How Long Does Charcoal Last?
Your Charcoal-Burning Skills Define You!
As an outdoor cook, one of the things you must be wondering about is: how long does charcoal last? Indeed, the art of keeping coal lit is one of the things that define a real outdoor cook.
You don’t want to end up with cold, dead charcoal in the middle of your barbecue. At the same time, you don’t want to waste charcoal or overwhelm your barbecue by putting too much in, either.
We’re here to enlighten you on this ongoing dilemma once and for all. We’ll walk you through on the different types of charcoal and the best practices on how to keep them burning.
How to Keep Different Charcoal Types Lit
When it comes to charcoal burn time, it’s important to talk about what kind of charcoal you’re using to begin with. There are several varieties you can get your hands on and each type has unique characteristics that make it burn slightly differently compared to the others.
We’ll just talk about some of the more popular charcoal types and their average burn times. We’re also adding helpful tips to help you prolong your charcoal’s burn time.
Originating from Japan, binchotan coals are expensive for several extremely good reasons. They’re made of all-natural wood, burn hot, and leave very little ash behind. In fact, they burn so cleanly that they don’t give your food even the slightest taste of charcoal.
When it comes to burn time, binchotan coals are a sure winner. Although they take longer to ignite, they burn for a long time due to their highly dense structure.
To give you an idea, the aramaru, a type of binchotan charcoal, burns for about three to five hours. Another type, the relatively harder white binchotan, burns for at least five hours!
How to Keep Coconut Charcoal Burning
- Maximize binchotan’s burn time by waiting for the charcoal to burn red hot before starting to cook.
- Reshuffle the binchotan pieces ten minutes after lighting them and have around two or three piles of binchotan coals to have an even, lasting heat.
Coconut Shell Charcoal
Sometimes just known as coconut charcoal, these coals are made of coconut shells and dried coconut. Needless to say, their main selling point is their environmentally friendly nature.
When it comes to burn time, coconut shell charcoal burns hot and slow, perfect for long periods of grilling and smoking.
Imagine burning the same amount of lump charcoal and coconut charcoal in the same cooker. For every hour of lump charcoal burning, you get about 2.5 hours of burn time out of coconut shell charcoal.
How to Keep Coconut Charcoal Burning
- After successfully establishing your fire, form a small pyramid of coals in the middle of your charcoal chamber for a more even heat distribution.
- Add more coals when you see that your pile is starting to cool. Since coconut shell charcoal lights very quickly, you can just add unlit coals directly to your pit and let the burning ones ignite them in no time.
Lump charcoal, the new crowd favorite, is also known as charwood or natural lump charcoal. It’s produced by burning wood inside a cave, inside a kiln, under the ground, or anywhere else with minimal oxygen, allowing the fire to char but not consume the wood. Lump charcoal is made of nothing but pure wood and is completely free of any additives, binders, or accelerants.
It is also highly responsive to oxygen, making it light up more easily and burn hotter. Controlling the fire is not a big deal, too, because a simple adjustment of your cooker’s vents will solve that. Finally, due to its nature, it gives your food that delicious, smoky aroma and flavor that only pure wood can produce. These are what make natural lump charcoal the absolute favorite among many old and new pitmasters alike.
It does have its share of disadvantages, though. It tends to burn unevenly–starting out hot and cooling down pretty quickly. The total burn time also varies considerably, depending on many factors. On an open grill, for instance, you should get about 45 minutes of burn time on average while a closed-off smoker will make lump charcoal last between three to four hours.
Also, a bag of charwood typically contains pieces of different sizes–small, nearly useless ones and some the size of your fist. It’s also relatively expensive.
How to Keep Lump Charcoal Burning
- The uneven shapes and sizes of lump charcoal require a little additional adjustment on your part while cooking. The larger pieces tend to get way hotter than the smaller ones so if you use them together, you may end up with unevenly lit coals and unevenly cooked food.
Go around this problem by grouping the charcoal pieces per size. Use the bigger ones to cook large pieces of meat like steaks and reserve the smaller ones for hotdogs and the like.
That way, you are dealing with more or less uniform temperatures and burn times.
2. We mentioned that lump charcoal tends to burn off faster than other types of coal do. Luckily, you can take advantage of its responsiveness to changes in airflow and oxygen levels.
Simple adjustments in your cooker’s vents will help regulate the temperature and keep your fire burning for a longer while.
3. Finally, don’t be lazy and just stock up on charcoal when cooking! This is so little work compared to the results that await you.
Lump charcoal’s burn time will greatly depend on the circumstances, but to be sure, have a new batch ready every 30 to 40 minutes or so.
Briquettes are at the lower end of the charcoal spectrum. They’re cheap, readily available, and they work, but comprise of low-grade materials–sawdust, wood scraps, borax, and coal dust held together by petroleum binders.
Some variants also contain additives and accelerants that help the coals burn faster and more consistently. It’s the chemical content of the briquettes that cause them to produce that gas-like smell (and taste, if not completely burned off).
You may want to go for briquettes if you want what many smokers call that set-it-and-forget-it kind of cooking.
How to Keep Briquettes Burning
- Position your briquettes closely together to maintain heat. If the charcoal pieces are spread out, some of the solitary pieces may end up losing heat.
- Have briquettes ready nearby. Although this type of charcoal burns relatively longer than lump charcoal, you will still have to add a few pieces every now and then.
General Charcoal Burning Tips
Learn how to make any type of charcoal last with these tried and tested all-around tips.
- Clear ash and soot buildup. They make it harder for you to light your coals and tend to smother your fire.
- Buy high-grade charcoal. We can’t stress the importance of quality enough!
- Put lit and unlit coals together for a longer burn period. As the lit ones slowly get consumed, the unlit ones should begin to catch, letting you avoid running out of coals mid-cook.
- Do the charcoal snake method by creating a row of unlit coals around your cooker’s edge and piling one or two more layers of charcoal above that. Put a foil pan with hot water in the middle of your grate. Meanwhile, begin lighting a few more coals in, say, a chimney starter. When those are ready, place them at one end of your row of coals. The fire should slowly travel from the group of the lit coals down the rest of the charcoal row for hours. Add more coals to it in case you need more time.
- Try the Minion method. Simply form a bed of unlit charcoal in the coal chamber and place a little group of lit charcoal pieces on top of that.
The unlit charcoal should catch the flames from the burning coals on top. Adjust the vents to control the temperature and airflow within the chamber, maintaining a low and steady fire.
Make Charcoal Last
As you may have noticed, there is no one answer to the question of how long charcoal lasts. It always depends on a number of factors–your cooking equipment, your food, and everything else that comes into contact with your pit. Among the popular charcoal types, binchotan looks like the best option if you know where to get good ones and if you’re willing to splurge that much on coal. They’re good, natural, and long-lasting.
If you want something a little more affordable but is just as environmentally friendly and clean, try using coconut charcoal instead. Finally, if you’re like most people who find themselves choosing between lump charcoal and briquettes, consider your budget and the kind of cook you’re going for.
If you want that pure smoky aroma and taste of lump charcoal and have a few extra bucks to spend, go for natural lump. If you’re aiming for less work and can afford to wait until your coals burn off their chemicals and fluids, you’ll do fine with charcoal briquettes.