Mastering Heat and Cooking Temps
It’s that time of year again to pull the cover off of the grill and brush up on some skills. Cooking with charcoal comes with a different set of nuances than grilling with gas. From controlling cooking temperatures to understanding direct and indirect cooking methods, we’ll go over a few tips and techniques to give you mouth-watering results that leave your guests begging for seconds.
Use these tips as a baseline only since a number of variables will affect the outcome. Grilling times will depend on the size and shape of your grill, how much you’re cooking, how you prep the food—and even the weather and elevation of your grilling environment. But the more you practice with your own grill, the better you’ll get at making the right adjustments. Taking note of what you’ve tweaked from one grill session to the next will help you master your technique.
Understanding Grilling Temps
You don’t want your beer can chicken to become completely charred chicken skin served cold on a throne, do you? Then you certainly don’t want to expose it to high heat (450-550°F). Understanding grilling temperatures—and which food types are best with each—is key to becoming grill-meister. Steaks and tenderloins do better grilled over high heat. Typical grilled foods, like hot dogs and burgers, are best grilled over medium heat.
Here’s a cheat sheet of grilling temperatures and examples of foods for each range:
Controlling Temps on a Charcoal Grill
If you’re new to the charcoal grilling game, you’re probably asking, “How do I control the temperature on a charcoal grill?” That’s a great question. On a gas grill, you simply turn the knob up or down to control the heating temps. Or you open the lid if you want to quickly lower the temperature. When using a charcoal grill, however, opening the lid makes it hotter. That’s because fire needs oxygen to burn, so giving it more air means fueling those briquettes to hotter temps. The more air going into the charcoal grill, the hotter it’ll get. The less air going into your grill, the cooler it’ll get. The same concept applies when adjusting those grill vents.
Weber offers these additional guidelines for vent settings:
High heat (450-550°F): Fully open
Medium heat (350-450°F): ½ open
Low heat (250-350°F): ¼ open
Low and slow/smoke zone (225-275°F): 1/4 to 1/8 open
Off: Fully closed
Controlling Temps with Cooking Zones
Another important technique to understand is direct and indirect heat. Direct heat grilling means you’re cooking right over the heat source—in this case directly over the briquettes. And you guessed it. Indirect heat grilling means you’ve moved the food over on the grill grate so it’s not directly over the coals. Why does this matter? Because foods requiring lower heat, but longer cook times will require a different coal layout than grilling a 2″ thick steak. Remember our beer can chicken example? If you cooked that directly over the coals for the required 1-hour duration, you’d undoubtedly get a singed bird with a raw center. The best way to cook that bird is by using indirect heat so the skin stays tender and the chicken cooks all the way through to its center.
The following are some configurations to add to your charcoal playbook:
But most foods will require using both direct and indirect heat. That’s when two-zone grilling comes into play. To create a two-zone coal setup, you’ll place the briquettes on one side for direct grilling and searing, and leave the other side without any coals to bring the food to safe cooking temperatures, or for lower-temperature grilling.
Two-zone grilling is most often seen with large pieces of meat (2″ or thicker), which are seared over direct heat for a few minutes on each side, then placed over indirect heat to bring to a safe heating temperature.
Light Your Fire:
Using a Charcoal Chimney for Ease
Some people think using lighter fluid on the coals will taint the taste of their culinary creation. Others are leery of using toxic chemicals anywhere near food. These are two great reasons to ditch the lighter fluid and use a charcoal chimney instead. Another great reason? It makes easy work of getting the charcoal started. Simply set the chimney on the charcoal grate, then add wadded up paper underneath. Then fill it with coals through the top opening. (How much coal you need depends on how much you’re grilling.) Then light the paper underneath with a long-handled lighter, which will ignite the coals. Wait until the coals burn to an ashy gray (approx.15 minutes). When the coals are ready, pour them onto the charcoal grate and arrange them based on what you’re grilling.
Safe Internal Cooking Temperatures
According to the USDA, these are the safe internal temperature recommendations you should reach for the following types of foods. Some foods will require a resting time, which means even though you’ve removed it from the grill, its temperature will continue to rise until it reaches its safe internal temperature. And you can’t EVER tell whether meat is safely cooked simply by looking at it, so don’t even guess. Always use a thermometer, but ditch the dial thermometer. According to pitmaster-expert Meathead Goldwyn on AmazingRibs.com, dial thermometers often take 30 seconds for a reading, and can be off by as much as 50°F. He suggests using a digital hand-held, or wired-probe thermometer to get a precise temp reading within seconds. An accurate instant readout improves your grilling outcome—and can actually save lives by preventing a foodborne illness from under-cooked foods.
Putting it all Together
You now have all the meat-and-potato essentials to deliver flavorful grilled foods every time, but here’s one final resource that’s worth hanging on to. This handy Charcoal Grilling Guide from Weber is a great reference for pulling all these concepts together.
Interested in putting your charcoal grill skills to the test? Check out these Park Grills available at Sportsman’s Guide.