Keeping a charcoal grill at a consistent temperature is a challenge. The weather, the size of the grill, and the fuel you use—hardwood charcoal (shown here) burns a good 300°F hotter than standard briquettes—all affect the strength of the fire. But you do have some control over how hot your fire is when you start to cook. This is important, as the biggest mistake grillers tend to make is starting to cook too soon. For most direct cooking, you want a medium-hot fire, though chops and burgers can benefit from higher heat. Fish and vegetables require a more gentle, medium heat.
No matter what you’re cooking, wait until the flames die before starting. Active flames mean the charcoal is still igniting and giving off a fair amount of smoke. At this stage, not only will the flames char the outside of the food without cooking the inside, but the smoke is filled with unburned particles of fuel that will make your food taste somewhat like smoky ashes. (Standard charcoal briquettes also give off a lot of unhealthy fumes and chemical flavors as they ignite).
Use your eyes and hands to judge the readiness of the fire. After the flames subside and the glowing coals are covered with a light, white-hot ash (an occasional flame may still flicker up), the fire is at its hottest. At this point, set the cooking grate in place to heat up; food sticks to a cold grill. Also, since the rate of cooking is largely determined by how far the food is from the coals, you need the grate in place to determine the cooking temperature. Hot coals burn at upwards of 2,000°F, but it only takes a short distance (2 to 6 inches) to temper this terrific heat to more manageable cooking temperatures. The cooking surface on a standard kettle grill sits about 4 inches from the coals; other types of grills allow you to raise and lower the cooking surface as you like.
The best test is the “hand test” (see the chart below for the method). If the heat forces you to withdraw your hand immediately, you have a very hot fire— hotter than any standard kitchen broiler. For a fire that’s less hot, wait 8 to 10-minutes and test again. When the coals have cooled to medium, the glowing red bits will be less apparent, and many of the coals will have turned yellow-brown.
How hot is your grill?
To test the heat, hold your outstretched palm an inch or two above the cooking grate. The length of time you can stand the heat tells you how hot the grill is. The same test can be used for gas grills.
| Time palm can be
held over grill
|less than 1 second||very hot||over 600°F|
|1 to 2 seconds||hot||400° to 500°F|
|3 to 4 seconds||medium||350° to 375°F|
|5 to 7 seconds||medium-low||325° to 350°F|
Each stage of heat lasts about 8 to 12 minutes, but a few tricks can extend the time. A fire built with hardwood will cool more slowly. A large, thick bed of coals will hold its heat better than a small or sparse bed. Covering a kettle-type grill will slow the burning, or cooling, of the fire (leave the bottom vents open a bit to keep the fire going). Without a cover, a good-size fire will remain hot enough to cook on for 30 to 45 minutes, although it will be cooling gradually; covering the grill will extend this time to an hour.