How Long Does Charcoal Last?
By: Jack Mancuso
You’re getting ready for a cookout and want to use charcoal this time. If you have a gas grill, you’ve probably gotten the feel for when the propane runs out. Let’s face it. Who wants to run out for propane in the middle of a fantastic barbecue session making carefully treated Tri-Tip. (for example)?
Probable Burn Time
The good news is that charcoal has some predictability (unless it’s cold, damp, or windy). It doesn’t matter if you’re direct grilling a bacon weave, heating up a rotisserie, or searing a steak, most charcoal products (lump style) last about 2-3 hours. If you buy briquettes, it’s 4-5 hours depending on the quality of the raw materials. When the charcoal has additives, it can lessen your burn time.
Feeling creative and twirling your tongues? Mix lump with briquettes for a 3.5-4 hour burn. But wait! There’s an exception. If you’re barbecuing low and slow in an offset smoker or bullet grill, your time doubles (approximately).
Charcoal Last Time in Oxygen Restricted Environment:
- 8-10 hours for briquettes
- 4-6 hours for a lump
These figures require your diligence. Watch your airflow and manage your fire at the optimum level.
How long does charcoal last? Think of it this way, the more oxygen you give the fire, the faster it burns. That’s why your smoker gives you a longer burn time-it’s low oxygen. The environment is perfect for, say, 3-2-1 ribs where you want to be sure you have enough smoke. Just take care you don’t limit the airflow so much as to let the coals diminish into an untimely demise.
What is Charcoal?
Basically, it’s wood. When you heat wood in an environment like a kiln that removes all water, what’s left is charcoal. OK, the process is a little more complex, but you get the idea.
Rugged individualists who would like to make their own can count on devoting at least a full day to the process. It takes 3 pounds of wood to create 1 pound of charcoal.
Nearly any type of wood can become charcoal. The most popular are alder, oak, maple, and hickory. Unless you buy 100% hardwood briquettes, which are great for smoking sausage, most charcoal brands have additives like:
* Binding agents. Briquettes need these to maintain their form. Two binders are starch and molasses.
* Borax: Borax makes the briquettes easier to get out of their mold at the end of the assembly.
* Fuel materials like paper, peat, or tree bark.
* Limestone ash: Acts as a colorant in some briquettes.
* Sodium Nitrate: Nitrates help create oxygen, increasing the coals’ burn rate.
Types of Charcoal
The types of charcoal available typically go beyond your supermarket shelf’s offerings. Who knew?
When considering how long charcoal lasts, each one has some benefits and technicalities in terms of how you cook with it. Ready to explore?
First, we take you to Japan for Binchotan coals. These are going to be hard on your budget, but in this case, you get what you pay for. They’re natural, dense, and clean-burning. If you like the taste of charcoal in your food, however, this product isn’t for you.
Next up, Coconut Shell. As you probably guessed, these coals come from dried coconut shells and coconut. It’s ideal for hot, slow cooking, or smoking. Compared to regular lump charcoal, you get 2.5 hours of time from Coconut vs. 1 hour for lump. Note: it does not taste like coconut and has a neutral aroma. So much for a pina colada!
Lump charcoal, also known as charwood, is pretty common for grilling. It’s pure wood without binders or accelerants. Charwood burns hot, but adjusting the vents on your cooker solves that problem. The resulting flavor is smoky. It’s not surprising to find lump coal being close to many pit master hearts, like Chef Mancuso.
For the budget-minded griller, there are Charcoal Briquettes. You can get enormous bags at a great price. Briquettes are pokey burners, making your slow-roasts delicious and tender. It is a low-temperature item, so you can’t make a feast for minions in a short period.
How long your charcoal lasts OFF the grill depends on how you store it. The biggest issue is water. Briquettes and water do not have a friendly relationship. Rain, humidity, heavy dew, snow–they’ll all put a damper, literally, on your charcoal. The solution is making sure you store it in a cool, dry place. Some people have a special plastic tote just for this purpose.
Do me a favor. Walk outside and look at your bag of charcoal. Is it sealed? If not, shame on you! Torn or left open bags can affect your charcoal’s performance, especially if it’s self-lighting.
If you follow these guidelines, your charcoal will last indefinitely… well, unless you’re using it all the time!
Tips & Tricks
If you catch a chemical aroma when you light the charcoal, this comes from binders and additives. They will top out at a lower heat than hardwood lumps. Keep this in mind to time your recipe.
When it appears your charcoal is getting figurative “cold feet” do not lay unlit charcoal on top. Rather, use separate charcoal started, and then add it once it’s white-hot. By so doing, you make sure of retaining enough heat.
Every grill and smoker setup is a little different from the idiosyncrasy you discover as you go. So, while you have some guidelines as to how long charcoal lasts, you won’t really refine your timing until you’ve practiced a little trial and error. Invite friends!
Certain charcoal brands now offer favored charcoal varieties, including apple, mesquite, hickory, and cherry. Partner it up with smoking wood, and you’re in for a treat.
Tools of the Trade
There are some items that make your job easier, like heat-resistant gloves. Those coals get hot and sometimes flare up. Additionally, find long-handled grilling tools.
In preparation for your meal, you should have a good Chef’s Knife, some quality barbecue rubs like Cuso’s new line, a cutting board, and all your ingredients in one place. This saves you time in running back and forth to the cupboards.
Pit Master’s Memo
Henry Ford was not just an automobile giant, he originated charcoal briquettes. Yes, barbecue spans back over thousands of years, but charcoal, distinctly as a cooking method, is younger. Ford realized firewood for camping wasn’t always an easy score. So he tried something.
Ford gathered sawdust and lumped them into tar and cornstarch. He then used them to start a cooking fire and called them briquettes. Seeing the result, Ford built a charcoal manufacturing facility next to a sawmill, selling his product in “picnic” packs. Being a smart entrepreneur, he was fostering the link between car ownership and enjoying a day in the great outdoors.
Until the 1940s, the only place you really saw charcoal was at picnics and camping areas. Post-WWII, however, charcoal grilling grew to full force as a backyard pastime.
The rest, as they say, is heavenly cooking history.