It’s an age-old argument, charcoal or gas? One major difference between the two is one’s ability to manage the heat the grill gives off. Many a griller has fought over which grill works best and what the use of gas over charcoal or vice versa says about your grilling abilities. Some feel the ability to use a grill’s heat properly, manipulate where the heat goes and how high or low it gets, is the true sign of a griller.
Charcoal grills get quite hot, but the temperature will vary depending on the type of charcoal used, how much, and how the grill is made and used. Most charcoal grills heat up to temperatures around 650 degrees Fahrenheit and may be able to reach over 1000 degrees depending on the type of charcoal.
But how does that compare to a gas grill? And once you get the temperature where you want it, how do you manage the heat?
A Master Chef Explains How To Grill Perfect Steaks
Which Is Hotter, Gas Or Charcoal?
Fire is fire, you say, the temperature of a grill is going to be the same no matter if it is gas or charcoal. You couldn’t be more wrong. The two use different fuels and those fuels burn at different temperatures.
A charcoal grill burns charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal. Charcoal briquettes are made of sawdust, leftover woods, and other additives that are burnt down in the absence of oxygen until the sap and moisture have been removed. Lump charcoal is wood that goes through the same process as briquettes but without the additives, so you are left with pure wood. Depending on which one you use and how you grill you will get different high temperatures…
- Briquettes With Lid Open: Cooking with the lid open will limit your temperatures. Briquettes top off around 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Lump Charcoal With Lid Open: Lump charcoal runs much hotter for a shorter period of time. Typical lump charcoal fires with the lid open will hit 750 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Briquettes With Lid Closed: Just shutting the lid will add 200 degrees to your grill. These coals will burn around 650 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Lump Coal With Lid Closed: These coals will top out at somewhere around 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes even hotter.
While Lump coal will give you the most heat, it will not last that long, which makes it great for searing but not very efficient for slow cooking and indirect heat. Briquettes burn cooler but will last longer.
While gas grills may be favored by some because they are quick and easy to light and get started, you are going to lose heat. Propane, the most common gas used with BBQ grills, burns cooler than charcoal. With the lid open, standard gas grills reach temperatures around 500 degrees Fahrenheit. With the lid closed, they move up to about 550 degrees.
There are some high-performance gas grills that claim they reach temperatures that are much higher, but those grills are going to cost you a pretty penny.
Adjusting Charcoal Grill Temperatures
Although it is easier to adjust the temperature on a gas grill, it is possible to do on a charcoal grill as well.
If you want to…
- Raise The Temperature: You have to increase the amount of oxygen that the coals are getting. Most charcoal grills have two vents, one on the lid and one on the bottom of the grill near or with the ash pan. If you open the vents, you will increase oxygen flow and raise the temperature.
- Lower The Temperature: To lower the temperature you want to cut off some of the oxygen. You would do this by closing the vents. Do not close the vents all the way or you will choke the coal out.
- Smoke or Slow Cook: To do this in a charcoal grill you need to create indirect heat for your food. Pile the coals on one side of the grill and cook your food on the opposite side.
Temperature Tip: Lump Charcoal burns hotter than briquettes but doesn’t last as long.
How Do You Keep A Charcoal Grill Going?
Just because charcoal burns hot doesn’t mean that it is the best choice. One of the knocks against charcoal grills is that they go out. With a full tank, gas grills will burn much longer than their charcoal counterparts, especially if you go with lump charcoal. Luckily for all the charcoal enthusiasts, there are ways to keep the grill going when the first batch of coals burn out.
Add More Coals
The simplest method to keep your grill fire burning is just to add more coals. When the heat starts to drop below a usable level, simply drop unlit coals on top. The lit coals will ignite the new coals and you will have another 45 minutes or so of cooking.
The thing to remember about this method is that you are going to have to give the new coals time to light. If you put food over coals that have just been lit then what will be too intense and you will sear the outside of the meat and leave the inside uncooked.
If you are going to add more coals to the pit, you need to pause your cooking five to fifteen minutes to allow the new coals to heat properly.
If you don’t want to pause your cooking for the coals to heat, the best thing to do is use a charcoal chimney. This is a device that allows you to heat coals before you add them to your grill.
To keep your charcoal grill going using a charcoal chimney you…
- Add Newspaper: The chimney will have a bottom compartment for you to load with the material needed to light the coals. Simply turn the chimney upside down and stuff some newspaper in the compartment.
- Set Down On Heat Resistant Surface: You are setting a fire, so you want to put the chimney down somewhere where it will not cause damage. If you do a lot of grilling, you may want to hold on to an old kettle grill for this purpose. An outdoor fire pit is another great place to set the chimney up.
- Load in Coals: Pour the amount of coals you want to light into the chimney.
- Light The Fire: Use a match to light the newspaper in numerous spots through the vents at the bottom of the chimney.
- Let Them Burn: Leave the coals in the chimney until they turn to grey ash. When ready just pour the lit coals onto the already lit grill.
You should not walk away from the chimney while it is burning. Put it in a place that you can easily monitor while you continue to cook.
If you are looking to smoke or slow cook your food, there is another method of making your grill burn longer. It is commonly known as the snake method. The method has you arranging the charcoal in a manner where they burn a few coals at a time.
To set up the snake method you need to…
- Grab 80-100 pieces of charcoal.
- Create two rows of charcoal pieces in a semicircle, one against the edge of the grill, the other against the first row.
- Now add two more rows of charcoal, one on top of each of the two you have already created.
- Put a water pan in the middle of the grill and semi-circle that is ¾ full or water.
- Place a few pieces of charcoal in a charcoal chimney, get them lit and turned to grey ash, and place them at one end of the “snake.”
- These coals will continuously light the coals adjacent to them. The process should take hours to complete.
The snake method should maintain a temperature between 225 degrees and 250 degrees Fahrenheit for twelve to fifteen hours. If you want to raise the temperature, try opening the grill vents. If you want to lower the temperature you should close the vents. Remember to never completely close both vents or you will cut off all oxygen to the coals and will put them out.
Enjoy Cooking on a Charcoal Grill
A charcoal grill brings a delightful flavor to whatever you grill on it. Understanding how to keep just the right temperature will help you make excellent dishes time and time again.