HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


ok, how do i get a charcoal grill really hot?

I'm new to having a yard, and I'm grilling a skirt steak on my gf's small charcoal grill tomorrow. I grilled some hot dogs tonight hoping to get the hang of it, but it just didn't seem that hot. The dogs were on there 10 minutes with no blackened spots and some onion slices didn't get any color at all. I'd just use my 12" cast iron pan on a stove like i usually do, medium high heat and two minutes a side, but I don't want to fill her place with smoke. I've always been pessimistic about grilling, but now, as a total n00b, I have to confront it and still put out some good asada.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. How are you preparing your coals? Put the charcoal in a pyramid in the center, then douse with lighter fluid, let it soak in for a couple of minutes, then light in two or three places around the coals.

    *Much* better method: get a chimney starter that uses wadded up newspaper. They're about $15 and are faster, less dangerous and can be used for years.

    The important thing is to let the coals burn unitl they are just covered in gray ash, but you can see the glowing interior through it. That's the sweet spot for heat. You should be good to go.

    4 Replies
    1. re: JonParker

      Once the coals are hot, I assume you spread them out a little from the pyramid, rather than cooking on top of the pyramid, correct? Make sure they form a nice even layer but that you have enough charcoal so that they are all touching. Charcoal grilling is admittedly tougher than gas, but I still prefer it.

      Anyone else ever used the Weber starter cubes? Much nicer than dousing with lighter fluid.

      And, once you get into grilling, read up and learn how to grill by the indirect method. Took me too many years and too many burned ribs before I finally learned. GF will be amazed :)

      1. re: JonParker

        I love my chimney starter. No fluid any more!

        1. re: Morganna

          Same here! We have an old gasser that is no longer usable. The burners are shot and we can't find replacements. The side burner still works great so we just fill the chimney with charcoal, light the burner and set it on top. When the top coals are gray, we put it in the grill.

          The best thing, you don't get that starter fluid taste in your food.

        2. re: JonParker

          Hi JonParker, I use a chimney starter and the coals are bright red when I start to cook but the temperature steadily drops with the lid on during a long cook, that's why i suggested the fan above. I struggle to maintain 300F for long periods.

        3. Use lump charcoal. It has a much more intense heat than briquettes. It will burn faster too, so you will need to adjust your methods accordingly(it also lights faster and comes to temperature much more quickly). I also recommend a chimney starter, much better than starting fluids. Lump charcoal is becoming easier to find, Walmart even has it now, and usually as well, the local hardware store. It also imparts a great smoky flavor that you don't get from briquettes

          1 Reply
          1. re: mattrapp

            correct, lump charcoal burns hotter, good suggestion.

            I would also suggest lowering your cooking grate closer to the charcoal.

            Also the rec. for a chimney starter is great, once you taste food cooked over charcoal that was not started with lighter fluid you will never go back.

          2. The two first posters gave the essential advice. Chimney starter and lump charcoal. Briquettes burn longer but less hot. I use the white fire bricks rather than newspaper to ignite the charcoal in the chimney starter, makes it really idiot proof. If there's an electrical outlet near your grill you can use a blowdryer like a bellows to heat the charcoal, but it shouldn't be necessary. With the chimney starter, the charcoal should come out blazing hot.

            5 Replies
            1. re: MarkC

              I do use lump, but I'll add to use a good brand. The cheapo stuff doesn't seem to last as long. Anything would probably do a quick grill of a skirt steak, but if you do something that needs much longer, get a quality charcoal. Nothing's more frustrating than to have your fire die while you still have cooking to do.

              1. re: JonParker

                Hear, hear! A lot of the cheapo 'lump' looks like construction waste.

                1. re: JonParker

                  The hottest lump charcoal I have ever used is Japanese bincho charcoal. It has the added benefit of being virtually smokeless.

                  Briquettes often have clay mixed into the charcoal. Once you get it glowing, it forms an thick insulating layer which reduces the emitted radiant heat. Even with lump charcoal, I like to knock off the ash by tapping the side of the grill.

