Discover the best ways to grill and smoke using Kingsford® Charcoal. Today we’ll walk you through how much charcoal you should be using to achieve the right grilling temperature, plus details on different techniques for different types of food.

How much charcoal should I use?

The answer to this lies in what you’re cooking, how much you’re cooking and how hot you want the grill.

If you need high heat, you’ll want a full chimney. If you want lower heat, then there’s no need to fill the chimney all the way and wait for the heat of all those coals to dissipate. The numbers below are based on the capacity of a standard charcoal chimney, available at most hardware stores, which holds about 100 briquets.

  • High heat 450°F to 550°F — 1 full Chimney

  • Medium heat 350°F to 450°F — 1/2 Chimney

  • Low heat 250°F to 350°F — 1/4 Chimney

Keep in mind, maximum temperature and the length of the cook depend on how you spread out the coals. If you spread the lit coals in a thin layer across a larger area, temperatures will be lower and the heat will dissipate faster. If your layer is deeper and the coals are more concentrated, temperatures will be higher and stay hot longer.


Exactly how hot are the coals?


The most accurate way to gauge temperature is with a thermometer. However, if your cooker doesn’t have one built in, you can use the hand test. Simply hold the palm of your hand about 5 to 6 inches above the grill grate. Leave it there until you have to pull it away. The number of seconds you can keep your hand there gives you an indication of how hot the coals are at the grate.

  • High heat 450°F to 550°F — 2 to 4 seconds

  • Medium heat 350°F to 450°F — 5 to 6 seconds

  • Low heat 250°F to 350°F — 8 to 10 seconds


What is the best way to arrange the coals for cooking?


The answer depends on what you’re cooking. See below for basic and more advanced configurations.

High heat: 450°F to 550°F
Charcoal needed: 1 whole chimney, about 100 briquets

Direct-Heat Grilling

Coals are spread out in a single layer across the bottom cooking grate. Ideal for high-heat cooking and thin cuts of meat. Unless you absolutely need the entire grill space, it’s still best to leave a void zone.

 

Step 1. Light the coals

Light your coals using any of the lighting methods mentioned here. For high heat, use a full chimney of charcoal or light a pile of about 4 lb of briquets.

Step 2. Spread out the coals in an even layer

Once lit, use tongs or a large spatula to spread out the coals evenly across the surface of the lower grill grate. Unless cooking space is at a premium, it’s always best to leave at least a small area with no coals to manage flare-ups and provide a cool zone.

Step 3. Start cooking only when the coals reach the right temperature

High-heat cooking is best at the 450°F to 550°F range, which means you’re able to hold your hand about five inches above the cooking grate for two to four seconds. If you can’t keep your hand there for at least two seconds, it’s too soon to cook. Be patient, sip a tasty beverage, and wait for a few minutes before you cook.

High heat: 450°F to 550°F
Medium heat: 350°F to 450°F
Charcoal needed: ½ to 1 whole chimney, about 50–100 briquets

The Two-Zone Method

Your go-to configuration for almost everything. With a two-zone fire your coals are spread out over half the grill, leaving the other half empty. This gives you all the advantages of direct heat for searing and the flexibility of indirect heat for cooking slowly or managing flare-ups. Ideal for steaks, chops, bone-in and boneless chicken cuts, and seafood.

 

Step 1. Light the coals

Light your coals using any of the lighting methods mentioned here. For high heat, use a full chimney of charcoal or light a pile of about 4 lb of briquets.

Step 2. Spread out coals on one side of the grill

Pour out your hot coals on one side or use a spatula or tongs to carefully move all the coals to cover half of the lower grill grate.

Step 3. Leave the other side of the grill coal free

This void space, free of coals directly underneath the grates, is still hot. Food will cook there — just not as fast as on the direct side, right above the coals.

Step 4. Cook your food in the appropriate zone

Use the hot side of your grill for direct cooking with high heat — for example, searing a steak to get good color, caramelization and grill marks. Use the other side for slow, indirect cooking and to let foods cook through after searing. The coal-free side also serves as a flame-free zone. In case of flare-ups, just move your food to the indirect side until the flames subside, then move them back to the direct side to finish cooking.


Smoking & slow roasting methods


Low heat: 225°F to 250°F
Charcoal needed: Fill your charcoal bed with unlit coals, and add only a few lit coals to start the process.

Smoking

Smoking is a low and slow cooking method where meats are cooked over indirect heat at low temperatures for hours at a time. Hardwood chunks or chips of wood soaked in water are added to lend smoke aromas and flavors to the meats. There are several different types of smokers available, but all use indirect heat.

Read more about smoking techniques.

Low heat: 250°F to 350°F
Charcoal needed: 1 whole chimney to start, about 100 briquets. Additional coals later.

Two-zone fire: parallel configuration

Coals spread along either side of the grill, with an empty space down the center. Ideal for smoking and low-temperature cooking of larger roasts, whole chickens and turkeys.

Read more about the parallel configuration.

Low heat: 225°F to 250°F
Charcoal needed: 100 unlit coals, six to eight lit coals to start the snake. Additional coals later.

The charcoal snake

Unlit coals and smoke wood are arranged in a circle around the inside edge of your grill. A few lit coals are added to one end of the snake, which burns slowly over several hours.

Read more about the charcoal snake.