It’s easy to control the temperature on your oven inside your house. You have thermostats with different settings. You also have burners on the stovetop, which you can adjust, and controls for the oven interior, where you can set precise temperatures.
But, how do you control the temperature on an outdoor grill that uses charcoal and fire to heat rather than electricity or gas?
You do it by either providing more oxygen to the fire or by reducing it. Many grills have a built-in temperature gauge right on the lid, so that you can see the effects of what you’re doing.
Locate the Vents
Grills that are designed to burn charcoal come equipped with special vents that can be opened or closed. You will usually find two vents on the bottom of the grill itself and two on the lid – both sets of vents are on each side of the grill.
Vents control the air flow. The more air that enters the body of the grill interior, the hotter the fire because it is receiving so much oxygen. When that air flow supply is reduced, the fire has no choice but to start dying down. A low air flow supply is a good thing when you are barbecuing because you want that low amount of air flow to cook the meat slowly over a long period of time. But with grilling, you want a hotter fire that cooks meat faster.
The vents help you manually adjust the air flow into your grill. Each grill is manufactured slightly differently. So, look over yours and locate the vents before you start grilling. You can open them up wide to get the fire nice and hot in the beginning.
Know Your Grill
Now that you’ve located the vents, you can either go by the built-in temperature gauge reading on the grill lid. Or, you can go out and purchase a separate grill or infrared thermometer, which will tell you exactly what the temperature is like on the inside of the grill. This takes some practice to know just the size fire that you need to achieve the temperature you’re looking for. It’s more a process of trial and error than an exact science like your oven interior.
After using your grill regularly, you’ll be able to gauge the temperature it will reach just by looking at the coals and the size of the fire in the coals. A lot of open fire cooking is about experience, knowledge, and by expertise. Spend time getting to know your grill.
It’s Hotter Than You Think
Don’t be surprised to see how hot your grill can really get. You are dealing with actual flames, not simulated chemical heat like an oven. Charcoal can burn all the way up to 700° F, although 500° F is a more normal temperature range. If you want the fire hotter, try using natural lump charcoal, not briquettes. You can also lower the cooking grate to just one inch above the hot coals.
Adding More Fuel to the Fire
Charcoal is your main source of fuel in most grills. It is an excellent fuel, but it doesn’t hold its heat as long as an oven. Charcoal starts cooling off gradually after it’s been lit, and it loses its fire after about an hour of burning. That’s when you would need to add more charcoal to the grill.
This is a second way of regulating temperature. Instead of adding hot coals, add unlit ones to the top of the existing coals. It takes about 15 minutes for the unlit ones to light fully without any lighter fluid or pure alcohol helping them. You can add coals one by one with grill tongs, or you can light the coals separately in a charcoal chimney. Wait about 10 minutes for them to get hot, and then carefully pour them onto the charcoal in the grill.
Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold, But Just Right
So, what is the best temperature for grilling on a charcoal grill? You are going to use the hand test to check. Hold your hand about six inches above the cooking grate. After about three seconds, the heat should become so great you snatch your hand away. That is about 350° F-400° F. Use the temperature gauge to be sure. If you can hold your hand longer, the temperature is lower. If you can’t hold it there for long, the temperature is higher.
Once you have the heat you like, keep the fire fed with charcoal to maintain that temperature.