                  1. re: fmed

                    Can you tell me where you found this charcoal?

                    1. re: drsmith

                      Sorry for the late reply....I just ran across this post just now. I have purchased it at Daiso (a Japanese 100 Yen store here in town), Fujiya (a Japanese supermarket, and Angel Seafoods).

              2. Absolutely use hardwood charcoal: although the peak intensity is short-lived, you’ll find that, at its hottest, it’s hotter than either home gas grills or briquetts. A key to getting a grid super hot, which both reduces sticking/tearing and gives great grill marks, is putting a flat-bottomed cast iron pan (I use an 18 inch paella pan) on top of the grid for several minutes while you have your charcoal stacked for intense heat (before you spread it out for cooking over a larger area). The larger the cast-iron pan, the longer it will take to heat, so use your judgment regarding matching your cast iron pan to the size of cooking surface you need. You’ll find that using a cast iron pan substantially increases the temperature of your grill grids. BTW, depending on the size of your fire and type of food you’re grilling, you may need to add more hardwood charcoal as you go along.

                2 Replies
                1. re: JohnJ

                  Agreed.. throw some wood into the mix, and that will jack up the temp. The blow-dryer chimney starter trick works well (or if you have an electric leaf blower, THAT will turn things into an inferno quickly). Remember to let the meat rest for a few minutes after taking it off the grill to the juices redistribute.

                  You might want to also think about a 2-level fire - get one side of the grill super hot, but the other side not as much, so you can grill your veggies over lower heat.

                  1. re: JohnJ

                    Agree with JohnJ, use hardwood and a chimney, Mesquite wood can get to 875F.
                    Check out this site for some reviews on lump charcoal and hardwood:

                  2. Either you aren't using enough charcoal (or your grate is too far away from the charcoal) or you aren't letting it get up to the proper heat. Or maybe the vents on the grill aren't open at all or enough and there isn't enough airflow to get the coals going.

                    Whether you use a chimney starter or lighter fluid, you should let the coals burn for at least 15 minutes before cooking on them. Agree with everyone else's comments re: using hardwood and preferrably using a chimney starter over lighter fluid.

                    If the grill is much bigger than you need for 1 or 2 steaks and you dont want to waste all that charcoal, you can just pile it up on one side of the grill and only use that side to cook on. If you can hold your hand just above the cooking grate for more than a few seconds, your grill isn't hot enough and you should add more coals or adjust the cooking vents to let more air in.

                    1. As others have said, lump charcoal is the best. And a chimney starter OR an electric starter. Never never never starter fluid. I've never met a starter fluid I couldn't taste.

                      When I want really intense heat to super char steaks while the inside just barely gets warm, then there's no substitute for lots of charcoal. I shoot for 2 to 3 inches deep and a bed that will extend about an inch beyond any steaks on the grill.. The more expensive the steaks, the more willing I am to pile the charcoal deep. '-)

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Caroline1

                        To start a charcoal fire, I use a blowtorch. Form a pyramid and torch away for about 30 secs. In my best Julia Child impersonation: You do have a blowtorch in the kitchen right? ;)

                      2. My guess is that you're not getting enough oxygen to the charcoal. If the grill has vents in the bottom, make sure they're open. If it doesn't, find a way to force oxygen in. Hair dryers, box fans, and leaf blowers will all work. But if you have a source for liquid oxygen, you can get that grill really hot, really fast. Just plan in advance how to clean up the molten steel:


                        14 Replies
                        1. re: alanbarnes

                          Fans blow ashes, and ashes on food taste nasty. I'd be prone to drill some holes in the bottom of the barbecue and let the heat create its own draft.

                          1. re: Caroline1

                            Should have clarified: the coals need to be good and hot BEFORE the food hits the grill. Blowing ashes aren't a problem if the steak is still sitting on the kitchen counter. But you're right; drilling holes in the bottom of the grill might also work. The only problem is that the GF might take exception...

                            As an aside, one of my favorite ways to cook over REALLY hot charcoal is to put the bottom grate from my Smokey Joe directly on top of my charcoal chimney. It's like cooking over the back of a jet engine. Serious heat.

