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How To Control Heat On Charcoal Grill

A common problem grillers face is learning how to control heat on a charcoal grill. The fire is either too strong or too weak, so the food does not cook properly.

With the development of gas grills, fewer people are opting for the traditional charcoal-powered ones. Gas grills are easier to control, but grilling over charcoal gives food a unique charred, smoky flavor.

And that is why you should not neglect your charcoal grill. The better approach here is to learn how to use it properly.

We will explain everything grillers need to know about how to control heat on a charcoal grill.

3 Key Aspects of How to Control Heat on Charcoal Grill

1. Maximizing Grill Vents

The number one rule to remember when learning how to control heat on a charcoal grill is that better airflow leads to a hotter grill.

This is contrary to gas grills where the flame gets hotter by containing air inside it.

You can control airflow through the two vents on your grill.

The ones at the top are the exhaust dampers. They release fumes from the grill and provide space for fresh air to flow inside.

The vents at the bottom are the intake dampers. Fresh air flows in through these vents to allow air into the grill to spark the coals.

open grill vents

There are two ways to control airflow. 

  • Leave the exhaust dampers open and control intake dampers. This allows fumes to exit freely as you control the air that flows into your grill. More air leads to a hotter flame.
  • Leave the intake dampers open and control the exhaust dampers. Sealing the exhaust traps fumes inside and prevents fresh air from entering the grill.

Note: Make sure the vents are open when you’re lighting the charcoal. A closed or clogged vent will make it harder for you to start the grill.

2. Using the Optimal Charcoal Positioning

A solid way to control heat on a charcoal grill is to create a three-zone fire.

The goal is to position the charcoal at varying heights all across the grill.

You will use the thickest pile for searing while the one with the least charcoal will be a safety zone for cooling.

Divide your charcoal grill into these three zones:

  • Searing Zone: Rake a large portion of the charcoal to the searing zone. This should be the hottest portion of the grill where you can cook foods at a high temperature. Place the searing zone away from you to avoid getting hurt by the heat.
  • Cooking Zone: Rake the coal at an even height. The cooking zone is where you will spend the majority of your cooking time. It should be the equivalent of the medium setting on a gas grill. Since you will be spending the majority of cooking time on this part of the grill, make sure it is the closest one to you.
  • Cooling Zone: Leave the cooling zone free of charcoal. This is where you will leave foods that need to cool down before being served. There will be no charcoal underneath this portion of the grill, but the food resting there will remain warm thanks to the heat coming from the two nearby charcoal zones.

3. Distancing the Food from the Fire Properly

The closer your food is to the fire, the faster it will cook. It does not take a master griller to know this basic rule of grilling.

With that in mind, one way how to control heat on a charcoal grill is to monitor the distance between your food and the fire. If you need to turn up the heat, raise the height of the charcoal to bring the fire closer to the food on the grill. You can lower the height of the charcoal if you want to reduce the heat.

Charcoal grills with adjustable cooking grates are easy to control. You can move the grates up and down accordingly.

For grillers who use fixed grates, you can apply the two-zone or three-zone technique. Build multiple charcoal zones on the grill at varying heights and move your food around the grill as needed.

FAQs About How to Use Grill Vents Properly

Should the Charcoal Grill Vent Be Open or Closed?

Should the charcoal grill vents be open? Yes. Should you leave them open all throughout the cooking process? It depends.

Grillers are free to control grill airflow by adjusting the vents every now and then. If the flame is getting too hot, you can opt to reduce the opening of either the intake or exhaust dampers.

What are Steps to Make the Charcoal Grill Hotter?

The key to making your charcoal grill hotter is air. If you can get more air into your grill, the charcoal will burn faster and hotter.

One way to increase airflow is to leave both the intake and exhaust dampers open. Just keep in mind that leaving both vents open is powerful and will exhaust your charcoal at a fast pace. Be ready to refill and rearrange the charcoal if you want a hot grill.

How to Make the Charcoal Grill Cool Down

  1. Once you are done cooking, remove the food from the grill and use tongs to detach the grill. Set it aside to cool down.
  2. Mix the coals and scatter them around to break the foundation and release the heat.
  3. Close the vents, shut the lid on the grill, and leave for 10 minutes. This cuts off all airflow and stops the charcoal from flaring up.
  4. After 10 minutes, open the lid and use a spray bottle to spray water on the coal. Note that dousing the coal with too much water will lead to scalding hot steam that can deform your grill.


Learning how to control heat on a charcoal grill will take trial and error. It is a time-consuming process, but the smoky, delicious, charcoal-blazed foods you get to enjoy afterward will make all your hard work worth it. The barbecue lover inside you will be grateful.

Do you have an old charcoal grill rusting away in your shed? Now is the best time to restore it to its former glory. Start learning how to use it so you can host summer barbecue parties.