Experts reveal how to control the temperature on a charcoal grill

Learn how to control the temperature on a charcoal grill by raising and lowering the heat for perfect BBQ cooking

barbecue grill in the garden with flames
(Image credit: garden / Alamy Stock Photo)

Knowing how to control the temperature on a charcoal grill is key to successful grilling. Whilst the temperature controls make this an easy task on gas models, it's a different story entirely when it comes to lighting coals.

If your grill reaches too high a temperature you'll find your food burning, rather than cooking. And whilst a chargrilled finish is something we love about BBQ food, when it means food is left undercooked in the middle, it somewhat spoils the effect.

Likewise, you might be struggling to reach high enough temperatures for grilling and find that your coals have burned out before you've finished the job.

These grilling experts have shared with us a number of useful techniques which will help you control the temperature of the coals on your best BBQ and ensure that you can stand the heat of the outdoor kitchen.

charcoal bbq in foreground with family eating in garden in the background

Being able to raise or lower your grill grates will help control the temperature your food cooks at

(Image credit: thelinke / Getty)

Learn how to control the temperature on a charcoal grill

Learning how to keep a charcoal grill hot without the heat running away from you is important for cooking BBQ food, no matter the quantity. But there are also times you may need to reduce the heat to achieve the optimum temperature for your food. Here's what you need to consider. 

  • Start with the coal: 'You need to ensure the coals are distributed evenly over the grate before you light a BBQ, as this will ensure an even temperature,' says expert in charcoal grilling James Craner of The Grill Brothers (opens in new tab). 'Some people lazily pour it on without careful positioning. If however a lot of coals fall into one spot, use your tongs to move them around.'
  • Don't add more coal: 'It can be a lazy route to pour in even more coal, but all this will achieve is a higher temperature and burn the food when you cook on a charcoal grill, which might not be what you’re looking for, one layer will do the trick,' says James.
  • Keep air vents open: 'Make sure you keep the vents open during cooking, some poorer machines may accidentally slide, so double check this before heating it up,' continues James. 'Some are nervous to keep them open when it's very windy, if this is the case then you can shut the top vent slightly, maybe 25-50%, but don’t completely shut it.'
  • Create heat zones: 'To maintain a steady heat, you could create heat zones by splitting the grill into sections and adding different levels of charcoal in each section to create low to high temperature zones, says Hannah Davies, Assistant Outdoor Living Buyer at VonHaus (opens in new tab).
  • Utilize your lid: 'One of the easiest ways of controlling the temperature on a charcoal grill is by using your lid,' says Dan Cooper, Head Grill Master at Weber (opens in new tab). 'This is what makes a Weber kettle barbecue (opens in new tab) such a fantastically versatile tool; it’s a grill and an oven at the same time. Having the lid on will regulate the airflow to eliminate the risk of flair ups that could blacken food, as well as infuse all the wonderful flavors into whatever you’re cooking.'

Red Generic Brand Barbecue Grill in the backyard.

Having a lid on will regulate air flow and reduce the risk of burnt food

(Image credit: Liliboas / Getty)

Raising the temperature of a charcoal grill

If you find you haven't produced enough heat for your outdoor grill ideas, one way to raise the temperature is by adding more charcoal. 

'You can raise the temperature of a grill by adding more charcoal. This will not have an immediate effect, however, as more charcoal ignites, the temperature will raise,' says Martin Sobey, National Sales Manager for Napoleon Grills (opens in new tab) UK. 'Opening the air flow adjusters to allow more air to pass through the barbecue will also raise the internal temperature.'

'I’d say getting high heat is more about quantity of fuel as this ultimately governs your temperature,' agrees Dan Cooper. 'I find when considering lump charcoal vs briquettes, lump wood burns a little hotter.'

You may also find your grill is struggling to reach high temperatures if you haven't learned how to clean grill grates or how to clean a BBQ properly. Dan explains: 'If it's full of ash, it can impact the flow of air inside the kettle, which makes the coals burn cooler. If enough ash builds up it can make it next to impossible to get the coals to stay lit, as well leading to corrosion.' 

So to make sure you're getting the best fuel efficiency and be able to control the temperature on a charcoal grill properly, you should be using a clean BBQ.

Coils of spicy sausage with vegetables grilling on a fire during a garden BBQ with rising smoke and green lawns

A build up of ash inside your grill will stop coals from reaching higher temperatures

(Image credit: Daniel Reiter / Alamy Stock Photo)

Lowering the temperature of a charcoal grill

'Ultimately as the charcoal burns through the temperature will drop,' says Martin Sobey. A problem you don't have when using a gas BBQ. 'To get quicker results you can close the air vents which will effectively starve the charcoal and the temperature will reduce.'

'Other methods are to push the charcoal to one side which will create a cooler zone on the opposite side. Lastly, if your grill has multi-height settings you can set the cooking grate to a higher level, increasing the distance from the charcoal bed to the cooking grid will ultimately reduce the level of heat on the cooking surface,' says Martin.

friends gathered round a Napoleon charcoal BBQ

(Image credit: Napoleon)

Why is my charcoal grill too hot?

If you're struggling to control the temperature on your charcoal grill and it's too hot, Martin Sobey has this advice: 'It's probably because it’s been overloaded with charcoal and the vents are fully open,' he says. 'Close the vents and allow the barbecue to return to a heat level which suits the items that you intend to grill.'

'Heat rises, if you stack the charcoals vertically, rather than flat then it can last longer, but it also might be burning at too high a temperature,' adds James Craner. 'Just the same, you may want to slightly close the vents if it's burning too high.' 

Young woman cooking organic vegetables at barbecue dinner outdoor - Couple grilling peppers and aubergines for vegan bbq - Vegetarian and healthy life

Put simply: more coals equals more heat. So adding more coals is one way to increase the temperature of your grill 

(Image credit: DisobeyArt / Alamy Stock Photo)

What is the best temperature for a charcoal grill?

'This very much depends on what you want to grill. Foods that you want to sear, like steak, will need a higher heat, whereas some foods will require cooking over a lower heat (often cooked indirectly). This is called “low and slow”,' explains Martin Sobey. 

'If unsure about the correct temperature, it’s always best to seek advice for the best temperature and method,' says Martin. 'Using a temperature probe is always good idea to ensure items are fully cooked before serving.'

James Craner explains: 'The ideal temperature for most cook-ups will be around 390˚F (200˚C), just like with an oven. The reality is I’ve met a lot of professional grillers and they do disagree on the amounts, but this is the generally agreed upon average.'

Teresa Conway
Deputy Editor

Teresa has worked as an Editor on a number of gardening magazines for three years now. So she is lucky enough to see and write about gardening across all sizes, budgets and abilities. She recently moved into her first home and the garden is a real project! Currently she is relishing planning her own design and planting schemes. What she is most passionate about when it comes to gardening are the positive effects it has on our mental health to grow and care for plants, as well as being great for the environment too and help provide food and shelter for wildlife.