Grilling with charcoal is a popular summer pastime. Those of us who are serious about grilling as a hobby enjoy it year-round. It’s fun, relatively simple, and results in mouthwateringly delicious food.
Even if you only fire up the grill in the summer, you might be wondering: Just how hot do charcoal grills get? And how hot should they be in order to grill meat? Let’s take a closer look.
How Hot Do Charcoal Grills Get?
Some charcoal grills are able to achieve temperatures up to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. While that’s an impressive benchmark, it’s not really necessary for a grill to be that hot. As long as it heats to 600 degrees, you should be able to cook just about anything you’d like.
Why Choose Charcoal?
Some folks prefer gas grills because they’re more convenient. You can fire them up at the push of a button, making them a solid option for quick lunches or weeknight grilling.
A charcoal fire, on the other hand, offers both flavor and authenticity. You’re not going to get that same char-grilled taste from a gas-powered unit. And more to the point, charcoal grills can attain higher temperatures, as we’re about to learn.
How Hot Do Charcoal Grills Get?
The maximum temperature that a charcoal grill can reach is 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, a gas grill will only heat to about 600 degrees (unless it includes a special feature like Weber’s Sear Station).
Do you want the grill to get this hot? Probably not. A grill temperature of 600 degrees should be adequate, even when putting a strong sear on steaks and pork chops. That’s why it’s important to learn to control the temperature.
You should perform a test run on any charcoal grill before using it to cook food. This will give you a better idea of how it performs, so you can learn to control the valves to maintain the temperature you want. We’ll talk more about this later.
Understanding Temperature Ranges
Before you test the temperature of your coals, you should understand what the designations mean.
For example, “high” heat on a charcoal grill is the range between 450 and 600 degrees. That’s how hot you want it to be if you’re putting the finishing touches on a steak or thick-cut pork chop.
Most of the time, you’ll want your charcoal grill to heat to medium-high before you start cooking. That equates to a grill temperature of 375-450 degrees.
For a medium fire, aim for a temp of 325 to 350. If you want to go medium-low, the grill temperature should be between 250 and 300 degrees. Any lower than that, and you’re getting deeper into smoking territory.
How To Tell When a Charcoal Grill is Ready
Some charcoal grills come with a built-in lid thermometer that will alert you to the current temperature. While these come in handy, they’re not foolproof. What’s more, they’re only available on higher-end models.
If you just have a regular kettle-style charcoal grill with no thermometer, there are other ways to test the coals. When you think they might be approaching the correct temperature, you can hold your hand above them to gauge their progress.
When performing the following tests, I hold my hand about 5 inches above the spot where the coals are deepest. That might be a bit further away from the cooking grate than the food will be, but that’s fine—I’m not trying to barbecue myself.
If the fire is too intense for me to hold my hand in this position for more than 2 seconds, then it’s hot enough to sear meat quickly. If I can hold it there for 3 to 4 seconds, the fire is medium-hot and suitable for grilling steak, pork, or chicken.
When I want a medium fire, I make sure I can hold my hand in that position for 5 to 6 seconds. Any longer, and the fire has died down to medium-low.
How To Perform a Test Run
To test how hot your charcoal grill can get, all you need to do is light a fire the way you normally would. Use about as much charcoal as you would for a big batch of burgers or steaks—the more charcoal there is, the hotter the grill will get.
Use a chimney starter or kindling to get things started. If you have lighter fluid on hand, go ahead and use that. I don’t like using lighter fluid as a rule, but in this case it doesn’t matter much because you won’t actually be cooking any food.
Let the coals heat up for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they’re coated with a layer of silvery-gray ash. Check the temperature using the method described above. At this point, the coals should be as hot as they’re going to get.
If your grill doesn’t feature an enamel coating, you should season it during this pre-cooking process. Use paper towels and a set of sturdy barbecue tongs to apply a thin coating of neutral oil to the barrel and lid of the grill.
Repeat this process several times as the grill is heating up. This will prevent the metal from rusting, keeping the unit in prime condition.
How To Cool Things Down
If the fire is too hot for what you have in mind, you can lower the grill temperature by adjusting the vents. The more air the fire receives, the hotter it will be. Your goal, then, is to close the vents to restrict the airflow.
Start by closing the vents so that they’re only three-quarters of the way open, then wait a few minutes and test the temperature. You can always close them a bit more if necessary. Through trial and error, you’ll come to understand how your grill works.
Which Burns Hotter: Lump Charcoal or Briquettes?
Both types of charcoal will get plenty hot enough to cook your food, but they have different properties. Lump charcoal is pure carbonized wood, whereas briquettes contain fillers that help them maintain a cube-like shape.
As a rule, lump charcoal burns hotter than briquettes, but the fire they create dies out more quickly. Briquettes are better for low-and-slow cooking applications because they produce less heat but are able to burn for longer periods.
The Bottom Line
While it’s possible for a charcoal grill to heat to 1200 degrees, that’s too hot to be useful. A maximum temperature of 600 degrees should be just fine, even for searing.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!