I have owned a Kamado Joe for 5 years, and it's still my favorite grill to cook on.
That's coming from someone who usually has around 6-8 grills at my house that I use for testing. I've used them all - pellet, ceramic, gas, infrared... and Ring of Fire offers more grills brands than any store in metro NY, so I've had plenty of choices. Yet, when asked about my favorite, I still go back to the Kamado Joe.
That said, the Joe (and other kamado style grills like the Primo, Blaze and BGE) have the steepest learning curve. Unlike their pellet counterparts whose temperature is controlled thermostatically, ie. like an oven, the Joe and its ceramic brethren require the owner to literally take a hands-on approach to managing its fire.
It took me awhile to master the Joe's temperature management, and I left plenty of pieces of charred meat in my wake (note - when I took my first Joe home I had never used a charcoal grill, let alone a kamado). Working the air dampers was unnatural to me, especially after leaning on the ease of a gas grill for my entire adult grilling life.
But what I did is take fastidious notes on the best ways to quickly overcome the inevitable hurdles that will come your way when using a kamado, or really any charcoal grill. I offer my findings to you and hope that it will pave the way for a journey of kamado mastery, and limit the amount of carbonized chicken breasts, hamburgers and steak that heads your way!
Kamado Joe Tip #1 - Buy a Looftlighter
This tip has nothing to do with mastering your temperature management. This is all about lighting a fire quickly. One of the reasons people don't buy charcoal grills is that they are impatient with the perceived start-up times. Charcoal does take longer to ignite, but I have a way to expedite the fire in your Joe:
Buy the Looftlighter. This is a European product that is regarded as the industry standard for igniting wood in fireplaces, fire pits or grills. The hand held lighter blows concentrated hot air in a stream and within minutes you will see your charcoal sparking. I usually have a full bed of lump coal lit in about 5-7 minutes. We carry the Looftlighter at Ring of Fire (online pricing is $79.95) so if you don't own one, call or email us and we'll reserve one for you. And don't be fooled by the copycats. Nothing works like a Looft. Ask Kamado Joe - they had a copy cat product for a few years called a "Joe Blow" which did not get the job done (mine started to melt). Kamado Joe discontinued it last year. Buy the Looft, you won't be sorry.
Kamado Joe Tip #2 - Apply the Brakes
"Applying the brakes" is my term for slowing the rising temperature of your Joe and easing into your final cooking temp. This is a critical aspect of using your Joe because if you overshoot your temperature goal, it will take up to an hour to bring the temperature down. So let's say you are cooking a turkey and you want a grill temp of 325F. In my opinion, you will need to start closing the top and bottom dampers, thus depriving the charcoal of oxygen, at around 250-275F. Trust me, I have suffered overshot temperatures too many times and if you do not start applying the brakes, you will soon see the grill approaching 400F and as stated you will be working for up to an hour to get the temp lowered. End result - a completely screwed up cooking time.
Kamado Joe Tip #3 - Clean Your Joe
Aside from practicing good grill hygiene, regularly cleaning your Joe will absolutely improve the performance of the grill. Since I cook all year, I try to perform a high heat burn-in quarterly. A high heat burn is simply loading up with charcoal and letting the air dampers stay wide open. Let the grill burn (you'll probably hit 700F+) for about 30-45 minutes, then shut down the dampers and let the fire die. After the grill has cooled off I would vacuum out the ashes. This is especially useful if you start to see mold develop inside the grill which could happen with excessive rain hitting the grill when it's dampers are shut. The moisture has nowhere to go and will lead to mold, but simply let that fire rip and you will be rid of it.
I also recommend cleaning out your Joe with a shop vac from time to time. You want to keep it as ash free as possible, particularly in the air holes. The key to crisp, even cooks is proper air flow, and if there is excessive ash or charcoal residue blocking airways, it will impeded the evenness of the cook.
Kamado Joe Tip #4 - Use Good Fuel
When I first took my Kamado Joe home, I didn't have much KJ charcoal on hand so I went to the local supermarket and picked up Royal Oak lump coal for about $12 per bag. I eventually learned that you get what you pay for. The supermarket lump charcoal is very sooty, does not burn clean (meaning it creates more of a grey ashen smoke then the clear blue smoke that BBQers strive for), and does not burn for extended periods. Ring of Fire currently carries Kamado Joe Big Block charcoal as well as Wicked Good's Weekend Warrior and Fogo's brown and black bags. These charcoal products do not have much ash in the bag and burn hot and for incredibly long periods of time which you will need for your long (brisket!) cooks. Yes, the bags are more expensive but since it lasts longer you'll end up using less in your cooks so the $$'s even out.
I hope these tips help elevate your grill game. Unfortunately I had to learn the hard way, so maybe following these will save you from the pain (and lost meat) that I endured.
If you have any questions about these tips please email me or call ROF at 914-361-1837.
Thank you and enjoy your Kamado Joe!!!
- Senor Smoke