How high should the grill grate be above the glowing embers? This is one of the questions that inevitably come to mind to the novice griller as he or she prepares their kettle for a BBQ party.
It is a good question to ask. There are many ways to control the cooking temperature—and, subsequently, the cooking time—on a charcoal grill. And the height of the cooking grate is undoubtedly one of the best of ’em.
So here’s all you need to know on the topic.
Grill Grate Height (And Why It Matters)
So, just how high should the grate be?
The answer depends on what you’re trying to do, really.
If your goal is to sear the food or cook it over high heat quickly, then you probably want your grate about as close to the coals as it can get. (And yet not so close that the heat is so intense, it turns the food itself into charcoal.)
On the flip side, now. If your aim is to cook your food low and slow, you want to create as much distance between the hot coals and the cooking grate as you can.
So remember: shorter for quick cooking and searing; taller for slow cooking and cooking large cuts of meat all the way through.
Of course, the height will also depend on the make and model of your grill.
Not all charcoal grills offer adjustable height settings. Many grills, as a matter of fact, are designed to have the grates set at 5 inches between the top of the grill and the highest point of your coals.
With this configuration, your temperature should reach around 370°F (188°C), a.k.a. the ideal temp for cooking burgers all the way through. Meanwhile, a standard kettle grill will have the grate set lower, about 4 inches from the coals.
Judging Your Grate Surface Temperature
You can use a few techniques for judging your grate temperature.
These include the hand test, a direct grill surface thermometer, the lid thermometer on the grill, and a point-and-shoot (infrared) thermometer.
The grate temperature matters. Grilling works best when room-temperature meat comes into sudden contact with a hot cooking surface.
Seasoned grillers may be able to determine if their grill grate is hot enough just by holding their hand to the grill (the hand test), and yet some cookbooks specify certain temperatures that may or may not warrant a more accurate method of measurement.
Hence the merits of a thermometer.
The Hand Test
The main reason you would want to adjust the grate height is to control the temperature of your cooking surface.
And one way you can judge whether or not your surface is too hot or too cold is by using the old-fashioned hand test.
While it may seem subjective, and it is, this test is nevertheless tried and true—and can give you a decent range concerning the temperature of your grate.
To start, hold your hand close to the grate, at least 5 inches from the surface. From there, you count how many seconds you can hold it in that spot comfortably.
Here’s a chart.
Over 6 seconds: Your grate temperature is under 250 degrees, and you likely need to either add more coal or let your grill preheat more.
5 to 6 seconds: Your grate temperature should be somewhere around 250-degrees, which is the ideal temperature for low heat cooking. This temp is good for ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, and more. It’s for cooking low and slow for a couple of hours.
3 to 4 seconds: Your grate temperature is at around 350-degrees, which is considered medium heat. Many people suggest cooking burgers somewhere near this mark.
1 second: Your grate temperature is between 450 and 500 degrees, which is high heat. Most grilling is done in this setting, and it’s where you can get a nice sear on your veggies and meats.
Direct Grill Surface Thermometer
Once you’ve heated your grill, place a grill surface thermometer in the middle of your grate for about five minutes with the hood up.
This should give you your first reading. Just remove it with a spatula, tongs, or a meat hook, and it should tell you your baseline to which you can compare your other readings.
Now move the thermometer around your grill. First, start with the upper right corner, keeping it at least six inches from the side and back of the grill. Allow it to sit for at least 30 seconds until you have a stable reading.
Move the thermometer to different sections of your grill to see which hotter areas. If you’re setting up a direct and indirect heat configuration, this is a handy tool to test your zones.
Lid Grill Thermometer
A lid grill thermometer installs into your grill’s lid.
Some charcoal grill models have thermometers pre-installed, some have holes for installing thermometers, and some do not have holes.
If your grill doesn’t have a hole for a lid thermometer, you can create one yourself.
Before you begin, you’ll need a 3/8 sharp drill bit, a power drill, and your thermometer. It’s PIMP my grill time, kids!
Now, you have to figure out where you want to place your thermometer. The best spot will be where the thermometer probe can be as close to the center of the cooking surface as possible.
This will mean that you don’t want to place it right above the center of the lid and not too close to the rim either. The happy spot is usually about 4-5 inches south of the center.
You also want to keep your thermometer level with your lid’s vents so airflow doesn’t interfere with your readings.
First, make sure your grill is locked down or firmly held in place. Then using a drill, apply steady pressure to ensure you don’t damage the enamel.
After piercing the lid, carefully brush away any chipped enamel both inside and outside your grill’s lid. This should help reduce resistance when inserting your thermometer.
Next, spray your grill lid with anti-rust spray paint; doing this will ensure the scarring from your drilling won’t rust.
After a couple of sprays on either side of the hole, you may want to use some tape on the outside to keep it looking neat, but that’s optional. Now, just leave it to dry for a spell.
Once cry, install your thermometer using the wingnut to firmly affix it. But, be careful not to tighten too hard, or you can crack your enable.
And that’s all there is to it!
Inferred Thermometer (Point-and-Shoot)
Now, a lot of grillers debate over the accuracy of inferred thermometers. However, non-contact point-and-shoot thermometers can be excellent tools when used correctly. The main trick is where you’re pointing.
Obviously, you don’t want to point the laser into the coals. You want to point directly at your grate. Each thermometer will have its own distance-to-target spot ratio. For example, a 12:1 ratio means you need to hold the thermometer 12 inches away from your target, and it will read one inch of the surface.
We recommend looking for an inferred thermometer with adjustable emissivity settings to use materials like copper pans, anodized aluminum, and polished steel without throwing off your readings.
This thermometer type is an excellent option for those who feel uncomfortable using direct contact grill thermometers or altering their grill lid.
Grill grate height is just one factor to consider when controlling temperatures in a charcoal grill.
The amount of coal, type of coal, grill vents, and outside temperature are other factors that can impact your cook. This is why a reliable method of measuring your grate temperatures will give you the information you need to produce the results you’ll love.