To help you save charcoal and money, this article explains how to measure charcoal and how much to use for different grilling and smoking applications.
They say time is money. They should also say charcoal is money — who wants to waste either? In fact, let’s take this a step further and say that food is money if you’re a serious griller. (And, if you’re reading this, you either are or have intentions of becoming a serious griller.)
Ok then. Now that we know that time, charcoal, and food are all money, I’m going to tell you how to save all three — no, four — things.
By using the right amount of charcoal for the job, you can cook your food in the right amount of time, no wasting anything.
But, how much is the right amount?
To figure that out, I’ll share the most practical way to measure your charcoal consistently and then cover all the variables, like charcoal type, cooking style, and what’s on the menu.
Time’s a-wasting — let’s start saving!
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 First of All: Have a Consistent Way to Measure
- 2 Type of Charcoal Matters
- 3 How and What You’re Cooking Matters
- 4 How Much Charcoal to Use When Grilling?
- 5 How Much Charcoal to Use When Smoking?
- 6 Final Thoughts
First of All: Have a Consistent Way to Measure
Measuring charcoal isn’t like measuring spices or sauces — you can’t put it in a measuring cup or just “add a pinch.”
You could go by weight, but let’s see a show of hands-on who has a scale handy when they’re grilling? Right.
Some grillers suggest fractions of a bag, like half a bag, a quarter of a bag, and so on. That’s not bad (assuming we know the size of the bag), but it really should be more precise.
Others will count out individual pieces. That’s not a bad way to go, but given the variance in sizes, it may not be precise enough for general guidelines like ours.
Our suggestion is to use a charcoal chimney and break it down accordingly — 1/4 full, 1/2 full, a full chimney, etc. Most chimneys are similar in size, so this is accurate enough for our purposes.
Using a chimney also helps you keep track of your charcoal usage so you can adjust for future sessions. For example, if you light half a chimney to grill a few burgers but find you only went through maybe half of that, you’ll know to use 1/4 chimney next time. Easy peasy.
(For anyone who doesn’t own one, or if yours needs replacing, check out our Buying Guide to the Best Charcoal Chimney Starters.)
Type of Charcoal Matters
Now that we’ve established our measuring system, we need to consider what kind of charcoal we’re burning.
There are two basic types of charcoal for cooking: briquettes and natural lump wood charcoal. They burn differently from each other, which changes how much charcoal you’ll require for your cookout or smoke session.
You can learn more about lump charcoal vs. briquettes here. In a nutshell, though, lumps are naturally formed and look like the chunks of wood they once were, and briquettes are manufactured products that are fairly uniformly shaped.
Lump charcoal burns very hot (up to 1400°F or 760°C) and fast.
Briquettes burn somewhat cooler (peaking about 1000°F or 538°C) and slower than lumps.
Remember, these are the temperatures right on the surface of the charcoal, not what you get up at the grate.
But what this means is, you can get hotter quicker with lump, but briquettes last longer. And this translates to needing less lump to hit the same high temps but needing more for longer cooks (and vice versa for briquettes.)
We take this into account in our recommendations later.
How and What You’re Cooking Matters
Oh look, another variable. Yup, the food you’re cooking and the way you’re cooking it, impact how much charcoal you’ll need.
Let’s break it down.
Grilling vs Smoking
Grilling is all about high temperatures and short cooking times. Smoking is the exact opposite. Oddly, though, it doesn’t have a significant impact on how much charcoal you need.
For example, you may need a full chimney of briquettes to build up the intense heat needed to sear burgers for an hour at your backyard cookout. But, you’ll also go through a full chimney smoking all day at 250°F.
The difference here is more about how much you light at once, how it’s distributed across your grill or smoker, and how you control the airflow. Oxygen is fire’s fuel, remember — the more there is, the hotter the fire burns.
Quickly Grilling a Burger?
If you’re literally grilling a single burger, you might want to rethink your life decisions. That’s a lot of fuel and effort for one burger!
But if you’re cooking for the fam, you’ll want to light up a full chimney of briquettes or 3/4-full for lump charcoal to make ‘em sizzle on the grill.
Roasting a Prime Rib?
Roasting isn’t quick and hot like grilling, but it’s not low n slow like smoking, either. Instead, you need medium temperatures (around 350°F) for a few hours. (Estimate 12–14 minutes per pound.)
To accomplish this, you’ll need to fill your chimney about 2/3–3/4 of the way and probably divide the charcoal in half for parallel configured two-zone cooking.
Smoking a Brisket?
A big, bad brisket may need to smoke all day and all night. But, since smoking happens at low temperature (250°F is about average), you won’t burn through your charcoal quickly.
