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Digital Thermometers:
Stop Guessing!

thermopop bbq thermometer

Gold BBQ AwardA good digital thermometer keeps me from serving dry overcooked food or dangerously undercooked food. You can get a professional grade, fast and precise splashproof thermometer like the Thermopop (above) for about $24. The Thermapen (below), the Ferrari of instant reads, is about $96. It's is the one you see all the TV chefs and all the top competition pitmasters using. Click here to read more about types of thermometer and our ratings and reviews.

bbq thermapen

GrillGrates Take You To
The Infrared Zone

BBQ_grill_grates

Gold BBQ AwardGrillGrates(TM) amplify heat, prevent flareups, make flipping foods easier, produce great grill marks, keep small foods from committing suicide, kill hotspots, are easier to clean, flip over to make a fine griddle, smolder wood right below the meat, and can be easily removed and moved from one grill to another. Every gas grill and pellet smoker needs them.

Click here to read more about what makes these grates so special and how they compare to other cooking surfaces.

The Smokenator:
A Necessity For All Weber Kettles

smokenator bbq system

Gold BBQ Award If you have a Weber Kettle, you need the amazing Smokenator and Hovergrill. The Smokenator turns your grill into a first class smoker, and the Hovergrill can add capacity or be used to create steakhouse steaks.

Click here to read more.

The Pit Barrel Cooker

pit barrel c ooker bbqAbsolutely positively without a doubt the best bargain on a smoker in the world.

This baby will cook circles around the cheap offset sideways barrel smokers in the hardware stores because temperature control is so much easier (and that's because smoke and heat go up, not sideways).

Gold BBQ AwardBest of all, it is only $269 delivered to your door!

Click here to read our detailed review and the raves from people who own them.

scissor tongs

Best. Tongs. Ever.

Gold BBQ AwardMade of rugged 1/8" thick aluminum, 20" long, with four serious rivets, mine show zero signs of weakness after years of abuse. I use them on meats, hot charcoal, burning logs, and with the mechanical advantage that the scissor design creates, I can easily pick up a whole packer brisket. Click here to read more.

steak knives for bbq

The Best Steakhouse Knives

Gold BBQ AwardThe same knives used at Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky, and Morton's. Machine washable, high-carbon stainless steel, hardwood handle. And now they have the AmazingRibs.com imprimatur. Click for more info.

tailgater monthly
digg

Using The Vents To Control Temperature On Charcoal And Wood Burning Grills And Smokers

chimney"The first thing to do is close your eyes and say 'I am smarter than my grill. I will not let it ruin meals and make me look like a fool or make my family sick.'" Meathead

By Meathead Goldwyn

Cooking is all about controlling heat. Whether you're cooking indoors or out. If you are cooking with charcoal or wood, you need to understand and gain control over the grill's environment.

A charcoal or wood cooker has two fuels, the combustible material (charcoal or wood) and oxygen. You control temp by controlling one or the other, or both.

In most cases you want to cook with the lid down and with a 2-zone setup. This gives you control of oxygen flow and that gives you control of temperature.

How vents control temp

Most grills and smokers have two oxygen controls:

1) An intake damper that brings oxygen to the fire.
2) An exhaust damper (a.k.a. flue, vent, or chimney) that exhausts gases and pulls in oxygen and pulls in oxygen through the intake dampers.

The intake damper is near the charcoal or wood and its job is to provide them with oxygen. The intake damper is the engine that drives the system. Close it off and you starve the fire and it burns out even if the exhaust damper is open. Open it all the way and the temperature rises. On most grills and pits you control temperature mainly by controlling the intake damper.

weber kettle barbecue vent settingsAt right is a photo of how John Cooper of Murfreesboro, TN, marked the settings on his Weber kettle. He explains "There are four marks. The outer two marks (with the arrows extending) show where full open and full closed begin. The inner two marks are half open and quarter open. Notice they are not linear but that's due to the shape of the dampers and the arc of their travel. In this photo the grill is set between quarter open and full closed which is the area where most of my four hour cook occurred while trying to maintain 225 to 235°F."