                            1. re: alanbarnes

                              I can't imagine using any charcoal (starter) chimney I've ever seen unless you're using it upside down or broiling shish kebab one lump of meat at a time. Or are you talking about a chiminea? '-)

                              1. re: Caroline1

                                Alton Brown used chimney starter to sear Ahi tuna in an episode of Good Eats once.

                                Found it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkLmoa...

                                1. re: fmed

                                  Yup. Just as I suspected. One lump at a time! But I will add that that is the biggest charcoal starter I can remember seeing. I had one years ago that was cone shaped, like a volcano.

                                  Doncha love it when AB starts a show with a chunk of tuna you know has to start at around $200.00, depending on the grade. I can just imagine it in the corner of my shopping chart with sack of onions and a head of celery leaning on it...

                                  1. re: fmed

                                    In case you can't run YouTube (waaaaay too slow for dial-up) and didn't see the show, Alton keeps the charcoal in the starter and places the grill right onk top of the starter.m Very small cooking area (as small as the starter) but *very* hot.

                                  2. re: Caroline1

                                    Nope, just the chimney. And you're right--we're talking very small cooking area. But two strip steaks will fit on my chimney, and sometimes that's all the real estate you need.

                                    1. re: alanbarnes

                                      Just think of how much more room apartment dwellers will have when they throw their barbecues over the balcony and just cook on their charcoal starters! What a concept! '-)

                                      1. re: Caroline1

                                        I'm all for this! Most people are looking only for a good sear anyway.

                                        1. re: Caroline1

                                          The only problem is that you need an essentially fire-proof surface to set the chimney on. And the only one on my patio is--you got it--the grill.

                                          Slightly off-topic, but I've found something that may be able to deliver the sear I'm looking for over more than 75 square inches. Wood-burning, with a fan that get things hot enough to smelt iron (well, not quite that hot, but...)


                                            1. re: alanbarnes

                                              Looks good on paper, but... batteries? extension cords? special fire starter strips? And they carefully withhold (or I didn't look hard enough) all price information. I think a charcoal starter on a concrete patio or balcony floor will work just fine. Or you can get a couple of those huge terra cotta trays made for big flower pots and stack a couple of those if you have wood decking.

                                              fmed, shichirins are great! I like the casti iron "hibachi" kind. Much lighter than the ceramic models I've seen, therefore easier to clean. And the smaller ones make using Japanese charcoal a more cost effective deal. Don't know what ever happened to my hibachi. Somewhere in the universe there has to be a very large planet piled very high with things that have just "disappeared" from earth!

                                              1. re: Caroline1

                                                I have a rectangular, diatomaceous clay version designed for yakitori. Hot hot hot if you need it to be.

                                                1. re: fmed

                                                  Call me cheap, but for yakitori, I've always been happy with the old Japanese trick of using a couple of bricks wrapped in aluminum foil. Works great, looks cute, and costs maybe two bucks at an upscale brick yard.

                                2. If you want to crank out some good asada, you can't skimp on the amount of briquets you're going to use. The less you use, the less heat you're going to generate.

                                  I use Weber FireStarter Cubes. It takes a while for the fire to intensify and ash over, but the results are good because there's no lighter fluid smell (or taste) and very little babysitting required on your part. All you do is light them and leave.

                                  Weber --> http://www.bar-b-que.com/store/item.a...

                                  1. Been grilling for many years. First I use lots of brickets or lump, I stack them right up to within 1" of the grill.. Then I use a brush burner to ignite. These run up to 250,000 btu's, hooked on a 5 gallon propane tank. When running they sound like a hot air balloon. I am able to get my charcoal going within 2-3 minutes. After the charcoal is ripping I put on the grill and then put my steaks right over the charcoal. Let sizzle for a minute then turn 45 degrees to get good grill marks. I then turn the steak over and repeat on the other side. After that I move the steak to the part of the grill that does not have any charcoal under it, then I drop the lid and cook until the steak hits 119 internal teimp. Rest 5 minutes and start eating.

