops for example, will cook well with high heat for a short amount of time.  For any desired heat reductions, simply close the top vent about half-way and keep an eye on the interior temperature.  Continue to adjust the top vent as needed, to maintain the proper temperature.

Many novice grillers will toss an overabundance of briquettes in the grill, douse the pile with lighter-fluid, fire it up and then wonder why the burgers and steaks are juiceless, with no flavor.  Measured air-flow, via the vents, and strategically-placed briquettes are what temperature-control with a charcoal grill is all about.   If this is all new to you, be assured you can, with time and a little practice, become ‘The Keeper of the Flames’ with impressive precision!