The exhaust damper (a.k.a. flue, vent, or chimney) has two jobs: (1) Allow the combustion gases, heat, and smoke to escape, and (2) pull oxygen in through the intake damper. The exhaust damper needs to be at least partially open at all times in order to keep combustion gases from smothering the fire like a wet blanket of CO, CO2, and other combustion products. Oxygen cannot reach the coals unless there is a place for combustion gases to exit.

The exhaust damper needs to be at least partially open at all times in order to keep combustion gases from smothering the fire like a wet blanket of CO, CO2, and other combustion products.This is even true if you use one of those nifty blower thermostat gizmos like the PartyQ.

As heat, combustion gases, and smoke exit the chimney, they create low pressure inside the cooker and that pulls in oxygen through the intake vent.

As you try to master your cooker and calibrate your system (read my article on calibration), you are best advised to leave the exhaust damper open all the way. Do some dry runs without food, play with the intake vent only, and try to hit the marks called for in almost all of my recipes: 225°F and 325°F. You should not play with the exhaust vent unless you are unable to hit those temps by adjusting the bottom vent alone. Playing with both vents at once is like trying to control the speed of your car by using both the gas pedal and the brake at once.

If you cannot hit the marks, start looking for leaks. On cheap cookers, where the lids and doors do not seal tightly, oxygen can enter through unauthorized gaps and the hot stuff escapes through false chimneys. If you have a cheap offset smoker (COS), a smoker that looks like a barrel on its side, you almost certainly have this problem. That's one reason I hate them. If you have an offset, you need to read my article on modifying them. Remember, heat and smoke want to go upwards, not sideways.

After you've tamed leaks and if you still can't control the temp, then experiment with throttle back the exhaust, but try to never close it more than half way.

How combustibles control temperature

The amount of charcoal or firewood could also be the problem. Use a chimney to light your coals and fill it to the same level each time. It is important to start with the same number of fully lit coals. They are at their peak temperature then, and their temp is stable, although they slowly decline in temperature as they are consumed by combustion. For charcoal briquets, that means you should start with coals covered in gray ash. For lump charcoal you will see a mix of red glowing embers and white ash. If you are burning wood, I recommend you use only glowing embers from logs that you started burning on the side. As you gain experience you can experiment with unlit logs.

If you need to add combustibles, it is best to add only fully lit coals as soon as you see the temp sliding down. It will take you some experimenting to learn how many to add. When coals are fully lit and burning steadily, you can control temperature more easily by controlling the flow of oxygen to the coals. You have only one variable with which to fiddle. As with all things in cooking, the fewer variables the better.

The problem with adding a few lit coals at a time is that you have to watch the cooker like a bachelor at a beauty pageant, and when you see the temp sliding down, light a dozen or soal coals, wait for them to ash over, and then add them. In all liklihood, you'll need to do it all again within the hour.

You can add unlit coals, but they produce a lot of smoke and they build in temp as they ignite, raising the temp in the cooking area. You will probably need to throttle back on the intake as the coals become fully engaged.

Every cooker design is different so you need to master your tool by practicing and you need to calibrate it by doing dry runs without food and record the temps from a digital thermometer on a cooking log.

This page was revised on 7/27/2012


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Please use the table of contents or the search box at the top of every page before you ask for help. Then please post your question on the appropriate page. Please tell us everything we need to know to answer your question such as the type of cooker and thermometer you are using. Dial thermometers are often off by as much as 50°F so if you are not using a good digital thermometer we can't help you. Please read this article about thermometers.

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About this website. AmazingRibs.com is all about the science of barbecue, grilling, and outdoor cooking, with great BBQ recipes, tips on technique, and unbiased equipment reviews. Learn how to set up your grills and smokers properly, the thermodynamics of what happens when heat hits meat, as well as hundreds of excellent tested recipes including all the classics: Baby back ribs, spareribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, burgers, chicken, smoked turkey, lamb, steaks, barbecue sauces, rubs, and side dishes, with the world's best buying guide to barbecue smokers, grills, and accessories, edited by Meathead.

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