Figure on simply filling up your smoker with as much charcoal as it can hold. For most smokers this will suffice for the cook, though you may need to top up part way through. And if there’s any left unburned at the end, you can reuse charcoal.
How Much Charcoal to Use When Grilling?
First of all, you want to make sure you set up for two-zone grilling to have complete control over your cooks.
Two-Zone Grill Setup
A two-zone grill set up is where you have all your charcoal banked over to one half of your grill, with the other half of your grill empty of charcoal. This gives you two zones:
- A zone and grate area directly over the coals for high heat grilling
- A zone and grate area on your grill that is NOT over the coals, where the temperature is way lower.
This setup allows you to have almost infinite control over the temperature you cook from very low, very low, not over the coals, getting increasingly hotter as you move the food toward the hot coals, right up to screaming hot if placed directly over the coals.
We advise you always to set up your grill in this manner.
With that out of the way, have you got a target cooking temperature range in mind? Here’s how much you’ll need to fill your chimney.
If we consider medium heat to be between 350–450°F, then about a 1/4-full to 1/2-full chimney of briquettes will do the job.
Keep it closer to 1/4-full to 1/3-full for lump charcoal.
To hit the high temperatures needed to cook stuff like hot dogs and hamburgers rapidly, you’ll want a full chimney of briquettes to reach that 450–550°F range.
Because lump burns somewhat hotter, 3/4 of a chimney should do it.
Screaming Hot Searing
For insanely hot temperatures on the grate (we’re talking 800°F!), you want to try the Afterburner Method. This requires half a chimney of charcoal and a cooking grate laid across the top of the chimney.
Never heard of it? Learn all about the Afterburner Method here.
No grilling is done at low heat, so this never comes into play.
How Much Charcoal to Use When Smoking?
Smoking is a bit different from grilling. We have vents and dampers to play with, and the sessions are usually much longer. Plus, there are different ways to set up your charcoal, depending on your cooker and what you’re cooking.
Low n Slow
This is the classic smoker style, calling for exposure to low temperatures (about 250°F) over a prolonged length of time, sometimes many hours.
There are a few variations to the charcoal set up here. Let’s look at the most common.
Stat with a full chimney of briquettes, dump them in your smoker, and arrange them in a doughnut shape.
Fill your chimney again, but this time just 1/4 of the way. Light this smaller quantity of briquettes and then deposit them into the middle of your doughnut once they’re ashed over.
The fire will gradually spread in all directions, giving you even heat over a prolonged period.
You can use lump charcoal, too, but you’ll need to carefully arrange the pieces by hand to be sure the gaps aren’t too big, preventing the fire from spreading.
Click here for more about the Minion Method.
The Snake is similar to the Minion Method in that you light just a few coals and let the fire pass through them slowly. The primary difference is the arrangement — a stacked semi-circle around the inside perimeter of your cooker.
You’ll need a full chimney of briquettes (it doesn’t work as well with lump) to build your snake, neatly stacked by hand. You can really draw it out for a long session with a snake; wanna brisket in the smoke for 20 hours? Can do.
You could, of course, make a shorter snake for shorter smokes. But, with a long snake in place, you won’t have to worry about adding on if you’re not quite there yet. And, you can always remove the unburnt charcoal and save it for another time if you don’t use it all.
Want to see my snake? Read all about the Charcoal Snake method here.
Kamado or Offset
With these smokers, we can control our temperature very effectively with the vents, pretty much regardless of how much charcoal we use.
So, fill ‘er up (your chimney, not your smoker!), dump it in, and light just a single spot for maximum duration…then check out my article on how to use kamado style smokers for how to accurately control the smoking temperature.
Hot n Fast
For smoking, “hot n fast” means between 275–350°F and for, maybe, just a few hours. For example, you can smoke a decent-sized brisket hot n fast in perhaps 6 hours instead of 12. We won’t get into the pros and cons here; that’s a conversation for another day.
Since you won’t be smoking for as long, you won’t need as much charcoal; figure on using 1/2 to 3/4 of a chimney of briquettes or maybe 1/3- to 2/3-full for lump. Though we do recommend loading the smoker with more, as there’s nothing worse than having to top up part way through a cook.
As always, smoking with charcoal is more about airflow management than charcoal quantity.
I feel it’s important to close by saying that though grilling and smoking are very much a science, they aren’t always an exact science.
Charcoal pieces, even briquettes, aren’t evenly sized, and they don’t burn at the same rate. Not all chimneys are the same volume. Some smokers and grills are more efficient than others. Weather always plays a role in a cookout. In short, there are a LOT of variables.
Use this article as a guideline to get you started. After a few goes at it, you’ll get a feel for how much charcoal you need in any given situation. And it’s those kinds of achievements that’ll make you feel like a true pitmaster.
Cheers, gang, and thanks for reading!