Mastering Grilled Pizza: Charcoal on top of the grate!

October 14, 2013

When done right, nothing beats a live fire grilled pizza.  But as I’ve learned from experience, the key to turning out the perfect pizza is heat, heat and even more heat.  Here’s John from Grilling 24×7 with his latest trial, error and “ah ha” moment…

grilling pizza with a basket of charcoal on top of the grate

I love pizza. I love making the pizza dough and I love making pizza sauce. The whole production, especially cooking it on a pizza stone, makes me happy. However, I haven’t been able to get good results with a pizza stone on a charcoal grill. I have spent a good bit of time grilling pizzas directly on the grate. This method results in a fantastic pizza. The only problem with this is that it doesn’t have the authentic New York style dough consistency. Grilling pizza directly on the grill grate results in a stiff bottom crust that has a crunch when you bite into it. A typical NY style pizza will have a nicely colored crust with an almost floppy bottom. You can probably picture some people bending a pizza into a “U” shape to take a bite. This isn’t really possible on a direct grate grilled pizza unless it is a bit undercooked. 

I’ve been able to make outstanding NY style pizzas in my home oven. My main method is to use a pizza stone and preheat the oven to 550 for about an hour. This gets the stone really hot, which is crucial for authentic NY pizza. The pizza is placed on the stone and during the final few minutes the broiler is turned on to help brown the top of the pizza. This lets the cheese and crust get nicely browned. Perfection.

Well, is it possible to get this type of pizza on a grill? I’ve spent a few years pondering this question and I finally figured it out. There is one main thing to keep in mind: the dome temperature must be equal to or higher than the temperature of the pizza stone. This will result in an evenly cooked pizza.

This is advanced grilling so proceed with caution. Please think about what you are doing here and be careful. This is uncharted territory!

The basic plan is to have a small amount of charcoal placed under the pizza stone and a larger amount of coal placed under the area adjacent to the pizza stone. To really boost the dome temperature and to give the pizza a real direct fire flavor I also propose sitting a basket of charcoal directly on top of the grilling grate next to your stone.

setting up a basket of charcoal on top of the grate for grilled pizza

The first thing to do is to light a full charcoal chimney and let it get hot. Fill a charcoal basket about halfway full of unlit coal. Once the coals get lit and spread out you’ll add a few of them right over top of the unlit coals in the basket. The basket is then placed directly on the grill grate.

Depending on the size of your pizza stone you’ll have an area of the grill that isn’t covered by the stone. This is the area where heat will enter the top of the grill and cook the top of your pizza. The key to using a pizza stone on a charcoal grill is to keep most of the charcoal positioned under this area that is adjacent to the pizza stone. If you load up the charcoal directly under the stone, the stone will be about 800-900 degrees and the dome temperature will register about 350. This will fail. So load up the coal underneath of the area away from the pizza stone, as shown in the photos below.

arrange charcoal to the side below the pizza stone

heating the pizza stone on the grill

My pizza stone is from Red Sky Grilling and it is a rather large pizza stone. When this stone is sitting on the grilling grate it fits perfectly to allow the hinged portion of the grate to be accessible. The grilling grate I have has a nice hinged portion to allow access to the coals below. This grate area obviously isn’t designed to have the Weber charcoal basket sit on top but it sure fits perfectly.

prepping coals in a charcoal basket for grilled pizza

Use long tongs and add some lit coals carefully to the charcoal basket. Place that charcoal basket right up on the grate next to the pizza stone. If you don’t have the hinged grate opening you can still do this by adding lit coals from another grill or a chimney lit at another location. The purpose of adding the unlit coal in the basket is to allow for a longer burn. The basket will be roaring hot later, once the stone is already preheated.

leave the dome open to allow charcoal to start burning

Let the grill sit for about 10-15 minutes with the dome open to let the coals from the charcoal basket fully light and get hot. Think of it this way: the main way for the top of your pizza to get cooked is via this charcoal basket. You want it to get just a bit hotter than the pizza stone. For example, a 400 degree stone and a 450 degree dome temperature would be perfect.

using a laser thermometer to check the temperature

I use a laser thermometer to check the temperature of the pizza stone. When the stone is in the 400-500 range you are  good to go, as long as the dome temperature registers roughly the same or higher.

position the pizza on the pizza stone and rotate to ensure even cooking

Using a pizza peel slide your pizza directly on the stone and let it cook for about 3 minutes. Open the dome and rotate the pizza 180 degrees. This lets the entire pizza get close to the charcoal basket. The pizza needs to be rotated during the cook since the strong heat is coming from one side.

a dome temperature of 460 results in the best grilled pizza

My dome temperature here was about 460 degrees, which seemed to make the best pizza of the night.

check the bottom of the crust to prevent burning

After another 3 minutes take a look at the pizza. If it is nicely browned you are finished. If there is an area that doesn’t look completely cooked rotate it towards the charcoal basket. After another 2 minutes it will probably be done. Carefully look under the pizza too; you don’t want the bottom to burn.

This method really worked well for my charcoal grill pizza stone set up. Bringing the charcoal basket up top to the grill grate put enough heat into the top dome of the grill to evenly cook the top of the pizza while the pizza stone cooked the bottom. I wasn’t able to get any photos of the bottom of these grilled pizzas but know this: they were not burned or black on the bottom. The photos show a little black char on the edges but this was the result of being real close to the fully lit charcoal basket. The bottom of the pie was nicely cooked. 

If you have a smaller circular pizza stone this method will work well too. A smaller stone will result in the ability to get even more heat to the top of the grill. Just try to position the charcoal basket on top of the grate next to your stone.

pizza finishing on the grill

If you want a good pizza dough recipe check out this 14 inch New York style pizza dough recipe at Pizza Pie 24×7.

Disclaimer: I was sent a pizza stone from Red Sky Grilling to test out. This is a great company and sells a high quality product. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the stone to work according to their instructions. I’m not sure what went wrong. I’ve seen their videos and their instructions are clear, but I couldn’t get the top of the pizza to cook as quickly as the bottom. That said, after two years of stewing over this issue I have finally figured out a way to make my Weber charcoal grill a highly efficient pizza oven by using the above method. 

Safety notice: Most people aren’t used to positioning coals on top of a grilling grate. In fact a quick google search and I couldn’t find anyone that has ever tried this. So please be careful. You are using hot flaming coals and moving them to an area where they usually don’t go! So keep a fire extinguisher near your grill and use your head.







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