How Much Charcoal to Use in a Grill (And How to Measure)

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Using charcoal in your grill is a great way to get an authentic smoky flavor in your favorite grilled foods. But, how much charcoal should you use in your grill?

In this TheGrillingDad.com article you will learn:

  • How much charcoal you should use in your grill
  • Whether different types of charcoal make a difference in how much you should use
  • And much more!
black charcoals

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How Much Charcoal Should You Use in Your Grill?

Determining how much charcoal to use in your grill can seem like a daunting task initially, however, there are several things you should consider before deciding. Some of the factors you need to think about are the types of charcoal you are using and what you plan on cooking.

It may be important to note that as you are determining how much charcoal you should be using, you should also consider how you are going to measure it out. This can make a huge difference in getting the amount just right.

The best way to figure out how much charcoal you should use when grilling is to experiment with the process with your personal grill until you find what works best for you. While you can also research the best solutions, discovering the right amount yourself can be rewarding.

Keep in mind that what you are going to cook plays a big role in determining the amount of charcoal you need to use. This is because, for some foods, you may need a hotter grill whereas other foods require less heat.

For example, if you are attempting to sear meat or just want it cooked faster, you will need to use a larger amount of charcoal. If you are using a chimney to measure, this means that you would fill it.

However, if you are cooking fish or other tender meat, you may only need to fill the chimney or charcoal pan halfway or maybe a little more. This will allow you to cook the meat at a slower pace to avoid burning the food.

Let’s take a closer look at how much charcoal you need to use in your grill for different grilling situations.

How Much Charcoal do You Need to Get Started?

When it comes to deciding how much charcoal you need to get started, it can fluctuate due to many factors. As stated previously, these factors include the type of charcoal you are using and how you are planning to start your grill. Most methods only require 4-5 pieces to get your grill started. 

While it only takes 4-5 pieces to start your grill, you will need to have more on hand to add to make the grill warm enough to cook–usually enough to make a layer on the bottom of the grill or to fill a chimehy.  There is also a chance you will have to add additional coals to the grill to keep it at a constant temperature during the cooking process.

Because of this, it is much better to have more charcoal than you think you need on hand so that you do not get into a bind. The worst thing that can happen is that you do not have enough charcoal to finish cooking your meal.

facts about charcoal staying hot

Does the Type of Charcoal You Use Matter?

If you have done any grilling at all, then you know the role that the different types of charcoal play in the outcome of the cooking process. Whether you are looking to cook hot and fast or low and slow can be determined by the type of charcoal you use.

This is also the case when determining how much charcoal you should be using to successfully grill your food. For the most part, you will want to choose charcoal that burns consistently so that your food is cooked more evenly.

To learn more about the different types of charcoal and how much you should be using to grill your favorite foods, keep reading.

Lump Wood Charcoal

Lump wood charcoal is created by burning wood for long periods without oxygen present which successfully burns off any chemicals that remain in the wood. This process results in lumps of wood charcoal being free of any additives to get in the way of your cooking process.

Many people prefer using lump wood charcoal because of its ease of use when it comes to lighting and controlling temperature. What most grillers like most about lump charcoal is that it does not produce a lot of ash which makes for easier cleanup.

Even though lump wood charcoal lights quickly, it also burns extremely hot which means that it can burn out much faster than other types of charcoal. This often results in you having to keep a close eye on the charcoal pan or chimney to ensure that there is enough charcoal left to continue cooking.

Although trial and error may be the best way to determine how much lump charcoal you will need to cook your favorite foods, you should remember that you will likely need more than you would briquettes.

The last thing you should consider about using lump wood charcoal is that many of the pieces tend to be uneven which can result in inconsistent heating. This could mean that areas of your grill may be hotter than the others which will affect how much charcoal you need to use.

Charcoal Briquettes

Charcoal briquettes are typically made from a variety of different woods and sawdust that come together with chemical fillers which are then compressed together. Because of this process, the result is evenly sized charcoal that makes for more consistent cooking.

Most grillers prefer to use charcoal briquettes because they are typically much easier to use and quite a bit cheaper than lump charcoal. Since they burn longer and more consistently, they tend to do a great job of cooking your foods evenly.

What people like most about charcoal briquettes is that they typically maintain a more constant temperature which means that you do not have to keep adding additional briquettes to finish the cooking process.

The bottom line is that while briquettes are used the most, they do have some disadvantages that you should be aware of. For example, because of the chemicals and additives that are used to make them, the smell can be somewhat offputting. 

The amount of charcoal briquettes you need to successfully cook your favorite meals often depends on what you are cooking and the size of the meat. In most cases, if you are cooking larger cuts of meat, you will need to use more briquettes.

lit charcoal inside of a black weber kettle grill with a grill grate leaning next to it

Does the Food You Grill Affect How Much Charcoal to Use?

Another factor you should consider as you are deciding how much charcoal to use in your grill is the type of food you are planning to cook. Since there are a plethora of options for your grilling desires, you will need to adjust the amount of charcoal to accommodate.

