GUSTO TEMPERATURE CONTROL
Much has been written about the inherent reliability and controllability of kamado-style barbeques. Pitmasters wax lyrical about the air vents; TV chefs sing their praises about practicality and ease-of-use. So you buy one… and it doesn’t quite perform as expected. What’s wrong, and how can it be sorted?
Remember the basics
It’s easy to sink into the detail without seeing the big picture: A kamado barbeque is a clay oven with a fire in it, and fire is unpredictable. That’s the appeal! Mastering your fire is a key component of the kamado barbeque experience, and everyone develops their own their own tricks and techniques along the way. Experiment and enjoy. After all, enjoyment is what you bought it for.
HOW TO GET YOUT KAMADO REALLY HOT
Occasionally we’re asked how to really crank the heat on the Gusto. As with any kamado style barbeque, there are many variables affecting temperature, so let’s run through the main ones. Before we get started, we’re obliged to mention the basics: both vents should be wide open, and you should have plenty of charcoal in the grill.
Ash can stifle your fire
It’s well known that you need to clear the ash out your kamado regularly, but this is still one of the biggest constraints to attaining a high heat. High temperature in a kamado is limited primarily by airflow, so anything you can do to maximise the airflow will help. Before lighting:
– Stir any leftover charcoal to shake off loose ash
– Ensure ventilation holes around and under the charcoal are clear of ash or blockages
– Thoroughly clear the ash out the base using the ash tool
Check fire-ring alignment
The lower ceramic fire ring has a cutout to allow airflow under the centre of the fire. Ensure this is properly aligned with the lower vent – even if it’s slightly out of line it will start restricting the airflow.
Use good quality charcoal
You’ll see this repeated everywhere, and for good reason. It’s worth buying good charcoal. We recommend purchasing restaurant-grade lumpwood charcoal from a reputable brand. Some lumpwood burns hotter than others, and everyone has their favourite. But whatever you get it will perform better than cheap charcoal or briquettes. (We advise against using briquettes – whilst it’s quite safe to do so, briquettes generally burn longer and cooler, and produce more ash.)
Keep the lid open longer after lighting
When lighting for a high temperature cook, make sure the charcoal is really blazing hot before closing the lid. And if you’re cooking steaks, don’t be afraid of opening the lid frequently – the extra oxygen may make your grill hotter, not cooler (see the point below). When using your grill in this manner, be aware of ‘backdraft’ – unburnt gases in the barbeque suddenly igniting when oxygen is let in, potentially burning you. Always open your lid a couple of inches slowly then hold it for a few seconds before fully opening. This is called ‘burping’, and allows oxygen in slowly to burn off or dissipate the unburnt gases.
The lid thermometer doesn’t tell the whole story
The thermometer tells you the air temperature in the lid. For indirect cooking this is all you need, but for direct cooking it isn’t quite as simple. For example, there are 3 ways the fire cooks a steak:
• The hot air flowing around the steak
• Radiant heat (IR) from the fire – (like a heat lamp, you can feel the warmth even if the air temperature is cold)
• Conducted heat from the steel grate
The lid thermometer doesn’t account for radiant or conductive heat. If you are searing a batch of steaks the air temperature will cycle dramatically as you open and close the lid, making it hard to get a reliable reading. But as long as you keep your coals blazing hot, you’ll have enough power to sear your steaks. Opening the lid may even increase your cooking ‘power’, as it allows much more oxygen to reach the fire, making it burn hotter. Not sure how hot your coals are? Hold your hand a few inches above the grill. If you can’t keep it there more than a couple of seconds, you grill is ready for searing. If you lose all the hair on your forearm, you should probably be wearing a glove.
The temperature drops when I put food on
We’ve all seen this. You put a lot of food on the grill and wait for the temperature to climb back up, but it doesn’t get as high as it was before. This is normal, and occurs in any cooking appliance, such as your indoor oven or deep fat fryer. Food contains a lot of moisture, and to cook the food, some of that moisture needs evaporating. Converting liquid water to water vapour requires a lot of energy, hence the dip in temperature.
Your Gusto will operate just fine whatever the weather, but some weather conditions may affect its performance. The one you’re most likely to encounter is strong wind – a steady breeze blowing into the lower air vent can have a ‘bellows’ effect – where a blacksmith forces air through hot coals to make them hotter. If your kamado is running at a high temperature, this effect may cause the barbeque to overheat.
