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Barbecue enthusiasts have long debated the merits of using a charcoal grill over a gas grill, but one fact is nearly accepted by all: charcoal adds flavor to your food that cannot be duplicated by the use of a gas grill. Unfortunately, it is also much more difficult to achieve and maintain high temperatures on a charcoal grill. There are several ways to increase the cooking temperature of your charcoal, including making your own charcoal, briquette arrangement, and temperature control. Keep in mind that charcoal has a maximum attainable temperature, and that once it is reached, it simply won't get any hotter.

Make Your Own Charcoal

Place a steel rack in your 60-gallon steel barrel or drill two holes in each side of the barrel about one-third of the distance from the bottom of the barrel to the top and insert to metal bars to form a rack.

Poke several holes in the side of your 25-gallon steel barrel.

Fill your 25-gallon steel barrel with small pieces of hardwood. Any type of hardwood will work, but keep in mind that the wood you choose will flavor the food you cook, so choose savory woods such as hickory or mesquite if you can.

Replace the lid on your 25-gallon steel barrel and place the barrel on the rack inside the larger steel barrel.

Stack newspaper, tinder, and small pieces of wood underneath the rack in the larger barrel and start your fire.

Add more pieces of wood to the larger barrel so that the fire builds around and over the smaller barrel. Continue to feed the fire for about three hours.

Let the fire die down and allow your barrels to cool over night. Remove the smaller barrel from the larger one, open it, and empty your charcoal into a storage container.

Arrange Your Briquettes

Estimate the amount of briquettes you will need. Generally, the amount of charcoal briquettes it takes to completely cover your cooking grill will be a good amount for your initial pyramid.

Stack your briquettes into a pyramid formation, making sure to leave a little space in the center of the pyramid to ensure airflow.

Evenly coat your briquettes with charcoal lighting fluid and let the fluid soak into the briquettes for at least one minute. Pay special attention to the bottom edges of your pyramid.

Light your briquettes with an electric fire starter or a fireplace match.

Allow charcoal to burn for 2 to 10 minutes, or until each brick forms a thin layer of white ash on its exterior. The time your briquettes take to develop a layer of ash depends largely on the quality of your charcoal.

Spread the briquettes across your grill using tongs.

Pay Attention to Temperature

Read your recipe thoroughly. Most recipes will list recommended temperatures.

Make sure that the thickness of your coals is appropriate to the heat level your are seeking. A thin layer of coals will produce a lower temperature, while a thicker layer of coals will produce a higher temperature.

Identify the current temperature with a thermometer or self check the temperature of your coals by holding your hands roughly 6 inches from the heat source. Count or use a stopwatch to determine how many seconds your hands can remain in their position before the heat becomes uncomfortable.

3 seconds is roughly 500 degrees Fahrenheit or 260 degrees Celsius. 5 seconds is roughly 400 degrees Fahrenheit or 205 degrees Celsius. 7 seconds is roughly 350 degrees Fahrenheit or 175 degrees Celsius. 10 seconds is roughly 325 degrees Fahrenheit or 165 degrees Celsius. 12 seconds is roughly 300 degrees Fahrenheit or 150 degrees Celsius.

Ensure that your charcoal briquettes have proper oxygen for optimum efficiency. Use your grill's vents or leave the lid cracked slightly in order to maintain a high heat for long durations.


The brand of your charcoal briquettes can affect the maximum temperature you can achieve.

Cook your food about 6 inches from the heat source for best results.

Use a thin layer of charcoal for low heat and a thicker layer of charcoal for higher temperatures.

Because homemade charcoal, also know as lump charcoal, lacks the additives included in store bought charcoal briquettes, it will be slightly more difficult to light, it will burn at a higher temperature, and it will burn more quickly.

A charcoal chimney may help to light your briquettes evenly and efficiently.


Always use caution when dealing with charcoal. It heats to between 400 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit and can cause serious burns if handled improperly.

Be careful when lighting your briquettes with charcoal lighter fluid as it can flare unexpectedly when lit.

If you make your own charcoal at home, be sure to let it cool at least overnight before handling it.

Read your grill's manual before using it. It contains valuable information regarding its use and your safety.

About the Author

Cristel Wood

Cristel Wood is a writer specializing in food, photography, gardening and video games. She holds an Associate of Arts from South Puget Sound Community College and has worked for her local Parks & Recreation department, Mt. Baker ski area, Vista Village Retirement Community and has taught ESL in Peru.