                                    1. Danimal, any lady on charcoal is a keeper. To insure you register the same in her eyes I offer the following.

                                      Buy an electric starter - preferably with two loops.

                                      Digest the recos in other replies.

                                      Lay down just enough coals or briquettes to support your new starter with every coal having contact with the element. With the starter atop the coals lay as many as you can around the perimeter, again with each coal making contact with the starter.

                                      Now stack coals atop the starter as high as you can in a pyramid fashion without dribbling any down the sides. The bottom coals will catch first to create an updraft that gets the rest of the pyramid going.

                                      Set a timer for five minutes, plug in, and then open a beer (This method also works with wine or other beverages.)

                                      At five minutes the coals should be smoking heavily telling you that you're almost there. Unplug the starter leavng it in place. Soon you will see flames sifting through the pile of coals. Remove the starter and arrange your coals. If some are not smouldering, place them next to those that are.

                                      ..."new to having yard"...? If you have any type of deciduous tree, snip off the new growth at the end of a branch and discard. Then snip off a few inches of last year's growth and cut into inch-long, pencil-thick pieces. Scatter a few on the hot coals, lay down your meat, and scatter a few more as you grill to keep a nice smoke going.

                                      Don't drill holes in the botom for draught: the heat and ashes promote rust in the exposed, unprotected metal.

                                      1. I pretty much agree with most of the above (cool liquid O2 video). I also think lump is the key and I think to get them to burn hotter, you need plenty of fuel (more charcoal) and plenty of oxygen. You can fan them to get 'em fired up hot, but they will cool if you don't have good, continous air flow feeding the fire.
                                        I would suggest a small grate on the bottom of the grill to get the charcoal elevated. Heat convection will help pull air under the grate and fuel the fire, keeping it burning hotter.
                                        This worked great for my barrel grill.

                                        1. Hubby and I just bought a new Weber Charcoal Grill and chimney starter. We love it. No more charcoal lighter fluid, just put some coals in the chimney, paper on the bottom, within minutes they are hot, flaming, etc. Then just pour coals into the grill. Very hot.

                                          Good luck.

                                          1. I once read, I think in a Weber publication, that the most common mistake made by first users is failure to get enough heat. The publication said first-timers rarely use enough fuel. For cooking steaks, they recommended a two-level fire - one with lots of coal for searing steaks and the other with a single layer of coal for finishing the steaks - and here's the point - using 10 to 15 pounds of charcoal to accomplish that. At the time, Weber had its own brand of charcoal and recommended using that, of course. They recommended using two chimneys of charcoal to accommodate the needed amount. That was or use in a 21-inch kettle model.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: Potomac Bob

                                              I also wonder if the charcoal used was damp? In a high humidity area, or if stored in a place where dew forms overnight, it's very possible that the charcoal never had a chance?

                                              Haven't read through all the posts, but besides more fuel, make sure the fire is getting enough draft. Open the bottom vents. Without enough air feeding the fire from below, you won't get maximum heat.

                                            2. Probably most of the new-fangled iterations cited above work. If you are comdemned to the use of briquettes and "starter" fluid, AKA "cow piss", one should allow several dosings and re-lights, and 45 minutes to build a base of red coals. At my mountain house at 9000 feet, hour and a half.
                                              In pre-Ralph Nader days, one would douse charcoal with fluid and pitch lit matches from about 8 feet; a swoosh of flame would punctuate an accurate toss. Starter fluid actually once worked.
                                              The modern dumbed-down version could equally be used to extinguish a fire.

                                              1. I find that when I am using the Weber grill open for searing steaks etc. it's fine but when using it closed the temperature could be a bit hotter.

                                                I wondered if you could use a ''gentle'' fan upwards and underneath - possibly sidewards for the One Touch - the grill to increase the airflow? I mean during cooking not for lighting.

                                                This would also be useful for searing as well but I emphasize the word gentle as you don't want ash all over you food.

                                                Has anyone tried it?