Charcoal grills and smokers are two of the most popular outdoor cooking appliances among BBQ enthusiasts, as they bring delectable outcomes with a unique smoky aroma.
As these two appliances use charcoal as a fuel source to cook food items, many people are concerned about what is the right amount of charcoal to use for desired results.
If you, too, are looking for a valuable guide on how much charcoal to use, you’ve come to the right place in which I have thoroughly discovered all the essential factors that you must consider before determining the perfect charcoal quantity.
Key Takeaway – Based On Average Stats
For an average smoking session, you can expect to burn one fully loaded chimney and an extra quarter to get desired results.
In contrast, if you are cooking your food through direct grilling, you’ll need to use 3 to 4 quarters of charcoal to maintain the required heat until an average grilling session ends.
Remember that these stats are not set in stone as it depends on some other factors like the type of charcoal, the smoker you use, the time required for your barbecue session, and the food you are cooking.
Factors Affecting Charcoal Quantity
The amount of charcoal needed to achieve desired results require a few important considerations that I have highlighted below.
Quality Of The Charcoal
You will come across two major charcoal types: charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal, and each has different characteristics from the other.
For example, charcoal briquettes tend to be inexpensive, and it is easy to ignite them if you use lighter fluid for their ignition process.
The most advantageous thing about this type of charcoal is that they burn slower, and one of its drawback that I don’t like is that it can create a lot of mess and also produce a chemical smell.
On the other hand, lump charcoal costs you more and burns pretty fast, but their combustion process is cleaner, and they are less messy compared to briquettes.
Suppose your cooking session ends using 2 pounds of briquettes. In comparison, you will need to burn approximately 3 pounds of lump charcoal to achieve a similar burn duration.
Here’s a comprehensive comparison between briquettes and lump charcoal.
Size of Your Charcoal Grill
We all know that there are different types of charcoal grills out there, including kettle grills, barrel grills, Kamdo-shaped grills, etc. Also, each has a different size, design, and working technique.
Therefore, the size of your charcoal grill can highly impact the rate and amount of charcoal required for achieving optimal results from your BBQ session.
Now, it is pretty evident that a smaller grill would require less charcoal, and larger grills would require more charcoal. But is there any rough estimate? Yes, there is.
The rough estimation says that a smaller grill requires around 1.5 lbs of charcoal briquettes or 2.5 lbs of lump charcoal for an average grilling session through direct grilling.
Conversely, you can expect to burn 3 to 4 lbs of charcoal briquettes and 4 to 6 lbs of lump charcoal for a similar grilling session on a larger grill.
But keep in mind that these starts are also not fixed because there are some other important factors to look after, such as the exact temperature, cooking duration, food you are going to grill or smoke, etc.
To me, the most important factor when determining how much charcoal to use is to know the desired cooking temperature for your grilling or smoking session.
Well, I believe there is no need to mention that if you prefer cooking at higher temperatures, like 400 to 500 °F, you will be burning more charcoal compared to cooking at a lower temperature, like 250 to 300°F.
So, let’s assume that you are grilling through charcoal briquettes. Here’s the rough estimate of the charcoal quantity you might need for different temperature ranges.
- 200 to 300 °F: 1 to 1.5 pounds
- 300 to 400 °F: 1.5 to 2.5 pounds
- 400 to 550 °F: 2.5 to 4.5 pounds
So, this is how you can estimate charcoal usage, but the story isn’t over yet, as there is still an essential factor to highlight.
Type Of Food & Its Cooking Method
Last but not least, the type of food and the cooking method you choose for its preparation is also an important factor to consider when determining the required charcoal quantity.
There are numerous food items that BBQ enthusiasts cook through charcoal, and there are a couple of different cooking methods, such as smoking and grilling.
Moreover, these two methods have further cooking techniques, including low and slow smoking, fast smoking, direct grilling, and indirect grilling.
To sum up, specifying the accurate amount of charcoal for cooking requires several essential and in-depth considerations like cooking temperature, grill size, charcoal quality, food item, and the cooking method you choose.
What Is The Best Way To Measure Charcoal Quantity For Cooking?
By now, you must have an idea that charcoal quantity matters a lot in achieving the desired grilling and smoking results, but another important factor to consider is how you adequately measure the charcoal quantity. Let’s find out.
You will come across different opinions regarding the ideal method for measuring the charcoal, such as counting the coals, weighing them, guessing from the previous cooking session, and using a charcoal chimney.
But to me and other experienced grill users, weighing the charcoal pieces and measuring them inside a charcoal chimney seems to be the most reliable and precise method.
