Getting acquainted with a charcoal grill is no easy task, especially when it comes to figuring out how much charcoal you need. After all, you want to make sure you use enough to cook your food properly, but on the other hand you don’t want to waste any. This is a conundrum that all new charcoal grill owners are faced with.
As a general rule you’ll need to use around 30 briquettes of charcoal for smaller or portable grills and 60-75 for larger ones. Of course, this will vary depending upon the type of charcoal you’re using and the specific grill you have. Weather conditions will also affect how much charcoal you’ll need to use.
It may seem like a lot to consider, but determining the amount of charcoal you’ll need to use really isn’t all that complicated. We’ll show you how to determine the amount you’ll need in this article.
Type of Charcoal (Lump or Briquette)
How much charcoal you should use when grilling depends on what type of charcoal you’re using. The two types are lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes. Lump charcoal (sometimes called Lumpwood) has no additives and so tends to light quickly and burn faster than briquettes. Plus, there’s no standardized size for lump charcoal, so you kind of have to eyeball it.
Since lump charcoal burns faster and gets up to max temperature quickly, it works well for high and fast cooking. So, if you’re grilling burgers, steaks, hotdogs, and thinly-sliced meat, lump charcoal will work well.
Briquettes, on the other hand, often have additives that help them burn longer more consistently. Some people scoff at that word ‘additives’ but not all charcoal is made with the same additives. You can find briquettes with natural additives that still burn for four or five hours. However, on that same token, you can also find natural briquettes that burn just as quickly as lump charcoal.
Since lump charcoal comes in all different sizes and shapes, we’ll be talking in terms of briquettes for the purposes of this article. If you’re new to charcoal grilling, we suggest starting with briquettes, anyway. Once you begin to get the hang of it, you can experiment with lump charcoal if you wish.
Charcoal Formations and Temperatures
How you arrange your coals has a lot to do with the temperature you’re looking to maintain while grilling. As a general rule of thumb, the more pieces of charcoal you have in your grill, the hotter it will be. But, the temperature also depends on the formation of the coals, which we’ll go over in detail.
The 2-Zone Fire Formation
Perhaps the most popular grilling method, the 2-zone formation allows for cooking with both direct and indirect heat. As the name suggests, you simply create 2 zones by placing your coals on only one side of the charcoal grate. You can then cook directly over the coals, or place your food opposite the coals for indirect heat.
For standard 22-inch charcoal grills, you can plan on using around 50 briquettes in the 2-zone method. If you’re cooking for a couple of hours or more, you’ll want to add a handful of charcoal every 30 minutes to an hour, to keep the bed of coals burning steady.
Single-Layer Fire Formation
The single-layer fire formation is used when you want to cook only with direct heat. This method allows for less versatility but can be useful if you’re grilling hotdogs, hamburgers, boneless chicken thighs, or other thinly-sliced meat.
The single-layer way falls under the ‘hot and fast’ temperature category. If you need to cook lots of meat at the same time, and quickly, use this method.
You’ll want to use around 100 briquettes for this technique, spreading them evenly over the whole charcoal grate. It’s easy to overcook your food this way, so look out!
The 2-Zone Fire: Parallel Formation
For even, indirect heat, the 2-zone parallel formation is your best bet. This method requires a few cups of water in a disposable aluminum pan as well as charcoal.
To set it up, divide about 50 briquettes into two piles on either side of your grill. You’ll have an empty place down the middle of the charcoal grate to put the disposable aluminum pan with water in it. To keep your coals burning well and on either side of the grill, we recommend these nifty coal holders.
Over the pan is where you’ll place your food to cook nicely with indirect heat. If you do need to cook anything with direct fire, you can just use either side of the cooking grate over the coals.
The pan and water in the 2-zone parallel formation absorb and release heat, causing the temperature to stay on the low side, and the heat to evenly disperse throughout the grill.
Since this technique keeps the temperature low, it’s great for low and slow cooking and smoking— when you add soaked wood chips to the coals. The 2-zone parallel method is great for that low and slow optimum temperature of 225° Fahrenheit.
As always, the longer you cook, the more charcoal you’ll have to use. But, another nice thing about having the pan and the water in there is that your coals will last a little longer. Still, you’ll want to add charcoal to it every couple of hours and make sure there is at least 2 inches of water in the pan.
Charcoal Snake Formation
An excellent method for cooking low and slow for a long time is the charcoal snake formation. Recommended for use in kettle grills, you can construct the snake formation by placing a layer of charcoal lumps or briquettes around the edges of your charcoal grate. The end result should be a semicircle.
Depending on how long you want it to burn, you can use between 50 and 100 briquettes. You can make the initial layer two or three briquettes wide and then place another layer on top. If you want that smoky flavor, simply add some wood chips around the snake.
Once you have the charcoal in place, light 4 to 6 briquettes at one end of the snake. As those first chunks of charcoal burn, they’ll light the next ones in line, and the process will continue until all the coal has been lit.
You’ll definitely want an accurate thermometer for this one because it can be tricky to maintain an even temperature. But, once you get used to it, the charcoal snake method is a great one for cooking low and slow.
Starting Your Fire
For best results, when cooking with charcoal, we recommend using a charcoal chimney starter. One chimney starter will last you a very long time and will take the frustration out of getting a charcoal fire started. Plus, using a chimney starter can give you a measurement gauge. Many grillers suggest using ‘half a chimney’ or ‘a full chimney’ when describing how much charcoal to use.
If you want to start your charcoal fire the old fashioned way, check out our article titled How to Start a Charcoal Grill: With & Without Lighter Fluid.
Obviously, grill size and the amount of food you’re cooking factor into how much charcoal you’ll want to use. Most standard kettle charcoal grills are 22-inches. But, there are lots of different size and shape options out there when it comes to charcoal grills.
Your grill’s owner’s manual should give you an idea of the maximum charcoal capacity. Once you know the max, you can usually cut that in half for slow cooking at a lower heat. But, every grill is different, so it will take some experimenting. Which is why we suggest investing in an excellent thermometer. Being able to accurately tell the temperature inside your grill will take much of the guesswork out of grilling.
Different Charcoal Amounts for Different Foods
Which grilling method works best, depends on the kind of food you’re cooking. How much charcoal you use depends on what type of meat you’re cooking and the flavor profile you want.
Low and slow cooking works best for brisket, ribs, pork shoulder, and more substantial cuts of meat. High and fast works well for burgers, hot dogs, brats, veggies, and thinly-sliced meats. However, it is even possible to cook burgers low and slow if you’ve got the time. Generally, low and slow cooking leaves more moisture in the meat and imparts more exceptional barbeque flavor, as well.
Just remember to check the internal temperature of your food before consuming, to make sure it’s thoroughly cooked.
For standard charcoal grills, you’ll want to start off somewhere in the area of 50 to 100 briquettes. The more charcoal you use, the hotter your grill will be. An accurate thermometer will be your best friend when grilling with charcoal, so invest in one for minimum hassle.
Like many grilling enthusiasts, it’s a good idea to hope for the best and plan for the worst. What would the worst be? Running out of charcoal before you’re done cooking. Keep two bags of charcoal on hand at all times, just in case. You never know when you’re going to want to cook up a storm!