Let’s be honest. We’ve all experienced a time were we have disposed of our charcoal after a smoking or grilling session wondering if we could have reused it. The answer is plain and simple. You CAN reuse your charcoal for grilling or smoking, so long as it’s not too far gone and is stored properly for next use.
But, there are a few things and some techniques to remember to be sure you don’t lose out on a quality cook. Let’s break it down.
Can You Reuse Charcoal For Grilling/Smoking?
Kept simply, the answer is yes, you can reuse charcoal for grilling or smoking. This not only will save you some dosh on going through excess charcoal but if you do it right, or mix some of the larger chunks with fresh lump charcoal or briquettes, you won’t be sacrificing on performance.
This is the key thing to remember when reusing your charcoal, so it’s important to get the process right so you don’t end up with a sad piece of meat at the end of it. You want to stop the combustion process as soon as you can, and ideally store your charcoal in a sealed metal container away from any moisture.
Depending on your desired temperature and the state of the used charcoal you might wish to add some fresh charcoal too. If you’re smoking at lower temperatures for not too long, then reused charcoal should be fine. If you need to grill at higher temperatures you may want to add a couple of new pieces, but it’s not always necessary, as it depends on the size, quantity, and state of your used charcoal.
How Well Does Old Charcoal Burn?
So we know we can reuse our charcoal, but how well does it burn compared to fresh lump charcoal or briquettes?
As long as the pieces of used charcoal are large enough, solid, and have been kept dry they will burn almost identically to fresh charcoal. In saying that, there are some factors to remember that may influence how well the used charcoal burns.
- The used charcoal pieces are not as big as fresh charcoal pieces. Because of this, the airflow between the charcoal pieces is tighter, which can make it more difficult to light well and produce high temperatures.
- Because these used charcoal pieces have been partially combusted already, they will naturally not last as long as fresh lump charcoal or briquettes. If you’re going for a nice long smoking session, make sure you’re confident that your charcoal will last. If there is any doubt, add fresh charcoal and mix it with some of the larger pieces of used charcoal.
- If you’re going for high temperatures exceeding 350°F for searing some steaks, again you just want to be conscious that used charcoal may burn up quicker, or due to the size and airflow restrictions it may be harder to sustain this high temperature.
In saying this, you’ll naturally get a feel of how well your used charcoal works for you over time. You will be able to make a confident decision whether you will need to mix used charcoal with fresh charcoal or not.
If your charcoal won’t light, make sure you’ve checked the basics before assuming it’s the charcoal itself!
Storing & Removing Used Charcoal
Putting Out & Removing Charcoal
You’ve finished cooking and your meat is resting, so now’s the time to put out the charcoal. If you’re dealing with a smoker with vents, or a grill that relies on vents for oxygen, such as a kettle grill, the easiest and safest way to put out the charcoal is simply by closing all the vents fully. This will starve the charcoal of oxygen and it will stop combusting.
Once the charcoal is no longer burning, you’ll want to separate the remaining, larger pieces of charcoal and filter out the ash and smaller pieces. You can do this easily using a siv or a deep frying basket, or if you don’t have this luxury, long tongs or a small shovel will do fine. Safely dispose of the unwanted ash and keep the larger chunks and store them properly for next use.
If you are using an open grill without a hood & vents, I would recommend safely scooping out the charcoal and placing it into a small to medium sized metal container, you can then close the lid to stop the combustion. No matter how tempted, do not use water to extinguish the charcoal, as it promotes rust within the grill, makes a mess, and makes the charcoal less effective for next time.
Storing Used Charcoal
Storing used charcoal is just the same as storing new charcoal. You want to keep it as protected as you can from the elements, harsh weather conditions, and mainly, moisture. Once you’ve removed the hot charcoal from your grill or smoker, place it a metal container and seal it shut. This will not only ensure that it’s fully extinguished, but it will prevent any unwanted moisture that would make it burn less well and evenly for next use.
Reusing Lump Charcoal vs. Briquettes
When you’re testing which pieces of lump charcoal you are going to keep, you can give them a light press with your tongs or shovel. If they break down easily they are probably not worth keeping. But if they feel sturdy and still have good size they will definitely be worthwhile for next time.
Top quality lump charcoal for smoking, shouldn’t break down easily unless it’s fully burnt out, which makes it easier to tell which charcoal to keep. This is also the case for the best lump charcoal for grilling too. Lower quality lump charcoal breaks more easily, but if you’re using budget charcoal you can still salvage the larger pieces.
As a rule of thumb it’s always safe to add 75% new charcoal and 25% old charcoal to ensure you won’t lose out on any quality in the cook.
It’s important to use high quality charcoal briquettes as these tend to hold together and are sturdier than lower quality briquettes. When reusing briquettes, you can usually visually tell which briquettes are worth keeping as they will be the ones still holding their shape.
With briquettes it’s particularly important to add fresh charcoal in the mix as used briquettes are much more likely to burn out quicker. This could be tragic if you’re half-way through a smoking or grilling session! When lighting the used briquettes use the stacking technique and interchange new and old in a charcoal chimney or in the pit to help it burn evenly.
Whether you’re dealing with lump charcoal for kamado a smoker, or a grill you can always reuse the larger pieces for further sessions. Remember to put out the charcoal as quickly as possible (WITHOUT USING WATER), and store them safely for next time.
If the pieces are large enough and weren’t used extensively then you can get away with just reusing them, but remember don’t risk sacrificing the quality of the cook. If in doubt, mix it with some newer charcoal, particularly when using briquettes.