Using a chimney, you can simply refer to one quarter to 25%, two quarters to 50%, three quarters to 75%, and a full chimney to 100% charcoal capacity. It becomes more convenient than weighing charcoal if you cannot access a kitchen scale.
How Much Charcoal To Use When Smoking
Enough of a guessing game; allow me to take you through a practical process that determines the charcoal quantity required for your smoking sessions.
Low And Slow Smoking
It usually requires a temperature of around 250 degrees Fahrenheit and the amount of charcoal depends on how you set up the coals for smoking.
There are two suitable methods for low and slow smoking, minion and snake technique. Let’s quickly inspect each of them.
For the minion method, load a complete chimney of briquettes, throw them into your smoker, and arrange the charcoal in a donut shape.
Next, fill another chimney quarter with briquettes, ignite them, and spread them in the middle of unburnt charcoal pieces.
It ensures a gradual and controlled heat release over an extended period, allowing you to smoke your food slowly for a tender and flavorful result. If you prefer an intense smoky flavor, try using wood chips on the charcoal.
This method is especially suitable for large cuts of meat that require prolonged smoking duration.
So, you will be using around five chimney quarters of briquettes (not lump charcoal) that will burn long enough for a typical low and slow smoking session for thick meat cuts.
It is also similar to the minion method in which you create a snake shape using a full chimney of briquettes and then add an extra quarter of burning charcoal next to the unburnt coals.
The hot coals then start igniting the others slowly to maintain a low and slow temperature inside your smoker.
On average, it can last for 20 hours, and I believe you can confidently finish your smoking sessions of different durations in this period.
To sum up, both minion and snake methods are ideal for low and slow smoking as they burn the charcoal slowly for a longer duration, and the charcoal required is around five chimney quarters of briquettes.
If your smoking session ends earlier than expected, you can reuse the unburnt charcoal pieces (using the minion and snake method).
Hot & Fast Smoking
Unlike low and slow, hot and fast smoking usually happens within the temperature range of 275 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, which I believe isn’t as high heat as you require while grilling.
You can expect to burn a full chimney loaded with lump charcoal or three-quarters of briquettes for this kind of smoking as they burn relatively slower.
With this much charcoal, you can easily hold a 6 to 8 hours longer smoking duration. In case you save some unburnt coals at the end of cooking, you can save and use them for the next session without a doubt.
How Much Charcoal To Use When Grilling
There are several notable differences between smoking and grilling that set these two cooking methods apart. Therefore, the charcoal quantity you need for grilling differs from how much you require for smoking.
Also, there are two primary grilling methods, direct and indirect grilling.
It requires a higher temperature of around 450 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, which means it can perfectly cook your food items within a relatively shorter period. But how much charcoal it consumes on average?
For example, if you want to sear your meats like chicken wings and beef steaks hot and fast, you can expect to burn three chimney quarters of lump charcoal to achieve the desired grilling results.
However, depending on the food type, you may need to use less or more charcoal, such as burgers, veggies, meat, and sausages.
It requires a similar temperature to hot and fast smoking, which is between 275 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. You can also consider it a medium heat for grilling.
In this case, you will be burning around 2 to 3 quarters of briquettes to create the ideal cooking environment and maintain a suitable temperature for your indirect grilling session.
Whenever you are grilling indirectly, I would suggest you go with the two-zone heat setup in which the charcoal goes on one side of the grill and the food on the other side.
You can’t specify the exact amount of charcoal you need to burn to cook your food because numerous crucial factors play an essential role in determining the exact quantity.
You must consider the type of charcoal you use, the cooking method you prefer, the temperature you cook at, the kind of food, and the type and size of grill you use.
So, thoroughly go through these aspects highlighted in this guide, and I believe you can have a complete idea regarding how much charcoal you should use when grilling or smoking.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you use too much charcoal?
It is not recommended to use too much charcoal while grilling or smoking as it results in fuel wastage and can also impart too much smoky flavor into your food which can impact its natural taste.
How many times can charcoal be used?
You can reignite the partially used or unburnt small pieces of charcoal one more time, and throwing them away after one use is nothing but a waste of money.
Does charcoal burn faster with the lid on or off?
Charcoal burns faster and hotter if you keep the lid open because the coals get more oxygen and airflow, resulting in a more rapid combustion process.
Caspian James, the Founder and Chief Editor at FaveGrills, is passionate about sharing his knowledge and expertise on the latest Smokers and Grilling Products along with mouth-watering barbecue recipes. He constantly researches new gear with a sharp eye for detail, providing the FaveGrills community with in-depth reviews.