Charcoal BBQ Grilling Temperature Control Guide

In Gastronomicliving Blog 0 comments
Cooking burgers by direct grilling over charcoals in high heat
Charcoal BBQ grilling requires proper temperature control to get the best results on the best practices of setting up the grill, how much coal to use, and controlling the heat. There are several things to do (but not complicated) to get that beautiful brown bark you're trying to achieve. 
Worry not. This article cuts the overwhelm and answers the fundamental concerns of newbie grillers who want to upgrade their temp control skills in charcoal grilling. But, of course, all these require an essential trait of a true pitmaster: patience. So if you're one to take on the challenge of grilling the right way at a low temperature, read on.

1. Get the Must-Have Grilling Accessories

Digital Meat Thermometer

One of the vital things to master in grilling is temperature control. A meat thermometer eliminates the struggle and guesswork and helps you achieve doneness according to the recipe. 

It's essential to have a reliable and accurate digital meat thermometer to ascertain when the meat has reached its doneness according to the recipe. You can't rely on the colour to conclude it's cooked to the middle.

Opening the lid too often when counting on colour can affect the cooking process and leave you with hardened, dry meat. Unless you're cooking thin cuts, then that's fine. Meat thermometers are handy here since you don't know when food is done when the lid is closed. When grilling, according to Meathead Goldwyn, we cook with a thermometer, not time. So stop measuring with that old-fashioned timer and get a good digital thermometer.

Chimney Starter

Setting up a charcoal grill is easy if you have the equipment and patience, as mentioned in the introduction. But first, light the charcoals without dousing them with lighter fluid. The petrol would transmit to the food, which is harmful and ruins the flavour of the meat. 

Instead, use a chimney starter for healthier and safer barbecuing and smoking. As we have said in the intro, patience is vital in grilling if you want to become a pitmaster. In addition, you will need patience since waiting for the briquettes to smoulder until they turn to an ashy white is a healthy way to ensure chemicals from coal manufacturers are gone and the smoke is clean.

How to Set up a Charcoal Grill with a Chimney Starter?

  1. Put the coal according to its numbers in the recipe
  2. Light up a paper
  3. Ignite under the starter
  4. Pour the coals under the grill when they turn ashy white and glow.

Best Charcoal Grill

Grilled food will only be good with a charcoal grill with enough space to create heat zones. Heat zones are spaces where you put the charcoals to cook indirectly. You want to choose a charcoal grill big enough to accommodate how much you want to cook. The best charcoal grill is durable, does not have air leaks, and features adjustable top and bottom dampers. A charcoal grill with an offset smoker is also convenient, eliminating the need to build indirect and direct heating zones.
Cooking burgers, barbecue meat on skewers, and hotdogs with an open-lid offset smoker seen on the left.
Source: Luis Quintero

Smoker Water Pans

Low and slow grilling tends to dry out the meat. Hence, the water pan. Place the water pan under the part of the meat to avoid drying it out. Add barbecue sauce or other aromatic, tasty sauce mixture to blanket the food for added flavour. The water pan moistens the air inside the main grill so the food won't dry like hockey pucks.

What Kind of Charcoal to Use for Grilling

The kind of charcoal you should use depends on the food to cook. Lump coals are for fast cooking, but they also burn out fast. While briquettes are best for slower and chiller flames as they provide steady burns—perfect for low and slow grilling, which we mainly discuss in this post.
Charcoal Briquettes with A Steady Burn
Source: Skitterphoto

2. Charcoal Arrangement and Quantity

How Many Charcoals Should I Use?

The answer depends on what you're cooking. We mentioned heat zones earlier, and the question is how much to put in those zones. We're going to use the chimney starter as the measuring equipment. So we'll answer that with how many coals to use per stacking style.

Type of Food Grilling Temperature Charcoals Needed
1.       Chicken Low to Medium Heat: 325°-375° half to three-quarters of a chimney
2.       Lamb Medium Heat: 350-450°F half to three-quarters of a chimney
3.       Steak High Heat: 450°-500°F Full chimney
4.       Brisket Low Heat: 225°-250°F One-fourth of a chimney
5.       Burger Medium-High Heat: 375°-450° three-quarters of a chimney
6.      Ribs Low Heat: 225°-250°F One-fourth of a chimney
7.       Turkey Low to Medium Heat: 325°-375° One-fourth of a chimney
8.       Ghuzi or Khuzi  Medium Heat: 350-450°F half to three-quarters of a chimney
9.       Samak Mash Medium Heat: 350-450°F half to three-quarters of a chimney
10.   Fish and Seafood Medium-High Heat: 375°-450° three-quarters of a chimney
11.   Kebabs High Heat: 450°-650°F Full chimney
12.   Vegetables Medium-High Heat: 375°-450° three-quarters of a chimney
13.   Machboos Medium Heat: 350-450°F half to three-quarters of a chimney

How To Arrange Charcoals in a Smoker

One of the crucial things to control the temperature is the placement of coals before barbecuing. The nearer the food is to the coals, the faster it will be cooked, affecting the texture of the meat.

Direct Heat Grilling

Steak and Vegetables Grilling in High Heat CoalsSource: Mustafa Türkeri
For thin cuts
The coals are evenly spread out underneath the grates, yielding high heat. All lean cuts that cook fast are ideal for high-heat, direct grilling, such as steaks done in medium-rare, vegetables, and seafood.