Some experienced kamado grillers like Sid add some slivers of wood to their charcoal to increase the heat of their grill. Whilst this works well, most grill manufacturers (including us) strongly advise against it – there’s a risk the heat may crack the ceramic.
HOW TO RUN YOUR KAMADO LOW & SLOW
Few things are more frustrating than firing up your barbeque for a long and slow smoke, and it refuses to dip below 150°C. The good news is this is easily avoidable.
Start it small, then shut the lid
Kamado barbeques have excellent heat retention. If you let your fire get too big when lighting your grill, it is very difficult to slow it again without putting the fire out. The trick is never to let it get big in the first place:
- For a long cook, use a lot of charcoal (see point below)
- Light your fire towards the edge of your charcoal
- Allow a small fire* to gain hold, then shut the lid, and set the vents to about 1/3 open**
- Wait 10 – 30 minutes to see what the temperature levels off at. Adjust the vents accordingly. Once the correct temperature is gained it will hold steady for hours with minimal intervention.
*How small is small? You don’t need to be able to see flames, but if you can see a glow or a whitening of several lumps of charcoal and feel a steady column of heat, that should be enough.
**If the barbeque isn’t getting up to temperature try temporarily opening the top vent fully to clear the smoke, or opening the lid for 5 minutes to get the fire a little larger.
Amount of charcoal
If you’re trying to get your barbeque searing hot, you need a lot of charcoal. If you’re trying to run it low & slow, you also need a lot of charcoal. It seems counterintuitive, but if you’re running your barbeque for hours, it needs a lot of fuel to keep it burning. You don’t want to be replenishing it halfway through, especially as you’re likely to have both heat deflectors in place, limiting your access to the fire. Note that you do not need all the charcoal to be lit when lighting your barbeque, see the point above.
Don’t adjust vents after opening the lid
Opening the lid during cooking will make the temperature swing, at first too cool, then sometimes too hot. It can be very tempting to adjust the vents to correct this, but be patient. Give the barbeque 20 minutes and it will likely settle back to the same temperature as before, with no adjustment needed.
What can I do if it’s already too hot?
It’s very tricky to get the temperature of your kamado barbeque down if it’s already too hot – its heat retention is remarkable. The only safe way to cool it down is to close the vents down. On occasion I’ve even had to close them completely for a period of time to stifle the fire. The aim is to put most of the fire out, without putting it all out (see point above – not all the charcoal should be alight). Note that if you do close the vents completely, you may create backdraft conditions in the barbeque, so be careful to ‘burp’ it on opening (open it a couple of inches then hold it to allow oxygen in slowly – see ‘Keep the lid open longer…’ up the page).
Environmental factors may well affect the performance of your grill. Contrary to what you might think, air temperature makes very little difference to performance, but wind can make a big difference. If the wind is blowing directly into your bottom vent, it can have a ‘bellows’ effect, increasing the amount of oxygen getting to the fire. This will increase the temperature.
Crank the heat when you’re done
When you’re finished cooking low and slow, open the vents to increase the temperature and ‘burn off’ your barbeque. Otherwise moisture and fats will remain, and they make perfect conditions for mould to grow. And if you need to start your next grill session low and slow, you won’t be able to crank the heat up then.
It feels like food & fire has done a big circle. From the caveman roasting over his fire, to the electric oven, and slowly back again. We haven’t yet broken out our loin cloths and started hunting with sharpened sticks, but we are starting to appreciate real fire once again, in all its unpredictable imperfection.
The goal is enjoyment, not perfection
Let’s illustrate this using a steak. You can painstakingly sous-vide and reverse-sear your steak until it’s juicy, tender, beautifully crosshatched, and Perfectly Pink™ throughout. Good for you! Or you can, to your guests’ horror, drop your steak straight onto the glowing coals. It won’t ruin it – it’s called cooking ‘dirty’. Will it result in ‘perfectly’ evenly-cooked steak? Not a chance. Will it taste amazing? And some! You’ll get flavours you can’t create any other way. Which steak will your guests remember? Well, people crave experiences, and they remember how those experiences made them feel – dirty cooking is ultimate drama, easy to pull off, and great fun for all involved. Embrace imperfection, and own it.