Crunching the Numbers: How Much Charcoal to Use

August 26, 2022

On average, you can use 30 briquettes for small grills and 50 to 75 briquettes for larger grills. Of course, there is more to this!

Growing up in a BBQ crazy family, I learned all about measuring out fuel at a young age and even figured out my own trips as I got older, allowing me to share my knowledge with you.

In this post, I will show you how much charcoal to use, how to do your own calculations, and so much more. Let's begin!

How Much Charcoal To Use

A Note About Calculating How Much Charcoal to Use

I would like to start things off with an important point: the following calculations are all estimates. This is because it can be difficult for anyone besides you to determine the correct quantity of charcoal. The exact amount of charcoal depends on:

  • size of the grill
  • type of charcoal
  • desired temperature
  • food type

Thus, consider the following information as guidelines instead of rules that you must follow.

Close up Photo of Coals

How Do I Calculate How Much Charcoal I Need?

I will break down the factors you need to consider when making your calculations:

Type of Charcoal

There are two main types of charcoal - charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal. Charcoal briquettes are often infused with lighter fluid and as a result burn more easily and can burn for a longer time. There are downsides though, namely the chemical smell and the significant ash production.

Lump charcoal, on the other hand, is cleaner and it can burn hot with minimal ash but it is also expensive and burns out more quickly.

In terms of quantity, though, you will require 3lbs of lump charcoal to get the same burn rate as 2lbs of charcoal briquettes. Thus,

it is a 2:3 ratio.

The Size of the Charcoal Grill

As you are aware, there are different types of charcoal grills to choose from. They don't just differ in design, function, and performance, they also differ in size.

The smallest of the lot are portable grills and kettle grills. Kamado comes next and then you have barrel grills. Naturally, there can be some discrepancies between brands, lines, and models.

On average, though, you should use 30 briquettes for smaller grills and between 50 and 75 briquettes for larger grills.

As there are about 18 briquettes in a pound, you would need to use around 1.5lbs for a small grill and around 2.7lbs to 4lbs for larger charcoal grills.

Then,

How much lump charcoal should I use?

In terms of lump coal, this would amount to about 2.5lbs for a small grill and between 4 and 6lbs for larger grills.

Temperature

Perhaps one of the biggest factors, though, is the grilling temperature. See, when you are grilling, you will be setting up for low and slow cooking such as smoking, medium heat, or high heat.

With cooking temperatures - the more charcoal you use, the hotter your grill gets. Therefore, this is a formula you can follow:

  • Low Heat: 1.5lbs of briquettes
  • Medium Heat: 2lbs
  • High Heat: 2.5 - 4.5lbs

Of course, the above calculations are for direct heat charcoal grilling. Many people, though, will use the two zone method. This is where one section has indirect heat - no charcoal underneath it. As a result, you will only be using about half the amount of charcoal as mentioned above.

Type and Quantity of Food

You also have to think about the kind of food that you are grilling. For instance, if you are grilling burgers, you can do this on medium heat while when you cook steak, you have to opt for high heat. Smoking a brisket? Then, it is all about maintaining low heat.

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The quantity of food matters quite a bit. If you are cooking more food, particularly at a higher temperature, then you are going to need more coal. Less food will require less fuel.

Thermal Coal

Using a Charcoal Chimney as Measurement

If you find the above information confusing, don't worry, you aren't the only one. The truth is that there is no quick and easy answer to how much charcoal should you use in your grill. There are just too many variables.

To make everything simpler, I like to use a chimney starter as a measuring device. On average, you can fill the chimney starter with about 80 to 100 briquettes.

Here are the guidelines that you can follow if you are using this device:

  • Low heat: 25 percent full
  • Medium heat: 50 percent full
  • Medium high heat: 75 percent (this can also be useful for cooking a fully packed grill on medium heat)
  • High heat: 100 percent full chimney

Now, these calculations are based on the two zone fire set up for indirect grilling. If you want high heat cooking overall, then you are going to need to double the amount of charcoal used.

