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How Much Charcoal to Use?

April 16, 2021
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How to determine How Much Charcoal to Use?

Knowing how much charcoal to use when cooking different foods will not only save you money but it will help you maintain an efficient fire.

Even temperature cooking is a vital part of grilling. Using the right amount of charcoal will give you the perfect flame and control every time.

Maintaining grilling temperature with charcoal

To figure out how much charcoal to use in your grill it is best to start out understanding a few basic principles. It's also important for us to be on the same page with methodology.

If you are lighting your coal with lighter fluid, you may use a different amount of coal than using a charcoal chimney. It just depends on the exact time you begin cooking over your coals. It also depends how thin you spread your coals out.

20 lit briquettes will burn your hot dog if you cook over them 15 min after lighting. However it will barely cook your hot dog if you cook them 60 min after lighting.

So to begin answering the question of how much charcoal to add we need to establish a few basics:

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How to light your Charcoal Chimney

The easiest and cheapest way to light your chimney is to ball up some newspaper and drizzle a few drops of cooking oil on it. Then place the newspaper under the chimney and light it. There are other things you can purchase to light your chimney including Lighter Cubes, Starter Squares and Straw Bundles

How to use a Weber Charcoal Chimney?

For all of the grilling recipes posted on this website, I have used my standard Weber Charcoal Chimney.

The purpose of the chimney is to light the charcoals and to provide a means of keeping the coals in proximity while being lit.

When using the Weber Performer (which has the small propane ignition feature to light charcoal) I fill my chimney either 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 or totally full - depending on the application.

I then sit the chimney over the flame port and light it for about 2 minutes.

There is no need to go longer than this. If you stick to 2 minutes you will be able to extend the life of your propane tank.

The goal is just to get a few coals lit and then the others will light afterwards. If you don't have a Weber Performer you can either use an olive oil soaked paper towel or some newspaper.

It's the same principle. Just put the paper towel or newspaper underneath of the chimney. (above the grates). Use a match to light it.

After a few minutes the coals will ignite. Another question that pops up is when to dump the coals out of the chimney?

Do you wait until you see flame pouring out of the top or do you wait until they are completely ashed over in the chimney?

I like to dump my charcoal chimney as soon as I see flames starting to show over the charcoal.

Thus, the top layer of coal is usually mostly black but the flame has risen up over top of the top layer of coals, as shown in the photo below. At this stage I will dump the coal in one pile in the grill.

All the coals are not fully lit yet, so I dump them in one pile and will spread them out to where I want them after they have ashed over and look grey (about 15-20 min after the initial lighting).

How much charcoal to use?

A very simplistic way to discuss how much charcoal to add is based on how much you fill the charcoal chimney.

You can imagine that filling the chimney 25% full will yield less heat than a chimney that is filled up 100%.

To expand on this, here is my general rule of thumb for cooking various items at various heats using Kingsford charcoal:

  • Low heat (think tender white fish, or for using the coals to light a smoker) - fill the chimney 25% full
  • Medium heat (burgers, brats etc.) - fill the chimney 50% full
  • Medium high heat, or for a full grill of medium heat. Think of more spread out charcoal in the grill) fill the chimney 75% full
  • High heat (grilling and searing steaks) - fill the chimney 100% full

Now clearly there are a lot of factors going on here. How you spread out the coals plays a major factor in the heat your grill experiences. If you dump a 50% full medium heat charcoal chimney in one spot and don't spread it out.

You will have one isolated area of high heat right over where you dumped the coals. If you spread this 50% full chimney out over the whole grill area your heat will drop because the coals are more spread out.

Make sense? So for my purposes, I mostly always use the following two zone grilling set up.

I dump the lit chimney (see photo above) on the right side of the grill, and when the coals are ashed over I spread them out on the right side of the grill, leaving the left side of the grill with no coals (for indirect cooking). See the photos below.

Roughly speaking, the above percentages will work out well for you if you follow this rule. The cooking temperatures are assessed once the coals are spread out and have mostly ashed over.

How do you know when your charcoal is ready at a particular temperature?

As a handy tool, use your hand to determine how hot your grill is. You can roughly approximate the temperature by how many seconds you can hold your hand over the coals.

I usually hold my hand about 1 inch over the grates to do this little test.

Count how many seconds you can hold your hand over the coals before you are in pain.

If you can hold your hand over the coals for 5-6 seconds, you are dealing with low heat. 4-5 seconds - medium heat. 3-4 seconds - medium high heat. 2-3 seconds - high heat.

If you can't hold your hand there for 1 second or less, you are not ready to cook because it is too hot. Clearly there is some variation here, especially with how each person perceives pain.

However, the general person can hold their hand over a high heat for about 2 seconds.

