How to control the temperature on a charcoal BBQ like the pros!

Learning to control the temperature on a charcoal BBQ or smoker is one of the most essential things any prospective griller can learn. You may be dreaming of large chunks of smoked brisket, but until you get the temperatures under the control you’re heading for guaranteed failure.

The first thing to understand when learning to control the temperature of a charcoal BBQ is that more oxygen equals more heat. The more air you circulate into the BBQ the higher the temperature. And vice versa the less air that gets to your charcoal the lower the temperature.

How hot should a charcoal grill be?

Depending on how your intend on using your BBQ will depend on how hot your grill should be. If you are grilling a steak and want to achieve a nice charred finish then crank the temperatures right up to sear the steaks. You won’t necessarily have the lid closed and so you won’t have the same level of control of the heat from the BBQ.

If you are grilling something more delicate like sausages then you don’t want the temperatures up at 400F and will only need your BBQ set at 250 – 300F with the lid closed for a nice indirect cook.

Smoking requires very low temperatures kept consistently even on the largest cuts of meat, this is how you acquire that soft smoked meat your salivating about now. When smoking you need to control the temperatures at 225 – 275F for a low and slow cook.

How to control the temperature on a BBQ smoker

To control the temperature on a charcoal BBQ smoker, your smoker needs to have at least one control damper or air vent that is adjustable. However to get the best control, all smokers from premium BBQ manufacturers will have two dampers. One damper will be in the fire box or below the charcoal area. The other damper will be in the food cooking area or at the top of a chimney if you are using a smoker with one.

To control the temperatures you need to adjust these dampers depending on if you want to raise the temperature or lower the the temperature.

A point to remember when learning to control the temperature on a charcoal BBQ is to allow the temperatures time to stabilise after making any adjustments to the control dampers, before making any further adjustments. In can take up to 15 minutes to be sure you have reached the temperature you have ‘set’ via the dampers.

The lid always needs to be on or closed to make the correct adjustments, as soon as you remove the lid you need to replace and allow the temperatures to stabilise before starting with any adjustments.

Another point to consider when learning to control the temperature on a charcoal BBQ, is the amount of lit charcoal and smoking wood you have in the BBQ will have a large impact to the amount of adjustment your BBQ will react to.

Starting point

A good starting point when learning to control the temperature on a charcoal BBQ and this is specifically relevant if you are using a kettle style BBQ. Is to, open the bottom damper underneath the charcoal to it’s full for maximum air circulation and then with the lid on, open the top lid vent to it’s maximum to allow the most air into the BBQ cooking area and then adjust the top damper a small amount at a time.

Depending on how you’ve set up, you should only need to adjust the top damper to control the temperature.

How to raise the temperature on a charcoal smoker

To raise the temperature on a charcoal BBQ or smoker all you need to do is open the vents to allow more air to circulate into the grill.

You need make sure the control damper closest to the charcoal is fully open this will allow maximum fresh oxygen to reach the lit charcoal to raise the temperature. Then depending on how quickly or how high you wish to raise the temperature of your charcoal smoker the lid damper needs to be opened.

If you are just wanting to increase the temperature a few Fahrenheit at a time then only make tiny adjustments to the top vent. Allow the temperature to stabilise and then open more if you need to.

How to lower the temperature on a charcoal smoker

To lower the temperature on a charcoal smoker you need to close the air vents to restrict the amount of air reaching the hot charcoal.

If you just intend on dropping the temperature a small amount then only adjust the top air control vent by closing it a small amount, wait for the temperature to drop and settle. Then adjust by closing the damper a bit more if needed.

To rapidly cool the temperature of your BBQ or turn it off, you must starve the charcoal of oxygen. To do this simply close all of the vents and keep the lid firmly shut.

How do you keep a charcoal smoker at 225?

To set and keep you charcoal smoker at 225F open the bottom charcoal vent and set the top vent to a quarter open. This should roughly equate to 225F(or at least a good starting point to adjust to 225F) on most charcoal smokers, if only using the amount of lit charcoal usually used in the minion or snake method. Every charcoal smoker and BBQ is different so you will more than likely need to adjust the temperature either way as described above till you reach 225F.

If you place too much lit charcoal it will be very difficult to keep your smoker at the desired 225F. Once you’ve adjust your BBQ damper and temperature has settled at 225F for around 10 – 15 minutes. Add your meat to the grill replace the lid and as long as you have set your charcoal correctly you should not need to make any adjustments to either the charcoal or the air damper. However after about 15 minutes if the temperatures have stabilised you may need to make some minor adjustments to the damper to keep it at 225F.

Quarter opened air control damper - charcoal bbq

How do I keep my smoker going for hours?

Set and forget is the best way to keep your smoker going for hours. There are a number of factors in keeping your smoker going for hours but as long as you have correctly set the charcoal up for a long cook (see here for more information), set the temperature at low and slow temperature (225 – 275) as above, and you have a BBQ with good heat retention, then your smoker will keep going for hours.

Most good BBQs with the right methods and charcoal will not need any interaction for 8 – 10 hours if done correctly. The more human interaction you put into a smoker by removing the lid and checking the internal temperatures of the meat. The more likely you are to interrupt the amount of time your smoker will stay consistent for.


In summary when learning to control the temperature on a charcoal BBQ or charcoal smoker, the best way to learn is to have a try! Understand how your BBQ reacts to minor adjustments before attempting to do anything too challenging. Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t turn out well and your food isn’t great the first time round, many experienced pit masters still make mistakes!