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Grill thermometers

I've got a charcoal grill, and one of the more frustrating things trying to master how to cook on it is trying to gauge the temperature of the grill because so many different grilling recipes use different grilling temperatures. Sometimes, I wonder if I should have just joined the dark side and gone gas.

But, one thing all those different grilling recipes share is the ubiquitous method to measure how hot the grill is by using the hand test where you place your hand over the grill and see how long you can keep your hand over the grill. The longer you can keep your hand over the grill, the hotter the grill and vice versa.

Maybe, its just me, but that seems like an incredibly flawed and inconsistent method. I'm a weenie and my threshold for pain is going to much lower than somebody who cooks a lot with asbestos hands. (I've seen some cooking shows on TV where somebody basically reached their hand into flickering flames to grab something). Whereas I might have to flinch and remove my hand after half a second, another person might be able to keep their hand over that same heat for 3 or 4 seconds.

So, I thought, maybe a better method would be to use a grill thermometer. So, what are your favorites for a grill thermometer and/or the features to look for.

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  1. From what I've seen, it seems like you can break down grill thermometers to two categories- thermometers with a long, narrow probe that you stick through the lid vent at the top of the lid and those you place directly on the grill.

    The former seems to be the most popular, and is the type you'd see included on the grills with all the bells and whistles. And, again, maybe its just me, but that the design seems flawed because you need to keep the lid on to measure the temperature and the temperature at the top of the lid is not the same temperature at the level where you're grilling the food. Has anybody ever figured out how much of a difference that makes.

    So, that should mean the thermometers that you place directly on the grill are the best, right? Any potential flaws with that design? Can they handle that intense heat, or is something you accept that you'll always have to replace? I'm assuming the intense heat is why you couldn't simply place your oven thermometer in the grill.

    6 Replies
    1. re: hobbess

      I am equally frustrated --- I have a good collection of BBQ books but it is damn difficult to cook with charcoal unless you have had a few decades of experience.

      As an experiment I am trying to use a small infra-red thermometer with the Weber. I carefully measure the heat fumes coming out of the lid.

      This thus far has taught me that the initial temp is around 350F but this quickly falls to around 300F and then after a while to 250F. I would think that 300F would be a good grilling temp depending on what one was cooking.

      I was actually grilling at too high a temp too soon at the start. I am now letting the coals burn for a full 35 - 40 minutes after lighting. Obviously this time will depend on wind etc.
      It has been useful too allowing one to measure the temp when grilling indirect and replenishing coals at the right time.

      It is too soon for me to recommend infra red but it is worthwhile keeping in mind. You could use it in the kitchen as well.

      Lets hear from some of the BBQ pro's on how they handle temp measurement.

      1. re: Mistral

        I'm no pro but we retrofit my friend's weber kettle grill with a BBQ dial thermometer we picked up from the Home Renovations superstore. It helped a lot to get and maintain the temperature needed for our grilling and smoking. For 15$ it is a pretty good upgrade. Just be careful drilling into the lid. Drill a pilot hole first and work your way up to the right diameter.

        I have also heard good things about some of the thermometers that measure the air temperature with a digital read out. I have heard of some with both a air temperature thermometer and a meat thermometer. If anyone has any experience with them please share.

        1. re: Mistral

          I never thought about a infra-red thermometer, and I'm curious about how they work?

          Can you control the distance at which it measures temperature? At different heights, the further away from the coals, I would expect to see a difference in temperature.

          I understand why you're measuring the heat fumes coming out of the lid, but I would think that that temperature is not the same as the temp at the grill level. Are you somehow taking that difference into account, where if you measure X degrees you know that the temp inside is really X-25 degrees or something like that?

          1. re: hobbess

            I just measure the fumes - I could remove the lid I suppose and measure the flames or grill itself but I have not found this necessary. I have learned to cook by this method.

            I guess a full BBQ thermometer is the way to go but didn't fancy drilling into the Weber lid and I had the infra red already.. I would guess a BBQ thermometer is not measuring the exact temp of the grill either - please correct me if it does so.

            Next time I BBQ will will check the temp of the grill and lid and report back.

            1. re: Mistral

              Can't wait to hear your experiment; we could be breaking new culinary ground.

              My gut feeling tells me there's going to be a difference in temp, but the question is how much. With all the grilling and BBQ books out there, I can't believe nobody has addressed this yet.

              I don't think the BBQ thermometer is measuring the exact temperature either which is why I wondered why the thermometers which you put directly on the grill aren't more popular. Maybe, they can't survive the intense heat of the grill very long?

            2. re: hobbess

              About temp at grill level or elsewhere: I don't think you need to know temp at grill level except for direct cooking, in which case holding a hand over the grill is quick and sufficient (there is some rule about how many seconds you can hold your hand over the grill, etc., but I don't recall it and haven't really felt the need).

              But measuring the heat inside the dome overall is important for indirect cooking. So a dome thermometer is really most useful, I think. Almost always, I fire coals mostly on one side of the grill, use direct heat sometimes for some things, but otherwise move the foods to the indirect part of the grill surface and let everything basically bake/roast in the covered grill. A dome thermo is especially good on those occasions.

              Not that I have one yet! I dangle my probe thermometer through the top vent. That way I can use timer and alarm functions.

        2. A couple of points:

          Even if you know the ambient temperature inside of the grill, the temp will vary from one spot above the coals to another because you will have some hot spots.

          If you want to reduce the intensity of the heat, adjust the vents on the lid and below the grill. The less airflow, the lower the temp will be.

          Leave an area of the grill with no coals under it. if something is cooking too quickly, move it to that area.

          1. I just bought a ROSLE thermometer at WS. It costs $45. slender sloid stainless. I am old an have alwasy cooked by instinct.. Now that I actually take the tamp of the food I am perping I am getting much better results The old touchy feely does not work. They also have a griol therm in the catalog that is much longer. Mine is good for inside and outside.

            1 Reply
            1. re: pattq

              I am always sad to hear from anyone that the old touchy feely is not working! May it not last!