Charcoal grills are famous for rolling temperatures. Not only that, but many built-in thermometers on charcoal grills are notoriously bad at doing the one job they have: telling an accurate temperature. The result is that you have no idea just how long it will take to cook your meal. If you need high temperatures, the grill tends to swing low. If you need low, it swings high.
Luckily, we’ve got the tips on just how to keep your charcoal grill hot— and it’s easier than you think. But not just hot, you’ll discover how to keep a steady temperature so you can enjoy the kind of barbecue that you’ve always wanted, in your own backyard.
Clean Your Grill
In order to keep your charcoal grill at a steady, hot temperature, you’ll need to start by cleaning it regularly. And by this, I don’t mean just emptying the ash at the bottom— although that is very important to do. I mean you should be brushing the cooking grates after every use, removing any build-up on the lid, and ensuring that there is nothing obstructing the vents.
If you don’t have a grill brush, here’s a great one to check out. It has a solid 18″ handle and the stainless steel bristles are designed to clean your grill grate quickly and easily.
You don’t need to scrub your entire grill after every use, but it’s a good idea to give it a good wipe down with soap and water after every few uses. The cooking grate should be scraped and brushed while it’s still warm and oiled with cooking oil at the beginning and end of the grilling season, at least.
Keeping your grill clean will help it perform the same every time you cook, enabling you to get a feel for how fast it gets up to temperature and how long it stays there. Of course, the second part of this is getting a reliable thermometer for both your food and for the temperature inside the grill.
Use A Good Thermometer
If you don’t already have one, it’s time to get a reliable thermometer. Hopefully, if you’re doing much grilling, you already have a meat thermometer. If not, the ThermoPro TP20 is a great choice. Its accurate within 1.8°F and works great for any type of meat. It even has a “taste” mode with preset USDA approved doneness levels including: Rare, Medium Rare, Medium, Medium Well and Well Done, eliminating all the guesswork.
Once you have an accurate temperature gauge in your grill, you’ll have a much easier time making little adjustments to change the temperature to suit your grilling needs. Which brings me to the next point: the correct grilling temperature for different meats.
What Is The Optimum Temperature for Grilling?
The longer you want to cook your meat, the harder it seems to get when using a charcoal grill. Some people find it almost impossible to slow-cook or smoke meat on a charcoal grill. But, with a little know-how (and a good thermometer) you can be a slow-cooking expert in no time.
The sweet spot for slow-cooking is 225° F. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. For stuff like hamburger patties and hot dogs, you’ll be looking at 400° F. For chicken, 350° F is the best way to go. For most steaks you’ll want the temperature around 360°F – 400° F, depending on the way you like it. Just remember to properly check your meat with a thermometer to make sure it is thoroughly cooked before you eat!
Open Your Vents
When you’re getting ready to fire up the grill, it’s a good idea to open any air vents you have. After all, fire feeds on oxygen. On most grills, you’ll find a vent on the lid and another down toward the bottom of the grill.
If you’re not sure, consult your owner’s manual. Having your vents open creates maximum airflow through your grill, helping to get a nice, hot fire going. Once you actually start cooking, you may want to adjust your vents, which we cover in a step below.
Light Your Charcoals
Once you have a good thermometer set up and your vents are open, it’s time to light your charcoal. There are several ways to do this, but the best by far involves using a chimney starter. The benefit of a chimney starter in keeping your grill hot comes from the quick and even way that the charcoal lights inside one. Plus, it only takes 10 to 15 minutes to get a nice bed of coals going.
You can also use paper and twigs to light a few briquettes on fire if you don’t have a chimney starter. This method takes longer, but once you add more briquettes and get the coals going, you should have an easy time keeping your grill hot.
Of course, you can also use lighter fluid to ignite your coals, but people tend to avoid this because of the chemical taste the fluid can transfer to your food. If you do use lighter fluid, try to find some natural stuff that won’t leave your meat tasting funny. Plus, there are plenty of options for natural fire starters that work well in charcoal grills, like these Inflame Natural Charcoal and Fire Starters.
Related Article: How to Start a Charcoal Grill: With & Without Lighter Fluid
Close The Lid and Watch The Temperature
If you’re using a chimney starter, you can pour the coals onto your charcoal rack into whatever formation you need. If you’re going for high temperatures and quick cooking, you’ll probably want to spread the coals out evenly on the charcoal rack.
If you’re going to be slow-cooking or using lower temperatures, you want to use the 2-zone formation. This just means that you position the coals over half of the charcoal rack, leaving the other half empty for cooking with indirect heat.
If you’re using a chimney starter, you don’t have to wait to start grilling, as the coals should already be evenly lit: orange underneath a layer of white or gray ash.
But, if you started your coals any other way, you’ll probably want to close the lid and wait until all the coals have a layer of ash. It all depends on what you’re cooking. This is where the thermometer comes in handy, as it tells you when your grill is hot and ready. But, how to maintain your desired temperature?
Little Adjustments Keep Your Charcoal Grill Hot
To keep your grill hot as you cook, all you have to do is make little adjustments. You don’t have to do this often, and you’d be surprised at how easy it is once you know what to do.
Your New Best Friends: The Vents
You should start off with your vents open as wide as they go. Remember them, because they will help you regulate your grill’s temperature more than you’d think. For high heat, keep them open. To lower the temperature a little bit, close them about halfway. If it’s way too hot, and you want to drop the temperature and keep it down, close the bottom vent.
Once the coals are going you don’t need to have them both open, provided you don’t have a bunch of ash at the bottom of your grill, blocking airflow.
Add Fuel As Needed Or Every Half Hour
Since charcoal takes a little while to light and become nice orange and white coals, you need to plan ahead when it comes to adding fuel. You don’t want to wait until the coals are almost gone to put more briquettes in, as the temperature will probably drop more than you want, and you’ll almost be starting from scratch again.
Instead, plan on adding a handful or two of briquettes or lumps every thirty minutes or so. How many you add depends on the temperature and how much longer your food needs to cook, but the important part is getting them in before you need them, not after.
Add Wood Chips For Searing and a Quick Rise In Temperature
Since wood burns faster than charcoal, adding wood chips to your coals is a good way to get a quick rise in temperature. The more you add, the hotter it will get— but it won’t last for long. Wood chips are no replacement for added charcoal.
However, if you just want the benefit of the smoky flavor of mesquite, hickory, or oak wood chips, you can add a few gradually throughout the cooking time. You can also soak your wood chips in water to help them burn slower and, some say, generate more smoke.
Just be aware that there is such a thing as too much smoke on your meat. If you are using wood chips, you probably don’t want to leave both your vents closed as it will trap the smoke inside.
Now you know how easy it is to keep your charcoal grill hot. If you’ve been grilling regularly, you’ll get the hang of it in no time. If you’re new to grilling with charcoal, it may take you a few sessions to get used to it, but you’ll be grilling excellent, evenly-cooked food before you know it.
Just remember: use an accurate thermometer for your grill and your meat, invest in a chimney starter, and don’t be afraid to adjust your vents. Add charcoal before you need it, and add wood chips for a smoky flavor and a little burst of heat! That’s all there is to it! Happy grilling!
I hope this article has been helpful and, as always, thanks for reading!