Always Know Your Surface Temp: Smoker and Grill Dry Runs
Essentially, grills and smokers are the same appliance or device as your indoor oven, but they don’t have a thermostat you can control like a kitchen oven. Smokers and grills aren’t as well-insulated as ovens, so their temps fluctuate broadly, and weather can alter internal temps.
Wind and rain factor in how hot your grill has to get to suitably cook your food, and snow and ice can be devastating. One way to calibrate your cooking device is to put it through a dry run, with no food needed. With smoker and grill dry runs, you never have to guess what your surface temp is.
1. Dry Runs in General
The key to mastering smoker and grill dry runs is controlling the temp so you can hit it precisely every time you fire up your grill or smoker. You have to tailor your technique to the type of grill and fuel you’re using if you want accuracy in temp control and excellence in your grilled or smoked meats.
Much like a science experiment, you make observations, taking notes at each stage. You’ll need a timer and a way to detect the temp, either with a probe thermometer like most modern grills and smokers have, a meat thermometer, or an excellent smoker thermometer.
If you’re a fan of two-zone or indirect grilling, you need to know how to control the temperature inside your grill. Indirect cooking uniformly cooks your meals and won’t burn the closest side to the heat. But to pull off this advanced tactic, you need temp control, and for temp control, you need to do some dry runs.
2. Dry Runs for Gas Grills
To begin, note the number of burners in your grill and if they sit side-to-side or front-to-back. You’ll be moving from one burner to the next, checking each one by changing only one variable at a time.
Working from left front to right rear, only light one burner at a time. Put your thermometer or probe above the burner, at the grill’s surface, and close the lid. When the temp on your readout stops fluctuating, record the temp and how long it took for the temperature in your grill to stabilize.
For each burner, take its temp at three different settings. Many gas grillers advise dry runs so that you can nail 225°F, 325°F, and a super high setting. These three temps provide a slow-and-low bake, a high-temp broil, and an extra-hot searing ability.
You also want to stagger the burners you’re testing so that the previous test doesn’t alter the temperature read-out you take for the next one. If you take a read from the burner on the left-hand side of your gas grill, the next test should be for the burner to the right to avoid contamination.
3. Dry Runs for Charcoal Grills
How hot your charcoal grill gets depends on how much charcoal you use and what kind you prefer. You also need to know how to manipulate the dampers on your charcoal grill.
The intake damper is located near the charcoal, wood, or pellets and fuels them with oxygen from the outside. Opening it floods the fire with oxygen, and the temp will rise. Close it off, and you’ll starve the fire, even if the exhaust damper is fully open.
The exhaust damper is also called the vent, chimney, or flue, and it’s located near the top of the grill. This damper releases combustion gasses like CO and CO2 so they won’t smother the fire. Exhaust dampers also create a lower pressure atmosphere inside your grill or smoker so that oxygen is pulled in through the intake damper to fill it, thereby feeding the fire at the same time.
For every charcoal dry run, use the same brand and same lighting method. Like any scientific experiment, you have to use the same set of conditions for every scenario.
Many prefer a charcoal chimney to get all of the briquettes or lumps burning with the same energy. After about 15 minutes, when the charcoal is covered with fine gray ash, release the charcoal and spread it uniformly across the bed. In a few more minutes, set your thermometer or probe in the center of the grill and close it.
For indirect grilling, put all your lit charcoal onto only one side of your grill, and then, once it stabilizes, take a reading from the other side of the grill to see how hot the indirect heat zone is.
4. Dry Runs for Smokers
If you’re heating your smoker with wood, the wood should be glowing embers before starting your test. As you gain more skill and wisdom, you can eyeball how much wood will keep the interior hot and for how long.
Using the two sets of dampers that you used to modulate temperature on a charcoal grill, open your exhaust damper wide, and choke your intake damper to control the temp down to the degree.
Once you have a nice bed of embers, close the lid with your thermometer or probe inside. When the temperature stabilizes, record what it is and how long it took to get there. You may want to include details like the type of wood and how long your wood smoldered before you took.
5. Finding Hot Spots
There’s an ingenious way to look for hot spots in your grill using toast after you’ve taken a few temps in your smoker and grill dry runs. The first step is to get your grill to uniform heat and let it sit until the temp is stabilized.
Put a piece of bread on each quadrant, all facing the same direction, and close the lid. In 10 minutes, open up your grill or smoker and flip all of the bread. Take a picture of your bread spread, toasted side up.
When you study your photo, you can tell which parts of your grill are hotter than others because the toast above these areas will be a darker brown than the other pieces of bread.
6. Get the Most Out of Your Grill
To get the most out of your grill sessions, you need to know how to calibrate your grill or smoker. Doing dry runs, in which you test each part of your grill, recording the results precisely, will help you control the temp down to half a degree.
Next time you head out for a grill session, remember that the weather will also play a part into your cooker’s duration and temperatures. To achieve the grilling and smoking heights that you dream of, learn to do a few dry runs to calibrate your cooking device to your expectations.