Cooking over an open flame is an art form that takes patience, skill, and a bit of practice to master. One of the most important aspects of grilling is temperature control, especially when it comes to charcoal grilling. If you don’t know how to control the temperature, your food may end up undercooked, overcooked, or burnt to a crisp.
The good news is that with the right techniques and tools, it’s pretty easy to control the temperature on a charcoal grill. Whether you’re a seasoned grilling pro or a beginner, this comprehensive guide will teach you everything you need to know about temperature control on a charcoal grill. From building the fire to adjusting the airflow and using a thermometer, we’ll cover all the essential steps for achieving perfect cooking results every time. So fire up your grill, grab your tongs, and let’s get started!
Ways to control the heat on a charcoal grill
First, we’re going to discuss building a fire. While it may seem like a simple concept, there are things to know to make the process as easy as possible. While there are a lot of opinions on the best way to start a fire in a grill, these are the common essentials: fuel, air, and an ignition source.
For fuel, you will need seasoned hardwood. Oftentimes, people use hickory, mesquite, oak, and various fruitwoods or bagged lump charcoal. Typically, you will use what’s available in your area.
Wood contains moisture, and that will determine how easy it is to start, and how fast it will burn. You can tell unseasoned green wood because it’s heavy. Dry wood is much lighter. For us, a little moisture is ok, so the wood doesn’t burn too fast.
In most cases, it’s OK to light your wood directly on the bottom of your charcoal grill. If you live in a very cold climate or your wood is on the green side, it can be beneficial to add a charcoal grate below your fuel to adjust the airflow. This lifts the charcoal a few inches off the floor to allow airflow to enter under the stack and keeps the ash from smothering the fire.
Start by stacking two split logs about 8” apart. Put a small pile of unlit coal, such as Instant Light charcoal briquettes in the center of the logs. For the second layer, stack another two to three logs perpendicular, about 3” apart. For the third layer, do the same. The gaps allow airflow throughout the stack. How much wood you use will depend on how much food you want to cook.
To start your fire, you can use kindling or newspaper, and if your wood is dry, that usually works. Some people use lighter fluid, but that can add an unpleasant taste to your food. The best, foolproof way to light a charcoal grill is to use a torch or gas grill log lighter.
Once your coal is fully engulfed, you’ll want to knock the pile down to increase the heat area into an even coalbed for direct heat under your charcoal grill grate. In about 20-30 minutes, you’ll be ready to cook.
Tips for temperature control
An easy way to check that the temperature on a charcoal grill is right for cooking is to rely on your body temperature by using the ‘5-second rule’. If you can hover your hand above the grate for 5 seconds before having to withdraw, then the temperature is perfect. If you notice your grill is not hot enough, you may need to add another log or stoke your fire with a poker to facilitate a little airflow. If it’s too hot, just wait for the coals to settle down before adding your food.
When you’re cooking, it’s helpful to use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of your meat to ensure food safety. Make sure you’re in the center of the cut to get an accurate read. Remember, meat continues to cook a little after it’s pulled off the grill. To avoid meat that is overdone, it can be wise to remove it from the grill slightly before it’s done and let it finish under a piece of foil while resting. Poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F. Beef should be cooked to a minimum of 120 F. Pork should be cooked to 145. Fish and shellfish should be cooked to 145 F. Lamb should be cooked to a minimum of 135 F. Ground poultry to 165 F. Ground meat to 160 F.
Charcoal grills are extremely versatile. It doesn’t take much to adjust for different types of meat and cooking methods. A charcoal grill should ideally have a height-adjustable cooking surface to allow the grate to be lifted away from the coal bed. This feature gives you tons of control should the fire flare up, allows you to add fuel during a cook if needed, and ensures you won’t ever burn your food. You can literally cook any protein perfectly if you have an adjustable height grate.
Another way to adjust for different proteins and veggies is by using different woods. All wood has a unique flavor. You’ll quickly find your favorite combinations!
We may be biased here at JD Fabrications but we think food tastes better on one of our custom charcoal grills. Give us a call at 805-637-6700 to build a grill custom to your specifications or order one of our signature Santa Maria portable grills for your next BBQ!