How to Control Temperature on a Charcoal Grill

Jason Webster
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The four ways to control heat

A charcoal grill is a powerful tool that can cook a mean steak (or a burger). However, as you probably already know, its heat source is not adjustable and the only way to control the temperature is to control the amount of fuel you use.

Starting off hot

You can control the temperature by starting with a hot charcoal. The more charcoal you put in the firebox, the higher the temperature. However, high temperatures can create flare-ups, a condition where drippings from the meat are ignited by the hot coals.

Controlling the airflow

You can control the temperature by controlling the flow of air in the grill. If you put the lid on the grill, air will be limited and the temperature will increase.

If you open the grill, air will flow better and the temperature will drop down.

Putting the meat on

You can control the temperature by putting the meat on. The more meat that you have in the heat zone of the grill, the more the temperature will dip down.

Adding more charcoal

You can control the temperature by adding more charcoal into the firebox. The more charcoal that you have, the more the temperature will start increasing and the faster it will rise up.

1) Build a Two Zone Fire

A common issue with new charcoal grillers is poor temperature control and uneven cooking.

There are many reasons for this and the most common one is they use too much charcoal and are unable to control the temperature in the cooking area.

The best way to maintain a consistent temperature on the grill is to use a two zone fire. You control the heat distribution in the grill using the amount of charcoal on each side of the grill.

The side of the grill closest to the charcoal chimney has the most amount of charcoal and will get hotter. The other side of the grill will have less charcoal and will maintain a lower temperature.

If you’re grilling food over high heat, you start by piling the charcoal on one side of the grill and leave the other side empty. If the side of the grill gets too hot, you move the food over to the other side of the grill.

Here is an example of a two zone fire on a gas grill.

2) Increase or decrease airflow by adjusting your grill vents

There are two types of vents on your grill:

  • The top vent
  • The bottom vent

The top vent is located at the top of your grill directly below your lid, if you have one.

The bottom vent is also known as the firebox vent and is usually found just above your firebox.

Adjusting your vents is simple. Just grasp the vent and move it to let out more or less air depending on your current temperature needs.

Increase or Decrease Charcoal Intake

When you increase your airflow, you allow more air to the coals in your firebox which in turn burns more charcoal.

On the flip side, closing your vents tight will force the fire to burn hotter but will also reduce the amount of charcoal you burn.

The bottom vent is usually the most widely-used vent in a gas or charcoal grill.

Thatís because this vent is the one that influences air flow directly over the coals and therefore has the greatest effect on your cooking temperature.

3) Adjust the distance between your food and the coals

In order to maintain a steady cooking temperature, you will need to maintain an even distance between the food that you are cooking and the fire/coals at all times.

If the distance is too large, the temperature will drop and your food will take longer to cook. If the distance is too small, the temperature will rise and your food gets cooked quickly and ends up having a burnt taste.

So how do you maintain an even distance between your food and the fire?

Introduce the grill grates to your grill.

If you are using charcoal, remove the grate from the grill rack, rake the coals all over the bottom, place the grate back, and spread the coals evenly around the bottom of the grill. Now you have a flat surface for the food to place on.

Now everything is set for you to start cooking.

Once you place the food on the grates, you will need to push it back from the coals for a small distance and close it which raises the temperature again.

And if it’s still not cooking the way you want it to, you will need to pull the food closer to the coals.

4) Use a Grill Shield

If you’re using a dedicated smoker, an exterior thermometer should suffice for monitoring temperature. However, if you are cooking on a charcoal grill and are using the ambient air to regulate temperature, then you need to monitor the temperature of the barbecue with an internal thermometer.

In either case, you need to start by placing a shield to protect the food from the direct heat. Some grill manufacturers offer built-in shields that slide right into place. Otherwise, you can purchase a shield that clamps around the food on the grill.

Generally speaking, you want to heat the food indirectly by using the indirect side of the grill.

While some heat from the coals will always be transmitted to the food via conduction, it’s moving the food as far away from the heat source as possible that will significantly minimize the amount discovered.

Controlling temperature during ‘Low and Slow’ cooks

Low and slow (L&S) barbecue cooking is one of the world’s greatest pleasures, but it is certainly not for everyone.

Meaty cuts cooked using the L&S method take hours to reach their final serving temperature. While people often get all worked up when their meat doesn’t come off the grill in time for dinner, a little patience and a few tricks go a long way towards having the best barbecue experience imaginable.

The two keys to L&S cooking are maintaining a low temperature and exposing the meat to smoke for an extended period of time.

If you are doing things right, you are going to have to control the amount of oxygen in the grill.

How can I do that?

There may be three reasons why your temperature goes up when you try to adjust:

Firstly, unless you are a certified wizard, the airflow into your grill controls the temperature.

Secondly, you may need to adjust the bottom vents instead of the top vents. Grilling burners vent through the top by design and the bottom vents are meant to control temperature by controlling how much air is allowed into the grill.

Lastly, and most often, temperature may go up because now you are venting oxygen at your meat instead of into the fire.

Indirect vs Direct

One of the key things to know about cooking on a charcoal grill is that heat is controlled by the amount of fuel (charcoal or wood) and the size of the cooking area.

For example, when you are using a kettle-style charcoal grill, the amount of heat on the charcoal grill is controlled by:

  • The amount of charcoal you place in the grill
  • The amount of air flow that is generated between the charcoal and the cooking surface

The size of the cooking area is controlled with:

  • Larger cooking grates
  • Larger cooking surface with a grate upgrade
  • Secondary grill for temperature variation like with a smoking rack

Direct heating is when you aim the heat directly at the meat. When you setup your charcoal grill for direct cooking, the grill should be loaded with charcoal and the lid should be closed. You should be placing your food close to the cooking grate so that it’s directly over the charcoal. The lid of the grill should be closed and should have vents open to allow oxygen flow.

In a kettle-style grill, the charcoal should be placed in at least two different piles to allow oxygen flow.

Don’t get trigger happy adjusting your vents

There’s an old saying that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s definitely more than one way to control airflow and temperatures in your grill. Not every barbecue chef relies on the basic three-zone system that guides the majority of grill cooks. These constant grillers are willing to learn…and in some cases, invent…other ways to control their heat and by doing so, prevent food from burning.

The accuracy of this method of temperature control often depends on the weave of the grill grates, the distance between the fire and the food, and the quality of the grill’s air circulation. In the end, it may just come down to the ingenuity of your fire and airflow management.

Top Round Steak: What You Need to Know

Although a bit tougher than sirloin tip, top round steak is one of the tastiest cuts of beef that a lot of people don’t know about. It is popular in Latin American countries and is also known as top sirloin butt or rump roast.

Top round steak is a cut from the top of the round in the cow’s hind leg. It runs through the hip, rump, and upper of the back and is covered with the sirloin and flank. It is therefore a relatively lean cut. During cooking, the top round’s flavor profile is tender, pleasantly beefy, but not overly gamey.

This cut of beef is pretty easy to find in the wholesale meat markets, although you may have to ask around a bit. It’s not uncommon for top round cuts to be mixed with sirloins or other top round cuts.