I remember when I first saw my Kamado, I got this “oh crap, what now” feeling. Gas grills were turn it on, turn it up, you’re done. This in comparison seemed like some sort of 600 pound, brain teasing, sci-fi space pod that might require NASA training to use.
I’ve noticed in the Blue State BBQ search logs that I’m not the only one who gets that feeling. “How to use a Kamado” is fairly common question.
Well, relax. A Kamado is actually really easy. And believe it or not, you’re way less likely to ruin your food.
How a Kamado works – It’s all about oxygen
The Kamado is a simple machine. Air flows in through the bottom, over the coals, and out the top. The more air the coals get, the hotter they become. But starve the coals of oxygen, and they cool down and burn for a very, very long time.
So, using a Kamado is really just about managing the amount of air flow, and it’s easy. There’s a vent at the bottom. There’s another vent (or ‘damper’) at the top. You either open the vents a lot for hot, or just a sliver for a slow cook.
Every other option is just steps in-between. And you can generally get the Kamado to within a few degrees of any target temperature. (By the way, did you remember to buy a thermometer from Kamado?)
Oh, and when you’re done cooking, close both vents entirely. This cuts off all the oxygen, and in a short while, your fire is kaput.
What to do when you first get your Kamado
The first thing you need to do is buy some quality lump charcoal, start a low heat fire, and cure the cooking chamber. I remember hearing that and thinking, oh great, what a pain. I never had to cure a gas grill!
So, let me say this differently. The first thing you need to do when you get your Kamado is buy some quality lump charcoal, and slow cook a delicious pork butt. Doesn’t that sound better?
Curing just means you need a slow, cool burn in the Kamado for about 24 hours to prep the clay for a long, healthy life. That doesn’t mean you can’t cook a pork shoulder on the grill while doing so. So follow the instructions here – but make sure you keep the temperature at 200 degrees, and not hotter. Do that, and ta-da, your Kamado is cured.
Lighting the grill
Open up your bottom vent widely. Open the damper widely. You want maximum air flow.
Take your lump charcoal and make a pile on one side of the grill basin. There aren’t that many recipes that require direct heat. More times than not, piling your coals on one side of the grill allows you to put your food on the other side, and avoid direct heat.
You don’t need a basin full of charcoal. Usually a shoe-box sized pile is plenty. If I’m doing a really long cook, or per the above, curing the grill, you’ll definitely need more than that. I’m just saying, don’t feel like you have to ‘fill up’ your Kamado with charcoal. A modest sized pile is sufficient for most recipes.
This is a snip from my post about Charcoal on how to light the fire:
The way it lights: Not with a single match, to which I respond, so what? Lump charcoal is easy to light with a little help from sawdust bricks (e.g. Duraflame Firestart), which you can get at almost any grocery store these days. These bricks are hunks of sawdust held together by a flammable wax, and are more eco-friendly than lighter fluid. Tear 2 or 3 pieces off, place them strategically in your pile of charcoal, and sure, with a single match, you can light them. You’ll have a hot fire in about 30 minutes. In a hurry? Tear off 5 or 6 pieces instead. Two weeks ago, I cooked chicken wings at 450 degrees, and I was able to get the grill to that temperature in about 15 minutes. No gas, no lighter fluid, and no loathsome briquettes.
While the coals are trying to get hot, go ahead and leave the lid of the Kamado completely open. You want as much air helping the process as much as possible. But then close the lid for a good 3 to 5 minutes to check your temperature.
Getting the Temperature you want
The first tip here is to get the coals hotter than you need them to be, then cool them down.
So, for example, if you’re going to slow cook a pork butt at 200 degrees, get your Kamado up to about 300 (by allowing plenty of air flow), then close the top and bottom vents to where they’re practically sealed shut and watch the temperature drop. Only the slightest amount of air needs to trickle through for a 200 degree cook.
How open or closed your vents need to be will depend a lot on the charcoal you’re using. That’s why I recommend finding a brand of lump you like, then sticking with it, so you don’t have to re-learn how to adjust your air flow every time.
The second tip is one someone first told me when I got my grill. The bottom vent tends to adjust temperatures by 10 degrees or more with each slight adjustment, whereas the damper on top tends to adjust temperatures by 5 degrees or less with each turn.
I’m not sure, to be perfectly honest. But the tip does make a good point: The bottom vent makes big changes happen, top vent makes smaller changes happen. So, first use the bottom vent to get close to your temperature, then the damper on top to get it to just where you want it.
There’s not a lot to say here, other than keep the lid closed as much as possible, unless you’re instructed to do otherwise. The biggest benefit of the Kamado is that the tight temperature control, plus the kiln-like atmosphere keeps the moisture in your food, and prevents unwanted flare ups. Every time you open the lid, you chip away a little at that benefit. So, keep it closed unless you’ve got work to do.
Not much to know beyond using common sense. But, one very important tip:
ALWAYS open your Kamado lid SLOWLY. Especially with hot cooks. Remember, cooking with the Kamado is essentially an exercise in oxygen starvation. So, when you open that lid, there’s a risk of a bunch of hungry hot coals flaring up. WHOOSH! A fire eruption that can burn your eyebrows off.
By opening the lid slowly, religiously, you will never have that problem.
The good news is that the efficient burns in a Kamado, in combination with quality lump charcoal, you’re not going to generate nearly as much ash as a kettle grill. You’ll be surprised how infrequently you need to remove ashes, if you use quality charcoal. The bad news, there is ash, it does pile up and that restricts air flow. So, eventually you’ll need to clean it out, and it’s a pain.
You either need to get the ash out through the lower vent, which requires a skinny trowel and a lot of patience. Or, you need to get the ash out through the basin, which means you have to take out any left over coals, and that’s a dirty, annoying job.
One person tells me they use a shop vac. I haven’t tried that, but it sounds like a nice solution.
So, I had to learn this the hard way. The upper damper is really just like a giant screw. There’s a threaded post that runs into the Kamado lid. Turns out, this bugger needs to be cleaned every now and then, or it will get stuck. Like, you’ll need to remove it with a blow torch stuck (not kidding). So, at least once or twice a summer, you’ll want to unscrew the damper completely, and clean off the threaded peg. I have also started lubricating it, before putting it back.
The outside of the Kamado….
It’s just ceramic tile, so I just use an all purpose kitchen cleaner.
The inside of the cooking chamber….
The chamber does get blackened with soot, and will stay that way. So don’t expect that the cream colored clay you see when you first get the grill is something you’ll ever see again after the first few cooks. However, I sometimes get a little freaked out by some of the grime that builds up.
So every now and then, to clean both the inside and the grill grate, I’ll torch the thing with really high temperatures. After I’m done cooking a meal, instead of closing off the grill, I’ll open the vents completely, and let the Kamado get up to 500 or even 600 degrees, and let it burn with the lid closed until the coals are gone. Anything creepy at 600 degrees for an hour or two seems to disintegrate. I have no idea if this is necessary, but I know it makes me feel better.
One last tip
I didn’t care for the clay air sieve at the bottom of the Kamado basin. I’m referring to the round, clay disc that separates the cooking basin (where you put the coals) and the ash pit below. The Kamado provides this custom fit item, that’s made from clay, and it has a dozen or so holes in it to allow air to pass through.
I found that the air flow was too restrictive, because the holes tended to get clogged with ash or small bits of lump charcoal.
I removed mine, and put in cheap, small, wire grill grate that I bought at the hardware store. I found the traditional grate allows more air to flow up, and more ash to flow down, so my temperatures are more consistent and easy to control.