Whether you are cooking burgers or brisket, you will need to know just how much charcoal to start with and how much it may take for the entire meal. Some foods don’t require as much fuel since they cook low and slow, however, those that you are intended to cook fast may need much more fuel.

For example, if you are cooking burgers for your family, you will want the temperature to be hot so they sizzle which also means they will cook quickly. Because of this, you will need to ensure that you are filling either the charcoal pan or chimney full to the brim. If you have a charcoal grill, this means a full layer on the bottom of the grill. 

However, if you are roasting your favorite meats such as a prime rib, you may only need about half of the above amount since you will not burn through it as quickly. This is because these types of meat are designed to cook low and slow over several hours. 

Now, if you are smoking a brisket, you have to take into consideration that this is a process that is typically done overnight or all day. Since this is the case, you will need to fill the charcoal pan or chimney with either briquettes or lump coal and you may need to check and replenish the supply at some point. 

When you are planning to cook something low and slow, you should always have extra coals to add later on hand, so fill the pan or chimney the first time around and ensure you have a few pieces or briquettes set aside for later. (We recommend keeping a whole chimney full measurement as backup).

How do Your Measure the Charcoal Before Adding it to Your Grill?

As you ponder the question of how much charcoal to use in your grill, you should also consider how this is measured for more accuracy. If you start your research on the internet, you will find many different suggestions as to how much charcoal to use.

The question remains, how, with so many suggestions of how much to use, it seems simple enough until you realize that everyone is measuring differently. Some people will tell you to use fractions of the bag, while others suggest several charcoal pieces.

Keep in mind that none of these methods have any rhyme or reason when it comes to the accuracy of how much charcoal is used. Suggesting dividing the bag assumes that all bags are the same size, and this is simply not true. Additionally, not all grills are the same, and a larger grill will need more charcoal. 

Others recommend counting out the charcoal to a certain amount, however, how do you do that if the sizes of the coal are different? This is especially true if you are using natural lump coal since they are remnants of wood pieces and come in different sizes.

The most accurate way in the world of grilling to measure the amount of charcoal you use is to have some type of measuring device associated with your specific grill. Most grilling experts know that weighing the charcoal would require having a scale ready, and that is not convenient either.

The best way to measure the amount of charcoal you should use is to use a charcoal chimney to get the best and most accurate count each time. If your grill does not have one of these devices, you can purchase one as an acessory. You can also use the charcoal pan to judge how much charcoal you need for a single layer on the bottom of your grill. 

Since much of grilling is done by trial and error, as you are cooking, you should take note of how much charcoal each meal is using so that you can make adjustments the next time you get behind the grill.

Should You Setup Your Charcoal in a Particular Way?

To make the most use out of both your grill and the charcoal you are using, you should consider the various setups for laying out your charcoal. While many people typically just toss the charcoal in and start grilling, others are a bit more meticulous.

One of the most popular setups for placing your charcoal in the grill is called the two-zone grill setup. This method is said to give you the most control over your cooking process than any other method.

The two-zone method requires you to bank all of your charcoal over to one side of the charcoal pan which then leaves the other side empty. Because of this, you have now created two zones, thus the name.

Check out the two zones of this method and how they work:

  • Zone 1: high heat grilling is created by placing your food directly over the bank of charcoal on one side of the grill. 
  • Zone 2: lower heat grilling is created in the half of the grill that has no charcoal directly underneath. This creates an area that will still cook, but at a much lower temperature.

Keep in mind that the entire purpose of the zone is to create an experience where you have complete control over the temperature at which you are grilling your favorite foods.

Final Thoughts on How Much Charcoal to Use in a Grill

Overall, when it comes to how much charcoal you should use in your grill, there are many factors to consider. Depending on both the type of charcoal you decide to use and the various kinds of foods you plan to cook, the amount you use can vary greatly.

The best way to determine how much charcoal to use in your grill is to do a little of your own experimentation to find out what works best for you. Of course you can follow the recommendations of others, but if you are cutting it close on how much charcoal you need for a recipe, you’re better off buying a second bag to have on hand before you attempt to make it! 

Hope Davis

Hope Davis

Born in Denver, Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, I learned at a young age that the grill was one of the best ways to prepare food for a crowd. And during the winter storm months, when the snow was likely to knock out the power to our house, the propane grill was a lifesaver! You wouldn’t believe the number of things you can cook on a grill when necessary. With parents who couldn’t tell salt from pepper unless you told them, I spent my late teen years making my own seasoning mixes and marinades to dress the meat before barbecues. It wasn’t long before I developed a secret marinade that people still beg me to make for them today! When I was 21 years old I bought my first smoker. Picked up some cedar chips for making a cedar plank salmon...and well, the rest they say is history! I’ve been grilling and smoking all kinds of creations ever since and I’m always excited to share my passion with others through my favorite medium--writing!

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