How to Control Charcoal Grill Temperature? Getting a Handle on the Heat

January 13, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton

On a charcoal grill, you use the top vents to manage the temperature. You open the vents wider to increase the temperature and close the vents little by little to decrease the temp.

My family tends to stick to more traditional methods of BBQing. So, I learned to cook on a charcoal grill rather early on in life. This included figuring out how to monitor and alter the cooking temperature on a whim. And, now, it is time to share my wisdom with you!

In this post, I will show you how to control charcoal grill temperature, how to control the rate of cooking, and more! Let’s get started!

How to control charcoal grill temperature

The Short Answer: How Do You Manage the Temperature on a Charcoal Grill?

There is a whole process involved in controlling the temperature on a charcoal grill. However, the short version is this:

Unlike gas grilling, charcoal grills are equipped with two vents, sometimes referred to as dampers. One vent is on the top – this is known as the intake vent or intake damper. This is where the air flows in from, lighting the coals, and allowing them to produce heat and smoke.

By adjusting the position of this vent, you can increase, decrease, or maintain the temperature at a set point.

The intake damper needs to be open in order for the coals to light and stay lit. If it is closed, then the fire will go out.

On the bottom of the grill, you have the exhaust vent or the exhaust damper. The good news for you is that you don’t have to worry about the exhaust damper too much. It will remain open for the entirety of the cook.

How Do You Get Your Charcoal Grill to a Certain Temperature?

For this, you are going to need three things:

  • Charcoal
  • Chimney starter
  • Coals

Step 1

Pour unlit coals into the charcoal grill to determine how much you will need. This will vary between charcoal grills.

Step 2

Pour the coals into the chimney starter. Place a newspaper at the bottom of the starter and light it. Let the starter sit on the grill grates until the top coals turn to ash.

Step 3

Remove the grill grate and pour the lit coals into the grill. Place the grill grate back on top and close the lid of the grill.

Next, adjust the intake vent according to the desired temperature based on these instructions:

  • 225 – 275 F (Smoking Zone): 1/8th of the way open
  • 250 – 350 F: 1/4th of the way open
  • 350 – 450 F: 1/2 of the way open
  • 450 F +: Fully open

Step 4

Monitor the hood thermometer. This will let you know when you have achieved the perfect temperature for your food.

Pork ribs over a charcoal grill

How Do You Keep a Grill at a Certain Temperature?

Getting charcoal grills to the temperature that you want is the easy part. Maintaining it at a temperature can take a little bit of effort until you get the hang of it.


How do you keep a charcoal grill at 250 degrees?

To control the temperature on a charcoal grill, you need to keep a constant eye on the hood thermometer.

If you notice that the temperature is dropping, then open the vent a little more. Not too much, just a little by little. Then, watch the thermometer to see if the temperature is rising.

If the charcoal grill is too hot, then close the vent a little to achieve a cooler fire. Remember, never close the vent all the way through. Once again, monitor the temperature afterward.

Just continue to monitor and adjust the position of the vent throughout the cook.

Now, if the cooking process is quite long – if your cook is eight or more hours, for instance, then you will need to top up the coals. This involves using the chimney starter once again.

Once the lit coals begin to crumble to ash, add them to the charcoal grill.

Keep in mind that you may need to open the vents a little wide in the beginning until the proper temperature is achieved.

How to Control the Rate of Cooking?

When it comes to cooking on charcoal grills, temperature control is only half the battle. You also need to consider how you want to cook your food. This involves managing the rate of cooking. Here are some tips on how to do this:

Create a Two-Zone Fire

For the smoking or slow cooking process, you need your grill temperatures to be really low. At the same time, the food can’t be directly exposed to heat.

Due to this, when you are setting up the lit coals in the grill, you have to ensure that you only pile the coals onto one side of the grill. This will be the hot zone and be the side for direct heat and hotter fire.

The other side will be indirect heat. This is the section that the meat will be placed above. Don’t worry, the food will continue to cook despite not being directly exposed to heat.

Adjust the Grate Height

This is not something that I typically do, but it is definitely something that you can try out for yourself.

Check your grill to determine if the grates can be lifted closer or further away from the lit coals.

If it can, then use this mechanism to lower the food closer to the heat if the food doesn’t cook fast enough. Conversely, lift the grate up to move the food away from the fire if it is cooking too fast.

Should You Use a Grill Shield?

There are some people who use a grill shield if they feel like the temperature is getting too hot.

This is where they fold a sheet of aluminum foil in half and slide it under the food, between the grate and the fire.

Personally, I am not a fan of this method as this can mess with the grilling or smoking process. Due to this, I don’t really recommend it. You are better off using one of the above methods instead.

Grilling Meat on a Charcoal Grill

Understanding the Factors That Can Impact Temperature Control

It is important to understand that there are various factors that can impact the temperature on your grill and how you control the temperature:

Ambient Temperature

The surrounding temperature in environment can play a role in hot the inside of your grill is. For instance, on a hot summer’s day, the cooking chamber is likely to heat up more quickly. It is also more likely to get to higher temperatures more quickly and stay there.

Due to this, if you wish to slow-cook your food, much of your focus will be on maintaining a lower temperature. In addition to closing the vents, you may also want to add a few unlit coals to the grill so that it will take longer to heat up.

On colder days, it is going to take your grill a longer time to heat up. Due to this, you may need to keep the vents wide open and add more lit charcoal throughout the cook.

The Wind

The wind is another major issue. When it comes to a charcoal grill, wind can either be a foe or a friend. Just the right amount of wind and your fire are fed to perfection. Too much wind and your fire are going to go out or there will be flare-ups.

Once again, the vents are the answer. While you should never close the top vent, you may need to keep it to about 1/8th or 1/4th of the way open, depending on how strong the wind is.

If the wind is causing the fire to burn hotter or more quickly, then you are going to need to add more coal to counteract this.

Tips for Controlling the Temperature on Your Grill

Here are some of the guidelines that should make the process easier:

Consider a Second Thermometer

The hood thermometer on most charcoal grills tends to be pretty accurate. However, if you want to be sure that your cooking chamber is exactly the temperature that you need it to be.

In fact, if you want even greater accuracy, look for a grill thermometer that can be placed and kept inside the cooking chamber throughout the cook.

Use a Meat Thermometer

Always use a meat thermometer when cooking on a charcoal grill. This is non-negotiable. It is the only way to know the rate at which your meat and other foods are cooking.

I would look for a wireless one that can be synced up to a phone app. This way, you will be able to track the progress consistently.

Keep the Grill Lid Closed

This is the simplest piece of advice when it comes to grilling but you would be surprised at how difficult it is for people to follow it.

And, I get it, you want to see how your food is getting along. For most people, you only feel truly comforted if you can see that your meat is browning nicely.

The problem is that every time you open the lid, you are letting too much cold air in and releasing warm air. This can cause fluctuations in the temperature and change the rate of cooking.

Instead, use a meat thermometer to track the rate at which your meat is cooking.

Grilled Meat On Charcoal Grill

Wrapping It Up

There you go – you now know exactly how to work the intake vent/intake damper and the exhaust vent/exhaust damper to control the temperature of the grill. At the same time, you also know how to set up a two-zone fire and work the grill grates to manage the rate of cooking. You can now cook on a charcoal grill under any conditions at all!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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