  1. Fill the chimney starter with 100 lump coals and light up with the paper below.
  2. Wait 20 minutes for the coals to change into ash white up to the top.
  3. Pour the coals evenly across the pit. Use tongs to spread it.
  4. Leave out a small area for putting foods done cooking.
  5. Start cooking only when you can hold your hand 6 inches above the grate for 4 seconds. Let it cool for a few minutes until then before grilling.

Two-Zone Method

For thin and thick cuts
The two-zone method is flexible for fast and slow cooking and a grilling technique everyone needs to master. Use the overhead space with coals for searing or direct heat and the other half for low and slow cooking or indirect heat to cook it all through. Whole rotisserie chickens, turkeys, ribs, briskets, and other sizable, tougher meats are cooked best by indirect grilling.

  1. After following steps 1 and 2 from direct grilling, place the lit coals on one side of the charcoal grill. Leave the other half for indirect cooking.
  2. Following the minutes indicated on the recipe, sear and get that beautiful brown Maillard char on both sides of the meat or fish by directly cooking over the side with coals. 
  3. Stick the digital meat temperature probes to the thickest side of the meat without the bone.
  4. Set them aside to the indirect heat to finish cooking following the recipe.
  5. Rotate the meat to cook evenly on every side.

Three-Zone Method

For thin cuts
Coals are spread on the left and right sides, while the middle has a water pan. The coals on either side of the meat cook it evenly and even better, rendering it unnecessary to rotate the food.

The Ring of Fire

For thin cuts
Usually, for kettle grills, the briquettes are arranged alongside the circle of the grill. However, the principle still applies to rectangle-shaped charcoal smokers—placing the ignited coals around the meat by forming a circle. Just make sure you have enough grilling space.

3. Control the Temperature with Vents and Cover

Temperature Control by Damper Vents

Stabilizing the temperature for long cooks is crucial in smoking. You must learn how much to put in, how often to uncover the lid, and how to open and close the vents and dampers. Easy temperature control, as we've mentioned, also lies in the arrangement of coals. If you have an indirect heat smoking spot, you'll merely be warming the food and lessening the chance of overcooking it.

We highly recommend using the two or three-zone method and the C-shaped coal arrangement for easier heat management. But the most necessary skill to master is temperature control. You can control the coals by monitoring the dampers or the vents. These control airflow inside the grill, making the coals hotter or cooling.

Use the Minion Method for Low and Slow Cooking 

A temperature you need to control and master for low and slow smoking is the magic 225ºF, and you can achieve this by following the Minion method. The minion method extends the life of the charcoal for many hours, which is ideal for long cooks. Follow the steps below to master low and slow smoking. 

  1. Put 1/3 unlit coals with the starter as a measuring tool in only half of the side of the charcoal grill.
  2. Light five coals in the chimney starter
  3. Place the five lit coals together in the middle of the unlit coals.
  4. Position the exhaust damper or chimney on the lid above the meat and away from the coals. This placement decreases the oxygen blowing on the coals but at 
  5. Increase the number of unlit coals if you need more smoking time. (Once the coals begin to burn out and drop below 225°F, not even damper adjustments can keep the temperature high. Prolonged smoking has this effect. At this point, you must reintroduce some fuel. Hence, this step.)

According to Meathead Goldwyn, founder of Amazing, to hit the 225°F, leave the exhaust damper open for the whole grilling time and only control the intake damper at the bottom. "Playing with both vents at once is like using the gas pedal and brake at the same time," according to Meathead.

Should I Keep the Lid Open or Closed?

The answer to this question largely depends on the thickness of the meat. We strongly recommend using the two- or three-zone method with the lid closed and a reliable and accurate meat thermometer if the food is more than 3/4 inches thick to ensure the meat in the middle is cooked. 
Reverse Searing the sides of a steak in high direct heat after low and slow smoking.Simply put, you want to keep the lid down AND the meat away from the coals for thicker cuts to keep the temperature low and slow and cook thoroughly inside. After cooking over indirect heat, use the reverse sear: a method in which you flip the meats over direct heat above the charcoals after cooking it low and slow. Reverse sear is the best because it does not harden the inside, only crisps the exterior, and results in tender and juicy meat.
Indirect smoking requires not lifting the lid too often because the aim is to trap heated air from the coals and cook the meat thoroughly while keeping the heat low. Keeping the cover closed and the exhaust vent open would be best for all non-quick cooking foods, such as thick steaks, bone-in chicken, and whole roasts. If the open vent on top of the cover isn't enough to keep it under 225ºF, you might want to keep it partially open.

On the other hand, it's best to keep the lid open for thinner cuts such as burgers, lean steaks, chops, fish and seafood, shrimp, Korean barbecues, and vegetables since their insides cook quickly. But, again, you want the lid open so these cuts do not trap heated air and overcook them.

After Cooking


According to Meathead, letting the meat rest for 15 minutes before cutting as the juices will pour out is a myth. By waiting a while after the rib is ready, the heat inside builds up and overcooks it. Therefore, you need not wait and make the meat cold before slicing it.


The prepping described here before grilling and the delicate cooking process make all the difference in the texture and doneness of your meat. These three notable tips, when executed right, will elevate your next steak cookout or braai. Of course, it takes some patience, trial and error, but these tips and tricks pitmasters swear by will get you on their level in no time!

Browse our stellar anthracite charcoal grills and our premium wood and charcoal fuels, and do not miss the flawless meat selling like hotcakes on our website. Comment below with other questions we might have missed, and we'll answer quickly!