How Far Should Coals Be From the Grill?

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Are you second guessing your coals placement on the grill? You are not alone.

Your coals should be at least 4-inches away from the grill, but its gets more complicated than that. So, following the guidance below, let’s make sure we get this right.

Today’s post is probably more for the newcomers to the grilling community, but maybe some of us old-timers could do with a refresher course too.

That’s because today I’m going to be talking about something that basically comes from the grilling 101 handbook for newbies.

However, it’s still something I see people get wrong time and time again. I’m talking, of course, about how far coals should be from a grill.

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It might not seem like an important issue to the novices out there, but actually it can be the difference between overcooking, undercooking, or cooking your food to perfection.

That’s because the distance between your grill and your coals is an integral part of grilling that can change many different things about your cook.

But don’t worry if none of this means anything to you yet, because by the end of my post today, it will do. Ready to find out more? Then meet me below!

The Importance Of The Distance Between Coals And Your Grill

The distance between your coals and your grill can be the difference between cooking your meat perfectly, or ending up in a charred, overdone OR raw, underdone mess.

That’s because really what we’re talking about today is the way you manage heat.

With coals in a standard grill, lots of people mistakenly believe they don’t have any control over the heat – that the coals will simply burn as they burn and cooking your meat perfectly is just about keeping an eye on it and taking it off when it looks done.

And yes, there’s an element of that to it, but it isn’t ALL there is to it…

To manage heat whilst cooking on a standard gas grill, you’d typically turn the burners up or down to control the amount of gas flowing to the burners, which would then either make the flames bigger and hotter, or smaller and less ferocious.

That’s why a lot of people opt for gas grills now.

But there’s still a good number of people who opt for traditional coal grills because there’s nothing quite like cooking over flames in that way.

Unfortunately, you don’t have the same control as you do with gas grills because you can’t just turn a dial and kill the flames or turn it the other way and make them bigger.

Instead, the only control you have is in where you place the coals.

Generally, the closer your coals are to the grilling surface, the more direct heat there is, and the further away the coals from the grilling surface, the more indirect the heat is.

But why does that matter? And what do you use the different cooking styles for?

Direct Heat Cooking

Direct heat cooking is when the coals are closer to the grill. Typically, the gap is around 4 inches, meaning the flames produced by burning the coals literally kiss the meat.

This is the best style of cooking for things like hamburgers, which are thin and need to be cooked relatively quickly, or else they’ll end up burning.

Having the coals around 4 inches from the grilling surface will mean that the meat is cooked much quicker and at a much higher heat.

You’ll also get a much stronger char-grilled, flame grilled type taste to the finished meat, which lots of people love.

So what is indirect heat for then?

Indirect Heat Cooking

Indirect heat cooking is when the coals are further away from the grilling surface.

The gap is typically much more than 4 inches, usually around double that at around 8 inches or so, but really it depends on how good the flames are burning.

If they’ve got a lot of oxygen, they’ll typically burn a lot higher, so you’ll need to judge for yourself whether your coals are too high for indirect heat cooking.

This is the best style of cooking for meats that need to be cooked low ‘n’ slow. Things like whole chickens, or thicker cuts of steak.

The indirect heat is great for allowing your meat to cook slower, making the resulting meat much more tender, but without that flame grilled flavor we know and love from cooking over direct heat – or at least, less of it.

Using Them Both Together

I just want to make it clear that this isn’t an ‘either/or’ situation here. You can start with indirect heat cooking for a joint of pork, for example, allowing it to cook low ‘n’ slow for a few hours.

After the meat is nearly finished, you can then stack more coals to opt for a direct heat style of cooking to caramelize the meat and get the best flame grilled flavor from it you can.

It’s important you know that, because that’s what today’s post is all about – knowing how the height of your coals impacts on the food you cook, but also knowing you can mix and match that for the best results.

Heck, you can even use both methods at the same time…

Stacking Your Coals For Both Methods

Some grilling enthusiasts (myself included) are very lazy people. Rather than setting up a coal grill twice, they’d rather just have both methods readily available to them, and here’s what to do:

  • Take your coals and split them into two piles
  • On the far left, stack them so the coals are around 4 inches from the grilling surface – this is your area of direct heat
  • On the far right, stack the coals so they are around 8 inches or so from the grilling surface – this is your area of indirect heat
  • In the middle is no-man’s-land, where you can leave food to stay warm, but it won’t really continue cooking besides the residual heat from the rest of the grill

This is the best coal arrangement for those of you who want the control of a gas grill with burners, but with the delicious rustic flavor of food cooked over coal flames!

Take-Home Message

Knowing the relationship between coal placement and heat is really important if you want to master cooking on a coal grill.

However, don’t just think this applies to the newbies. If you’ve been cooking over coal for a while, you can easily fall into some bad habits, so I’d definitely advise everybody to play around with coal placement so you get more confident with what works for you and your cooking style.

Once you do, you’ll be serving up perfect barbecued food time and time again!