In some rare instances, you may want to reach temperatures of around 800°F. In this case, you have to take a different approach.

This involves filling the chimney starter to the halfway point and then placing the cooking grate directly above it. The food goes on top of the charcoal grate. Here, the heat produced is concentrated towards one point, making it easier for you to get those high temperatures.

Testing Out Your Grill Capacity

The last thing that you want is to have to mess around with calculations every time that you want to grill or smoke.

So, run this test the first time around. Fill your charcoal chimney starter and empty it into the empty space. Continue to do this until the coals are a short distance away from the cooking grate, nearly filling up the area.

Make a note of how many times you had to fill up your chimney starter to get here. Then, repeat this exercise for the indirect heat method and make a note of this as well.

It is a good idea to use this exercise to determine how many refills it takes for low, mid, and high heat too. This way, you simply have to consult your chart and get started.

Photo of Black Metal Charcoal Grill

How Much Charcoal to Use for Smoking?

Many people will often use their charcoal grill as a smoker too. With just a few tweaks, you get that distinct smoky flavor.

Since this is based on a low and slow cooking method, the temperatures are low. In fact here the focus is on how the coal and wood chips are arranged in the charcoal grill.

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Charcoal Snake

This arrangement works best with charcoal briquettes. Here, you arrange the coals in a cold grill in a semi circle - there is a gap at one point. Now, you have to carefully arrange the coals, placing them in a semi circle shape but also one on top of the other. This may require about a 100 briquettes.

With this formation, you only light charcoal on one end of the arrangement. The fire then slowly travels throughout. This is perfect for longer smoking sessions when you don't want to interrupt the entire cooking process at any point.

Minion

Here, you start with a fully chimney of briquettes. Place these in the grill and arrange it in a donut-like shape, with space in the middle. Then, fill the chimney 1/4th of the way and light the coals. Place the lit coals in the middle.

The fire will then slowly spread in all directions, allowing the heat to go on for longer.

Is Less More?

I get this question rather often - is it better to add less or more charcoal when starting out? Now, naturally, you don't want to go overboard here, particularly if you are cooking on low heat for a short while. Add too much coal and a lot of will burn up, which can be quite a waste for you.

Personally, I always prefer to add more than what I have calculated is strictly necessary. This is especially true when I'm on a longer cook or cooking at a higher heat.

See, use too little, and then you will need to top in the middle of your cook. Not only can this be annoying, but this can throw off the grilling and smoking temperature. Furthermore, it can also extend your overall cook time. Due to this, I like to err on the side of caution.

How to Make Your Charcoal Last Longer?

Hey, charcoal is money, right? So, the longer that you can make it last, the less you have to use and the more money you can save. Here are the tips that you should be following to stretch things out:

Use High Quality Products

Yes, you have to spend money to save money. The first thing that you should do is invest in high quality fuel. These burn better and for longer. Not to mention, you get cleaner smoke too. It really doesn't make much sense to skimp here.

Only Use as Much as Temperature Dictates

Try to grill foods that require the same temperature at the same time. This way, you can ensure that you only produce as much heat as is required. Thus, you don't unnecessarily burn through your fuel.

Store Your Coals Well

Yes, make sure to seal the bag properly and store it in a cool, dry place. This maintains their integrity and allows them to burn better. Make it a point of using them up sooner rather than later too.

Firepit Charcoals

Frequently Asked Questions

How Much Charcoal Do I Need for 2 Burgers?

Even though you need mid range heat, as this is a smaller amount, you may be able to get away with using just 1.5lbs of briquette.

How Long Does 1kg of Charcoal Last?

Depending on other factors such as temperature, this may last for several hours - about 4 to 6 hours.

Wrapping It Up

Yes, figuring out how much fuel to use in your grill can be a bit confusing but now that you have the right guidelines, crunching the numbers will be a lot easier for you. A little bit of math and you will be on your way to the perfect cookout!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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