How to Maintain Charcoal Grill Temperature

Charcoal BBQ blazing and glowing

When you’re grilling, it’s all about controlling the temperature. If you’re cooking with charcoal, then you need to understand how to maintain charcoal grill temperature for the best results, based on the type of meat you’re cooking and the size of the cooking surface.

How to maintain charcoal grill temperature is a matter of controlling the exhaust and intake dampers. It’s also important to pay attention to how you add the coal and ensure that the coals are fully lit prior to placing them on the grill. Slowly adding more coals to the grill if you notice a change in temperature can also help to maintain the temperature. Essentially, adjusting the intake and exhaust dampers will be your best bet when it comes to temperature regulation. It may take some experimentation on your part to reach and maintain the right temperature, but once you do, you’ll notice that you’re able to achieve ideal grilling results.

Read on to learn some great tips and tricks that will teach you how to precisely control your grill’s temperature and how the right temperature can have a major impact on the quality of your food.


A charcoal grill utilizes two different types of fuel, oxygen and charcoal. You can easily control the grill’s temperature by controlling the charcoal, the oxygen, or both. In many cases, you’ll need to cook with the lid on and with a one or two zone cooking surface. This will give you more control in regard to oxygen control. Controlling the oxygen flow will ultimately give you more control over the temperature of the cooking surface.

Use the Vents to Your Advantage

A portable charcoal grill will have two oxygen controls:

  • Exhaust damper
  • Intake damper

The intake damper is basically the engine that drives the grilling system. Its job is to provide the charcoal with oxygen, which is why it’s located so close to it. If you close this damper it will deprive the fire of oxygen, eventually causing it to burn out even if you leave the exhaust damper open. When it’s cranked open all the way the temperature will rise. For most grills, you can easily control the temperature by adjusting the intake damper.

Use the Vents to Your Advantage

The flue or exhaust damper pulls oxygen in through the intake damper and allows the heat, smoke, and combustion gasses to escape. This draft is created by the hot gasses that rise through the chimney.

This damper must be kept partially open during use in order to prevent the combustion gasses from smothering the fire. In order for oxygen to reach the charcoal, there must be a place for the combustion gasses to exit. As the smoke, gas, and heat exit the grill, they create a type of pressure inside the grill that will pull in oxygen via the intake damper.

As you work on calibrating your system, we recommend leaving the exhaust vent all the way open. You can try some dry runs without any meat on the grill and experiment with the intake vent. During this time try to maintain a specific temperature and adjust the vents accordingly until you achieve the goal temperature. Don’t experiment with the exhaust damper if you’re not able to achieve the correct temperature by adjusting the intake alone. Experimenting with both dampers at the same time will make it almost impossible to achieve the right environment for temperature regulation.

When There’s an Issue with Your Grill

If you’ve tried several times to maintain a certain temperature with no success, then you may need to start checking your grill for leaks. Lower priced grills, where the doors and lids do not achieve a tight seal, can have a difficult time maintaining the grate’s temperature. Gaps can allow oxygen to enter, while letting the heat escape through the vents. If you’re looking for a grill with a reputation for temperature control, we recommend the Char-Griller E16620 Akorn Kamado Kooker Charcoal Barbecue Grill. Ceramic grills, in general, have a reputation for superior temperature control, but this model by Char-Griller is also very beginner-friendly, easy to clean and maintain, and is a great choice for the grilling enthusiast in need of a model they can rely on for regular use.

When the Charcoal is to Blame

The amount of charcoal you use can also cause problems. We recommend using a chimney to fire up your coals. Make sure you fill it up to the same level each time you use it. It’s also important to begin with the same number of fully lit coals each time. When charcoal is fully lit it will be at its peak temperature. Charcoal also provides a stable temperature source, however, the temperature can begin to decline as the charcoal is consumed by combustion. With charcoal briquettes, you should begin with coals that are covered in ash. If you’re using lump coal, then you’ll see a mixture of white ash and red embers.

As soon as you notice the temp in your grill starting to decline, add only fully lit coals to maintain the temperature. It may take some experimenting before you learn the right amount of coals to add. When the coals are totally lit and burning steadily you can easily control the cooking surface’s temperature by controlling the oxygen flow.

When the Charcoal is to Blame

When you add a few more coals to the grill during this time you’ll have to keep a close eye on the temperature, adding more and more coals until you’ve reached the right temperature. If you notice the temperature dropping quickly, light up ten or twelve coals and wait for them to ash over before you add them. Adding unlit coals is a bad idea considering how much smoke they produce. Additionally, they’ll build in heat as they ignite which can raise the grate’s temperature too high

Know the Correct Temperature for Your Meat

If you want to grill a steak then the goal temperature should be five hundred degrees. If you want to smoke your meat, then the magic number is around two hundred to two hundred and twenty-five degrees. Often, a new grill will come with a guide that lists the recommended temperature based on the cut of meat or the type of food.

Get a Digital Thermometer

Since most built-in grill thermometers aren’t exactly accurate, you should purchase an air probe. The air probe works by tracking ambient temperatures inside the grill, very accurately. It will allow you to gauge even the slightest change in temperature, which can happen in just a few seconds when you adjust the fuel or the air flow. Make sure you place the probe close to the food so you’ll get a more accurate sense of how hot the cooking surface is.

Related Questions

Do I Need to Set Up a Two-Zone Grill?

Yes. A charcoal grill needs a special set-up in order to create lower cooking temperatures. Fortunately, setting up a couple of zones on your grill is very easy. When you transfer coals to your grill, make sure you pile them on just one side of the grill. After you set up the coals you can place your food on the opposite side of the grill where they can slow cook using indirect heat. During this time make sure you keep the grill covered in order to maintain a lower temperature.

Can You Use a Charcoal Grill for Vegetables?

Yes. Charcoal grills aren’t just meant for meat. Grilling your veggies can really bring out their flavor while giving you a new way to enjoy your favorite side or main veggie-based dishes. If you’re vegan, you can enjoy grilling a cauliflower steak or a grilled portobello mushroom burger. In fact, there are many vegan-friendly recipes you can try if you’re getting tired of the same baked or stir-fried dishes. To learn more, click here to read our article on vegan grill recipes.

What Can Affect the Grill’s Temperature?

A dirty grate and/or grill can negatively impact your grill’s ability to reach the ideal temperature. Another factor is a poorly fitting lid. In most cases, keeping the dampers open too wide will be the culprit, if you’re having trouble maintaining the correct temperature. When troubleshooting, begin by cleaning off the grate, emptying the ash catcher and checking the lid’s seal. If you’re still not sure why your grill is struggling to maintain the correct temperature, contact the manufacturer’s customer support team for more troubleshooting advice and tips.

Final Thoughts

How to maintain charcoal grill temperature is as simple as adjusting the intake and exhaust dampers, slowly adding charcoal once it’s fully lit, and keeping the lid on your grill throughout the cooking process. If you’re using the best portable charcoal grill, an air probe, and closely monitoring the temperature in your grill as you experiment with the damper adjustments, you should get the hang of this process in no time.