How To Control the Head on A Charcoal Grill

How to Control Heat on Your Charcoal Grill: 4 Techniques

Last Updated: March 2, 2022

Table of Contents

 

Intro

Charcoal is notoriously difficult to control…which is why your chicken was burnt on the outside, yet still raw on the inside. And thus, the importance of knowing how to control heat on your charcoal grill!

If you want your food grilled to perfection — and who doesn’t, of course — you need to control the temperature. It’s got to be hot enough to cook, but not too hot that it burns.

On top of that, you may well want to cook different recipes at different heats. For example, you will want to cook a steak on high heat, so that it is seared on the outside, but still nice and pink in the middle.

On the other hand, something like chicken or pork will generally require a lower, more even temperature so that it’s cooked through.

Below, save this awesome infographic to help you in your charcoal grilling endeavors:
Controlling Heat on a Charcoal Grill Infographic

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1. Build a Food Guard

What to do:

  1. Grab some aluminum foil and fold it in the same way that you would fold a letter to place inside and envelope.
  2. Remove your meat or food from the charcoal grill and set aside.
  3. Place your aluminum foil food guard on the grill
  4. Put your meat or food back onto the grill atop your aluminum foil guard and voila!

To be fair, it doesn’t matter how many times you fold the aluminum foil over itself, but we would recommend that the foil is three layers thick, as this is what we’ve found has the most significant impact on the temperatures reaching the food.

What it does:

A food guard creates a layer of protection between the food and the flame — meaning that a barrier is formed. This slows down the cooking process. By introducing a barrier of aluminium foil between your food and the flames, the food is no longer exposed to the direct flame or the direct heat that will lead to burnt.

When to do it:

The aluminum foil food guard for your charcoal grill is a somewhat of an emergency solution or quick fix for when the temperature on your charcoal grill is too high and unmanageable.

In these instances, which can arise often regardless of skill level, it’s a great tool to have in your BBQ arsenal.

Instead of trying to remove some of the fuel, which is dangerous and we definitely do not recommend, you can employ this strategy as a workaround.

2. Create Cooking Zones

Layering the charcoal to create cooking zones, or areas, requires a little bit of extra preparation before firing up the grill, but it’s almost guaranteed to make life easier for you when it comes time to grill.

What to do:

The idea is pretty straightforward, whether you set it up from back to front or left to right on your grill.

The first zone will serve as the hottest part of your grill, which you’ll use for sealing and searing. Basically, you can use this zone for anything that needs to be cooked at high temperature.

Your second zone is for food like chicken or pork that require a lower grilling temperature. This is the medium heat area for cooking.

Finally, the third zone is the control zone. This is a completely heat free zone that you’ll mainly use for resting the meat, or if the other areas get a little too hot and you need to re-adjust the temperature.

Creating zones on your charcoal grill is a lot easier than it sounds. It’s simply about layering the coals strategically:

  • On the far right, in the control zone, do not layer any charcoal.
  • In the other two zones, place a layer of charcoal, spreading or raking them out flat.
  • Finally, on the far left (your hot zone) add a second layer of charcoal, raking them out flat (only under the third zone).

Obviously, the hot zone will burn hotter because it has two layers of charcoal, which will burn hotter than the single layer of coals, which will again be hotter than the area without any coals. Simple!

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3. Use Your Grates

This method to control the temperature on your charcoal grill is definitely the easiest to understand. The science behind it is pretty simple: the closer the food is to the coals, the hotter it will be!

So, if the food you are cooking needs a higher temperature, move the grill plate closer to the coals.

If the food you’re grilling needs a lower temperature, you can move the grill plate up a few grates so that it is further from the coals.

4. Use Your Vents

We’ve previously written a guide dedicated to using the vents to control temperature on a grill. However, for convenience, we’ll give a quick summary here (I would advise you to read the previous article in its entirety, though).

The general principle is that more air creates a hotter fire and less air creates a cooler fire. The more oxygen getting to your fire, the bigger it’s going to burn. So, in turn, it’s logical to open the vents further to allow more air in.

Intake Vent / Damper

Typically at the bottom of the grill, the intake vent is your oxygen source!

Leave this damper wide open to feed your fire and make it grow, or close it some to do the opposite.

Exhaust Damper / Vent

The exhaust vent or damper is typically near the top of your grill. It’s where the hot hair and smoke escapes, hence why it’s called the exhaust vent.

When heat and smoke leave this vent, it’s replaced by fresh air that is pulled in through your intake vent (again, which feeds your fire). When you’re smoking meat, for example, most pitmasters agree that you should have your exhaust damper fully open.

Best advice: Experiment with one vent at a time and adjust based on the results of your personal grill. You can also record the temperature and make marks on the handle with a permanent marker so that you can easily remember what vent setup works best for you.

Using All 4 Techniques to Control Heat on Your Charcoal Grill

There we have it, four fairly straightforward techniques to control heat on your grill. Now, it’s time to put these techniques to use like a true Grill Master. Eventually, you’ll figure which to use when and how.

Don’t be scared to experiment! Have a go: Try a few different things to work out what the best setup for you, your specific grill, and the meats and recipes you and your family like to enjoy on the barbecue, grill and/or smoker.

Don’t forget, if you ever need grilling advice, we’re here to help! Join our ever growing community of BBQers just like you on Facebook, Instagram and  Pinterest.

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