All You Need to Know About How Much Charcoal to Use When Grilling
how much charcoal to use when grilling

While there is still some debate, most experts agree that food cooked over charcoal tastes better than food cooked using gas. Gas grilling is faster and more convenient, but when you want a proper chill time over the weekend, charcoal is the way to go. 

Grilling over charcoal can take some getting used to, and it may require some trial and error. This is why when lighting your barbecue or smoker, knowing how much charcoal to use when grilling is important.

You’ll waste precious fuel if you use too much charcoal. If you use too little, your grill will struggle to heat or you won’t be able to keep the temperature consistent while cooking. This is a problem that every new charcoal barbecue owner faces.

It may seem technical, but calculating the amount of charcoal you’ll need isn’t as difficult as it appears. In this article, we’ll teach you how to figure out how to go about it.

Types of Charcoal

When grilling, the amount of charcoal you should use is determined by the type of charcoal you’re using. Charcoal briquettes lump charcoal are the two types that you’ll have to choose between. Since lump charcoal contains no additives, it is easier to fire and burn than briquettes. Also, there is no set size used for lump charcoal, so you’ll have to guess.

Lump Charcoal

Lump charcoal burns much faster and reaches maximum temperature faster. Because of this, it is ideal for high-speed cooking. If you’re cooking hotdogs, burgers, or meat that is sliced thin, lump charcoal is the way to go.

how much charcoal to use when grilling

Charcoal Briquettes

Briquettes usually contain chemicals that help them burn for longer periods and without smoke or odor. Some people hate the term “additives,” yet not all charcoal is created the same way. Natural additives can be found in briquettes that help it burn for four to five hours.  

For the purposes of this article, we’ll be talking about briquettes as lump charcoal comes in a variety of sizes and shapes. We recommend starting with briquettes if you haven’t had much practice charcoal grilling. If you want to try something different, you can use lump charcoal once you’re more familiar.

how much charcoal to use when grilling

How Much Charcoal To Use When Grilling: The Basics

The three major factors that determine how much charcoal to use when grilling are:

  • What temperature do you want the grill to reach? 
  • When do you want the grill to be hot? 
  • How long do you want it to take?

The amount of charcoal you use and the amount of air available to the charcoal will determine the temperature of your grill. The temperature you want to maintain while grilling has a lot to do with how you position your coals. 

As a general rule, the more charcoal pieces you have in your grill, the hotter it will get. However, the temperature is also affected by the coal formation which will be explained as you keep reading.

2-Zone Fire Formation

The 2-zone method of grilling, which is perhaps the most common method, allows you to cook with both direct and indirect heat. Simply place the coals on towards one side of the charcoal grate to create two zones as the name implies. 

Then you can either cook using the embers or indirect heat by placing your meal opposite the coals. 

Using the 2-zone approach, you’ll need roughly 50 briquettes for normal 22-inch charcoal grills. If you’re going to be cooking for a long period of time, add some charcoal about every 30 minutes to keep the heat coming steadily. 

The Single-Layer Fire Formation

When you only want to cook with direct heat, using single-layer fire formation is the best. This approach has fewer options, but it is still useful.

Use this method if you need to cook a lot of meat at once and fast. However, you’ll need about 100 briquettes, spaced evenly over the entire charcoal grate. It’s very easy to overcook your meal with this approach, so be careful!

2-Zone Fire (Parallel Configuration)

The 2-zone parallel configuration is best used for even, indirect heat. This requires a disposable aluminum pan, a couple cups of water, and charcoal.

To get started, make two heaps of 50 briquettes on either side of your grill. There will be an empty spot in the center of the charcoal grate where you may set the aluminum pan filled with water. We recommend some handy coal holders to keep your coals burning evenly on both sides of the grill.

Your food will be placed over the pan to cook evenly with indirect heat. You can use either side of the cooking grate over the embers if you need to cook something over direct heat. The water and pan in the 2-zone parallel arrangement absorb and release heat, keeping the temperature low and evenly dispersing the heat across the grill. 

When you add soaked wood chips to the coals, the temperature will remain low, making it ideal for low and slow cooking and smoking. For a low and slow temperature of 225° fahrenheit, the 2-zone parallel technique is ideal.

As is customary, the longer you cook, the more charcoal you’ll need. However, having the pan and water in there means your coals will survive a little longer. You’ll want to top it out with charcoal every couple of hours and make sure there’s enough.

Charcoal Snake Formation

The charcoal snake formation is a great way to cook low and slow for a long time. The snake shape can be made by spreading a layer of briquettes or charcoal lumps around the sides of your charcoal grate, which is recommended for use in kettle grills. A semicircle should be the end outcome of this arrangement.

You can use 50 to 100 briquettes. Remember, the more you use, the longer the fuel will burn. Make the first layer two or three briquettes wide, then cover it with another one. Simply sprinkle some wood chips around the snake for a smokey flavor.

Light 3-6 briquettes at one end of the snake after the charcoal is in place. They will light the following bits of charcoal in line as the first ones burn, and so on until all the coal has been lit.

You’ll need a thermometer because maintaining a uniform temperature might be difficult. However, once you’ve mastered it, this method is a fantastic way to cook low and slow. 

4 Mistakes to Avoid When Grilling Over Charcoal

Not Using Chimney Starter

The charcoal itself is the most crucial aspect of charcoal grilling, and preparing the coals is the most time-consuming element of the procedure. 

For an easy process, fire the coals with a chimney starter. It’s easy to do. Just stuff the base of the starter with something that will easily catch fire, like newspaper, and cover it with charcoal. Light the bottom and leave the rest to science.

Make sure to leave about 20 minutes for the charcoal to thoroughly heat up.

Better still, watch this video for a more practical view

Hastily Pouring the Charcoal into Your Grill

Before pouring the coals into the grill base, be sure they’re completely gray. The problem is that if you don’t wait until the coals have cooled off, you will have a lot more trouble keeping the temperature under control. 

The charcoal will continue to burn, and the manner that you have laid it out will not correspond to the temperatures. A little patience will help your chimney to do its thing for the coals to become gray.

Forgetting to Preheat the Grill

You should preheat your grill before putting any food on the grates, just like you would your oven and make sure those racks are clean before you place anything on them. 

When your coals are evenly dispersed in your grill, cover them for five to ten minutes before laying any food over the coals.

Grill Size Error

The size of your grill and the amount of food you’re cooking have an impact on how much charcoal you’ll need. The normal size of a kettle charcoal grill is 22 inches. When it comes to charcoal grills, though, there are many various sizes and shapes to choose from.

The maximum charcoal capacity should be listed in your grill’s owner’s manual. Once you know the maximum, you can usually cut it in half for low-heat slow cooking. But, because every grill is different, some trial and error is required.


In general, 50 to 100 briquettes is a good place to start for typical charcoal grills. The hotter your grill gets, the more charcoal you use. When grilling with charcoal, an accurate thermometer will be your greatest friend, so invest in one to save time.

It’s a good idea to hope for the best and prepare for the worst as many grilling enthusiasts do. What would be the worst-case scenario? You run out of charcoal before you finish your meal. Always have excess charcoal ready for emergencies. 

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