Barbecue University™

6 Key Temperatures to Know Before You Grill

Chicken on a grill with thermometer

Excerpted from Project Fire by Steven Raichlen (Workman, 2018).

You can’t grill accurately unless you know the cooking temperature. There are two important numbers here: the temperature in the cook chamber and the temperature at the grate level. The former helps you with indirect grilling, smoking, and smoke-roasting; the latter with direct grilling.

Many grills, such as the 22.5 inch Weber kettle grill, come with thermometers built into the lid, which gives you the approximate temperature at the level of the thermometer probe—essentially 6 to 10 inches above the grate. The temperature at grate level will likely be different.

How to Check Your Grill’s Temperature

Here are some other ways to take your grill’s temperature:

  • The point-and-shoot method: Buy a point-and-shoot thermometer. Point the laser beam at one of the bars of the grill grate to get a reading.
  • The “Mississippi” method: Hold your hand 3 inches above the grate over the zone where you’ll be grilling. Start counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi,” etc. You’ll be able to keep your hand over a hot grill for 2 to 3 seconds, over a medium grill for 5 to 6 second, and over a low heat grill for 10 to 12 seconds. Holding your hand over the grate will give you a definite sense of the heat.
  • Refueling: With most direct grilling, one chimney of charcoal or wood chunks will last 30 to 60 minutes. For a prolonged direct grill session and indirect grilling, you’ll need to replenish the fire.
  • When replenishing lump charcoal, add fresh lumps to the fire and leave the grill open (lid off) for 5 minutes, or until the fresh coals catch fire.
  • When replenishing charcoal briquettes, I like to light them separately in a chimney starter, then add them to the fire. (Adding unlit briquettes to a fire often generates an unpleasant acrid smoke.)
Mississippi method of checking grill temperature

With the “Mississippi Method,” gauge the temperature of a fire using the palm of your hand.

The Basic Grill Temperatures and What They’re Used For:

Low Heat (225 to 250 degrees)

Smoking and true barbecue. Use for brisket, ribs, pork shoulder, shoulder clod, whole pigs, lamb, or goats.

Medium-Low Heat (275 to 300 degrees)

True barbecue and indirect grilling. Good for ribs and pork shoulder.

Medium Heat (325 to 350 degrees)

Direct grilling, indirect grilling, smoke-roasting. Good for roasts, pork loin, poultry (whole birds), whole fish, large dense vegetables such as cabbage, onions, or cauliflower.

Medium-High Heat (375 to 400 degrees)

Direct grilling, indirect grilling, smoke-roasting, plancha, and salt slab grilling. Use for chicken pieces, planked fish, large vegetables.

High Heat (450 to 600 degrees)

Direct grilling. Good for steak, chops, fish steaks, pizza, chicken breasts, small or high moisture vegetables or fruit.

Incendiary (650 degrees and higher)

Direct grilling and infrared grilling. Best for searing steaks and chops.


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About the Book

Project Fire

A modern approach to grilling from Steven Raichlen, America’s “master griller” (Esquire). With 100 recipes, Project Fire shows how to put the latest grilling methods to work—from spit-roasting to salt-grilling—using favorite ingredients and adding a dash of daring in flavors, technique, and presentation.

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