Cooking on a charcoal grill can be both enjoyable and frustrating.
While they add a distinctive smoky flavor to your food, this type of grill can be tricky to start.
And once you do, the grill can produce inconsistent heat.
Uneven heat spots on the grill can burn parts of your food but leave the rest a little undercooked.
We’ve spent a lot of time charcoal grilling our meals — you could even call us experts.
And we’d like to share our top tips on how to keep your basic charcoal grill hot!
1. Have Used a Chimney Starter?
The way you light up your charcoal grill can affect how it distributes heat for the entire cooking session.
At times it may seem almost impossible to get those pieces of charcoal glowing white and red.
But what if we told you that there was a much simpler and faster way to get the charcoal burning?
The answer is to use a charcoal chimney starter!
A charcoal chimney starter is a container with holes, a grate at the bottom (to hold the charcoal), and a few handles. This helpful and affordable tool will change the way you light up your charcoal for a BBQ!
It’s not only inexpensive, but it’s also simple to use. We use it when we use our BGE for smoked brisket. It makes the preheating process much easier
All you need to do is
- Fill the top of the charcoal chimney with charcoal lumps. Then scrunch up some paper — or anything flammable — and insert it in the space beneath the container.
- Once that’s complete, light the scrunched paper. Watch as the chimney starter allows for even airflow, and it will ensure that direct heat spreads evenly through the unlit coal.
- After around 10 to 15 minutes, the hot charcoal should be ready to go. You can tip all of the lit coals into your grill, place the cooking grate on and get cooking!
A chimney starter is quite helpful to have, and it’s also a major time-saver! It is safer for you to light up fresh charcoal this way, instead of using something like lighter fluid.
Unlike the chimney starter, which uses the flow of air to spread the heat, lighter fluid adds nasty flavors to your food. Not to mention that it’s also bad for your health.
2. Invest in a Quality Thermometer
Some charcoal grills don’t usually come with a thermometer built-in. If your grill doesn’t have one, I recommend an air probe thermometer.
These types of thermometers come with a sharp metal end. The end can fit into the charcoal grill even when the lid’s closed. It comes with a digital indicator so that you can monitor the temperature inside the grill.
225°F is the magic number when determining the optimal heat temperature for cooking your cuts of meat. A common misconception when it comes to grilling your food is that it’s better to expose it to an open flame.
That is not the case at all. Cooking your food in this manner will dry out your meat, and it won’t be as juicy and tender. Take it from us, and stick to 225°F.
If you would like something more manageable than an air probe, buy a grill lid thermometer. It attaches the exterior part of the grill lid. Then you can monitor the ambient temperature inside your grill.
3. Use Your Dampers
Your charcoal grill should have two dampers — intake dampers and exhaust dampers.
One is usually located on the grill lid, while the other is on the grill body. Dampers are small holes or openings that open and close to manage the oxygen supply to the charcoal. When you start up your grill, the general rule of thumb is to leave both dampers open.
This will allow for a proper flow of air and plenty of oxygen to reach the charcoal and keep the fire alive.
Charcoal burns well when it has oxygen. It’s then up to you to adjust it as you see fit to control the heat throughout the cooking process.
Some common mistakes include closing both dampers or leaving both open for too long. The fire produced by lump charcoal is like any other normal fire. If it doesn’t have enough oxygen, it’ll die out. If there’s too much oxygen, the uncontrollable heat from hot coals might ruin your meat.
4. Create 2-Zones
This method may sound complicated, but it’s not. The 2-Zones grilling method is the one for you if you have trouble maintaining the heat output.
You’ll want to create two cooking zones by rearranging the distribution of coals in the grill. Instead of making sure there’s an even layer of hot coals, you want a pile of coals on one side of the grill.
As soon as you’ve lit them up, push them to one side of your grill before placing the coal grate on top. The secret to a good barbecue is to cook the meat with indirect heat.
With this indirect cooking method, you’ll want to place the food on the side that’s opposite to the pile of hot coals.
This will slowly cook your meat and help it remain tender and juicy.
You won’t have to worry about the coal being ‘too hot’ since you’re only using the heat for indirect cooking.
5. Check Your Fuel Levels
Let’s say that your charcoal grill has been running for a while.
You may then notice the temperature straying from your desired heat levels. To keep the coal burning and bring the temperature back up again, you’ll need to add more charcoal.
You can do this by pre-lighting the coal in your chimney starter, before adding it to your grill. Or you could place in the new coal and let the existing hot coals begin their burning process.
If you add too much of the non-lit charcoal in, they might end up extinguishing the existing fire. This is especially true if your intake dampers are the bottom are closed.
6. Adjust the Ventilation
I would suggest leaving the top exhaust damper open at all times. This vent is what allows the smoke to escape as you cook.
You should only adjust the intake damper when necessary. The vent at the bottom is the one that controls the direct oxygen supply to the hot coals.
7. Clean Out The Ashes
If your charcoal grill has been going for quite some time, the temperature will begin to fluctuate. A reason for the decrease in temperature could be due to the ash produced by the charcoal.
The output of ash does not contribute to the heat. It actually hinders it by blocking the intake damper. Then preventing the hot coals from having access to oxygen.
Adding in new charcoal won’t help. You must get rid of the charcoal ash that forms at the bottom.
If your grill doesn’t have a built-in compartment that catches the ash. All you need to do is remove the built-up ash with a metal scoop.
Wrapping it Up
We hope that you found my tips handy. Trying to manage and maintain the heat from a charcoal grill is challenging.
So don’t feel bad if you’re struggling with it.
Just rearrange the positioning of the charcoal, adjust your dampers, and have fun with the whole cooking process!
Happy (Charcoal) Smoking
Author: Charlie Reeves
Hi, I’m Charlie, I am head taste tester at Simply Meat Smoking! I love it grilling, smoking, and getting out in the yard with the kids! The family also love to test all my recipes (especially my EXTRA CRISPY pulled pork, smoky pork loin, and ANY SEAFOOD I grill)
You will usually find me playing with the kids, perfecting my brisket bark, or sipping beers with boys around the fire. Can’t wait to share all my delicious smoking and grilling adventures with you!
You can read more on our About Us page.
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