Charcoal Grill: Do You Ever Find It Hard to Control Heat?
It’s grilling time again. Despite how many times you’ve tried, you’ve encountered problems maintaining a consistent heat on your charcoal grill.
That’s okay; you’re not along there.
Air vents, two-zone fires, three-zone fires, shields, and tray heights are how you’re going to control the heat.
Depending on what you’re making, you might even be able to utilize all of these methods at once to completely control your food.
Use Your Air Vents
Your air vents are basically the best possible way you can control the heat.
If the fire’s getting too hot, or if there’s not enough oxygen hitting your charcoals, your vents are a surefire way to turn the tide.
While monitoring your heat, see if it gets to be over 350° F. If it climbs to 350 and stays there, then your fire is good, but if it continues to climb, you need to release some of the heat without opening the entire lid.
Opening the lid will simply let a big puff of heat out, and could drop the temperature by dozens of degrees a second.
Slide open the vent at the top of your lid to gently release a stream of heat. Pay attention to the temperature gauge as it’s going to drop. Once you get back down to the temperature you want, close the lid.
But your charcoal grill also has vents near the bottom of the basin.
If your fire isn’t hot enough, you can use the vents at the bottom to add extra oxygen into the fire.
This should only be done if your coals are definitely hot enough, and there’s a fire roaring or enough red hot coals.
Oxygen hits the fire, and it builds. You may need to leave your basin vents open for 4-5 minutes to properly build up the temperature.
Some heat will seep out through the vents, but as most heat rises, you’ll be able to see the temperature gauge steadily climbing up.
Create Fire Zones
Fire zones are one of the most effective ways to control charcoal heat right from the get go.
If you start by creating fire zones, you might even be able to avoid using food shields or toying with the vents altogether. There are two main types.
Two-zone fires consist of two separate piles of charcoal in the bottom of your ash bin/basin.
Utilizing an ignition source, like paper or an accelerant and a match, you start a fire right in the middle of one charcoal pile, and then put more coals on top of it.
On the second pile, you will repeat the same step, except you won’t add more coals on top.
This will be the less hot side, or the lower fire zone, allowing you to quickly sear meats on the hotter side, and move them here for thorough cooking.
Three-zone fires consist of three separate piles of charcoal in the bottom of your ash bin/basin.
It’s difficult to make this work in a small charcoal grill, so if you have a circular grill with less than about 220 square inches of cooking space, this could be hard as the fire zones will blend together.
If you have a wider charcoal grill, this will work extremely well. On the left side, make a large pile of charcoal, make a smaller pile in the middle, and the smallest pile on the right side.
Light a fire in the center of each pile. For the largest pile, you want to add more charcoal on top so it burns hotter (accelerants may need to be used).
You can toss a few briquettes on top of the center pile, but leave the smallest pile alone.
This gives you a zone to sear your food, one to cook it thoroughly, and one to keep it warm while you wait for the other food to finish.
It’s important to understand that fire zones are only effective if the grill is open.
You can use this in a fire pit or a metal charcoal grill, but once you close the lid, the heat meshes and rises together.
Shield Your Food
Food shields are also an effective method to keep your food from burning, even if you’re having a hard time battling the charcoal temperature.
These are best made with aluminum foil. If you’re going to keep some handy, only use heavy duty foil, as standard kitchen foil is thinner and will most likely stick to the grill, or tear when you go to move it.
Even though it’s heavy duty, we’re going to tri-fold a sheet of it, and then lay it down on the grill.
Transfer your food to the shield. This keeps direct heat off of it for the most part, meaning that even if you can’t control the temperature range, you’re going to have a way to protect your food.
You can still sear it on the hot grate before moving it here to get that nice golden crust on the outside.
If the fire is really raging, you can lay down multiple food shields. This will cut off oxygen from reaching the fire (at least a little), and dampen the flames.
Adjust Your Tray Height
The last one, and a tip that most people don’t think of, is to adjust your tray height.
If you have a Kamado-style grill with two half-moon shaped grates, you can raise one and lower the other. This basically puts your food farther away from the fire.
But how does that control the temperature?
It gives you the opportunity to open the lid completely, let out a lot of that heat, and close it again without causing an oxygen-fed flare-up that chars the heck out of your food.
Variables to Keep in Mind
These tips are actionable and will help you with your grill, but it’s also important to account for variables that could alter how effective these are depending on the conditions.
Some variable to look out for include:
If you’re grilling in the middle of winter, and it’s ice-cold, then you’re going to have a harder time building that temperature in the first place.
The metal is cold, so even though your charcoal is piping hot because you splashed some accelerant on it, the overall internal temperature will take longer to rise.
The cold can also affect your built-in temperature gauge on the lid, so wait a little while before you take that gauge at face value.
Grilling with the lid open?
If you want to keep a solid 225° F for smoking or a slower cook, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you will be battling the wind.
Every time the wind blows, it’s trying to snuff out the flame, but you have to be sure that doesn’t happen.
You can check the weather report for wind speeds, or buy a small weathervane to stick on the lid or nearby, and keep an eye on it.
Position your grill perpendicular to the wind to ensure it won’t be an issue.
Keep an eye on your ash bin. Depending on the quality of your briquettes (which I’ve written an entire guide on as well), they might burn out quickly and suppress the fire.
If you’re using high-quality briquettes, they’ll burn slower, meaning the ash won’t pile up.
Starting with an empty ash bin is a good idea, but if you’re grilling all day like during a holiday weekend, try to empty the ash bin at least once in between cooking sessions.
They’re going to happen. Fat and grease will build upon the edges of your grill basin, and even if you clean them every time, during high volume batch cooking, it’s still likely to happen.
Since it’s contained in a bin with no gas line or electricity running to it, I’m going to tell you to do one thing that you should never do with indoor grease fires.
Spray water on it. Keep a water spray bottle, and just give it a few veils of mist. It dampens some of those flames and stops it from shredding through stubborn grease.
Water and oil don’t mix, but water can help dilute the oil by breaking it up and messing with the fire.
Five Ways to Fan or Snuff the Flames
You’re equipped to use charcoal like an absolute grill master.
It’s wild, unpredictable at times, and finicky, but we both know that it creates a unique flavor on meats and veggies like nothing else.
Once you can control the heat, you can ensure your foods come out exactly as you anticipated. Go and put all these tips and tricks to the test.