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Secret of the Grill Masters: Heat Control

Process | Tools | Methods of Determining Doneness | Internal Temperatures | Ventilation

Nothing kick-starts spring like a big, thick, dry-aged steak cooked with smoke and flame on your own grill, in your very own backyard—filling the air with the most amazing, one-of-a-kind aroma, and slaking your hunger with mouthwatering perfection.

Imagine your first bite of your first grilled steak of the season—the crunch of the crust that miraculous mélange of caramelized steak juices and simple seasoning—the cascading bursts of flavor and seductively tender texture that captivate all of your senses when you finally taste the beef.

Now, are you saying to yourself: "That doesn't sound like the steaks I grill." Or, "Oh come on, you can only get a steak like that in a steakhouse." Or, "Crust? What crust?"

If so, gather 'round. You need the inside skinny on heat.

In a real sense, heat is as much an agent of flavor as salt or pepper. Without it, you cannot sear properly to get the crispy crust you love to crunch—on your steak's exterior or anything else you grill.

When you master your control of heat, you will be master of your grill. Here's how.

How Hot is Hot?

"How many minutes should I grill ______?" Honestly, there's just no absolute answer to that question because several variables are at play, including:

  • Desired degree of doneness, i.e. internal temperature
  • Grilling/heat method
  • Heat temperature
  • Thickness, size, and temperature of meat
  • Your opinion/preference and miscellaneous factors (such as the weather)

"How do I know when it's done?" Now, that question is easier to answer.

It's "done" when whatever you're cooking reaches the internal temperature you desire. Ask any group of people "How do you like your ____ cooked?" and you are bound to get answers ranging from rare to well-done.

In the list of variables above, the only elements that can be measured objectively and consistently relate to heat and temperature.

Consequently, regardless of their source, grids and charts for grilling times are approximations at best.

The way to narrow the variables and improve the consistency of your results is to grill to a certain internal temperature, rather than for a specific length of time.


To get comfortable with high-heat grilling, start with the Lobel's Guide to Cooking the Perfect Steak. It's all there in one place—everything you need to know about the preparation and process. In general, the principles of this two-stage method can be adapted for use with just about any meat or poultry you grill.

Abundant information is available in the Lobel family's newest book: Prime Time Grilling.

Steaks of less than 1 inch in thickness are best grilled—over direct medium-high to high heat.

Thicker steaks are best grilled with a two-stage method of searing on high direct heat for 2 to 4 minutes and then finishing on medium-high indirect heat.

The timing grid associated with Lobel's Guide to Cooking the Perfect Steak shows estimated total cooking times, including two-stage cooking (searing and finishing).


Controlling heat means managing two different temperatures and requires two types of thermometers for the highest accuracy.

Grill Thermometer

A thermometer that fits into your grill's hood, lid, or cover. This type will tell you the running temperature of your grill. Some grill thermometers have the following ranges printed on their dials:

  • Smoking: 150–250°F
  • Barbecuing: 250–350°F
  • Grilling: 350–450°F

Above that (500–800°F), you're at searing temperatures. (Restaurant grills can reach running temperatures of up to 1,500°F.)

Instant-Read Thermometer

A digital instant-read thermometer is the fastest—it tells you the internal temperature of whatever you're grilling in seconds.

Rules of the road:

  • Don't poke too soon, or you'll lose precious juices.
  • Take your first reading after about 80% of your estimated cooking time has elapsed.
  • For the best readings: Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, well away from any bone.


For charcoal and wood fires, nothing stokes up a pokey fire better than a good, old-fashioned set of bellows. The pointed nozzle lets you direct high-speed airflow with almost pinpoint precision.

Spray Bottle

Keep a spray bottle of water handy for controlling flare-ups and for calming a raging inferno, particularly with a charcoal or wood fire.

Hands-On Methods

Running Temperature

If you don't have a grill thermometer, you can get a good idea of your running temperature with the hands-on method: Carefully hold the palm of your hand about the level of your grill grid and count (1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, etc.) until you have to remove your hand without burning it.

Count Of Intensity of Heat Cooking Method
2 High Grilling/Searing
3 Medium-High Grilling
4 Medium Barbecuing
5 Medium-Low Smoking/Barbecuing
6 Low Smoking

Here are a couple of examples of how to apply this grid:

  • Searing heat gives your steak a great crust.
  • Burgers are best grilled.
  • Low-and-slow heat gives you great smoked and pulled pork.


If you find yourself sans instant-read thermometer, there are myriad and often colorful methods for determining doneness of a steak, burger, or chop using various parts of your body.

The most common is to press lightly on the surface of your steak or whatever you're cooking—you're looking for resilience or springiness. Then, compare this to the resilience felt in the muscle between your thumb and index finger when you lightly touch your thumb to the tip of your:

  • Index finger for rare
  • Middle finger for medium-rare
  • Ring finger for medium
  • Pinky for well

The great Auguste Escoffier preferred touching his:

  • Ear lobe for rare
  • Cheek for medium-rare
  • Side of nose for medium
  • Tip of nose for well

Set Your Goal

What's your preferred doneness? Rare? Medium? Know the equivalent internal temperature and you have a target and a plan.

Here are internal doneness temperatures:

Type of Meat Desired Degree of Doneness Internal Temperature
Beef or Veal Rare 120–130°F
Medium-Rare 130–140°F
Medium 140–150°F
Well Done 150–160°F
Lamb Rare 140°F
Medium 150°F
Well Done 160°F
Pork 160°F
Cook until thermometer registers 150-155°F and let the meat rest for 5 to 10 minutes. The internal temperature will rise to 160°F but the meat will not be overcooked.
Poultry 170°F for white meat
180°F for dark meat


Air flow is a particular consideration when cooking with charcoal and wood.

  • Practice balancing the top and bottom ventilation controls in conjunction with your grill thermometer.
  • The more open they are, the more air flow you'll get, and the hotter the fire will be.
  • The less open, the more smoky flavor.
  • Flames are okay when you're searing. Your spray bottle and the grill's lid are the best means for controlling flames.

We hope these tips and advice help you get the most out of your grill to give you peak dining experience every time you cook outside.