Getting Comfortable Grilling with Charcoal

Once you are comfortable with the above information try grilling something like boneless skinless chicken thighs. Generally, this is a difficult thing to grill correctly. However, if you understand your heat and direct vs. indirect grilling, it will become quite easy.

The type of grill you are using will also come into play. A smaller grill like a Weber Smokey Joe would scorch your steaks into a pile of black ash if you use a 100% filled charcoal chimney, so you need to factor that in as well. Also, some other grills have grill grates that can be lowered to come closer to the charcoal. The closer your grate is to the coal, the hotter your cook will be.

temperature guide for grilling steaks

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13 comments on “How Much Charcoal to Use?”

  1. Hi, really good tips here. I will be grilling for the first time tomorrow, and using a cheap charcoal grill that I do not believe even has a chimney. How would I go about filling with charcoal to cook steaks? Just use the hand tip to make sure the grill is hot? And i read about the indirect heat but like i said, it's a small cheap grill. So should i just put the steaks on the edge of the grill, if there isn't enough space for a direct and indirect heat side? Thanks in advance!

    1. Chimneys are of similar appearance to a large stein or beer mug, so if you didnt have one with yours you can get one at a later date, as far as a direct and indirect spot on the grate, that determines how much area you have, if it's 18 inches or greater grill you have a decent amount of room for indirect heat. A small 12 inch however won't have the same benefit and may not have nearly as much indirect room from the coals

  2. I will be hosting a family reunion of approximately 100 people. The venue has a 7' x 2' grill and we will be grilling burgers and dogs and using part of the grill to keep fried chicken warm. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Carol,
      I would have a medium high area for grilling and some areas with no coal at all for keeping things warm. In this no coal area (if its windy or cool out) you could always put about 5-10 lit coals spaced out just for some light heat. The key here is to have a couple different areas of heat so you don't burn everything. a 7 foot long grill could easily have a 2 foot area of hot heat, a 2 foot area of medium hot heat, 2 feet worth of medium low and a foot of no coal for emergency or chicken warming. After 45 min the hot area will then be your medium cooking area for any late cooking. If you do the twitter thing let me know how it turns out (@grilling24x7) or post back here. Good luck!


      1. John

        Excellent information. How much charcoal do you think I will need to maintain this configuration for about an hour?


        1. It depends how far away the coal is from the cooking grate but assuming it is about 6 inches away... I would think a 7x2 area would perhaps take 1/2 to 3/4 of a big bag of Kingsford. You'll want your medium high area be hot enough to be able to hold your hand for just 2-3 seconds. Any shorter than that and you risk burning everything up. That final portion of the bag can be spread on top of the already lit coals if you start to loose heat during your cook (maybe 40 min in?)

          In fact, for lighting this arrangement, I would place about 1/2 the bag of coal on the cold grill with more of it stacked towards your high heat side (less towards your cool side), then light a full charcoal chimney and let it fully engulf. Then pour the chimney full of coal over top of your unlit already arranged coals. Then using tongs or something metal to move coal, slowly spread out the lit coal to let the rest of it catch. You'll be good to go after 15 or so min or lighting. But keep your hand going on top of the grate to make sure it's not too hot. Nothing worse than burning food at a cookout!

  3. John,
    Thanks for your help. The grilling went well though I did burn my coals out a little early. Nothing burned and everyone enjoyed the food!

  4. Figure on making a personal grill w a stainless steel bowl and a couple of grates w a cover.
    I have a smoky Joe but see no reason to use more charcoal than necessary.
    With a grate to hold the coals up and a grate to hold the food and a simple frying pan cover with the appropriate holes drilled in the right places a personal grill can cook a burger or steak & baked potato w a minimum of coals.
    A simple temp gauge mounted on top of the cover will give u a pretty accurate gauge for heat inside.
    Haven't tried it yet but I'm pretty sure it will work just fine.


  5. First time on a charcoal grill. My son has tasked with grilling a duck. I know I need to keep the grill (18 inch Weber kettle) at about 325 for about 2 1/2 hours. We don't have a hinged don't grate. Can I pile unlit briquettes on one side and place hot briquettes on top of them and a) maintain a fairly constant temp and b) maintain that fo 2 1/2 hours?

  6. Hello, I bought the smaller weber chimney thinking I could use it to get high heat in a 14" grill, but I think it holds too little charcoal since I can only manage to hit medium high temps, which then drop to medium very quickly (and stay there). I´ve been doing burgers but the guides I have say the ideal is 3/4" thick patties over high heat, grilled for 10-14 mins, flipped once. I noticed you put them under medium heat though so, would you recommend increasing the cooking times to perhaps 20 mins? thanks for you help

    1. I would recommend stacking your coals to one half and searing over high heat for 2-3 minutes per side then move to indirect heat until you reach your desired internal temperature

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