In our eyes, charcoal is the best and most traditional fuel source for grilling and smoking.
It performs exceptionally well at high and low heats and gives off combustion byproducts when it burns which contribute to the barbecue flavor we absolutely adore (and frankly, are addicted to!).
But, if you’re looking to bulk buy your charcoal or you’ve found an old bag lying around you may be asking yourself – does charcoal actually expire?
Here’s some good news about the shelf life of charcoal, whether it’s briquettes or lump charcoal.
Does Charcoal Go Bad Or Expire?
In fact, charcoal does not expire and won’t go bad over time as long as it avoids moisture. This goes for both lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes.
However, if the charcoal has additives (like quick-light charcoal – I’m looking at you Kingsford), these can expire which can make the charcoal harder to light.
Now, if your charcoal has gotten wet, or has absorbed a lot of moisture over time, then you may find it doesn’t burn as effectively as it should.
This can be a bit of a problem. Charcoal that has absorbed moisture may not burn as hot or burn as long — or both!
How Long Can You Keep Charcoal?
So long as your charcoal is kept dry and not exposed to the elements there is no expiry of the charcoal itself.
So if you’re using 100% natural charcoal with no additives, you could use it 10 years later and it would still burn just as effectively, so long as it hasn’t absorbed excess moisture!
Using high-quality charcoal will also make it less likely to break down into smaller pieces or dust over time. Take a look at the best charcoal for grilling or the best charcoal for smoking.
What Makes Charcoal Go Bad?
The number one contributor that impacts charcoal quality over time is how much moisture it has absorbed.
If the charcoal has too much moisture it will lead to incomplete charcoal combustion.
This will cause uneven temperatures and inconsistent burning which will affect the sear when grilling or could lead to developing a bitter taste on the meat when smoking.
Testing Old Charcoal
If you suspect your charcoal has been exposed to moisture over time you can do a quick test to see how quickly and effectively it burns.
The easiest way to do so is to load up the chimney starter and light the charcoal.
If the charcoal looks like it’s struggling to light up, stay lit, or is burning unevenly it’s an unfortunate sign that it’s absorbed too much moisture.
If you use lighter fluid to help start the charcoal be sure to let it burn for at least 30 minutes before use, or you may end up with an unpleasant lighter-fluid taste on your food!
Ideally, you can use a natural fire starter, sawdust/wood shavings, and/or shredded paper as a more natural way of lighting the charcoal.
How To Dry Damp Charcoal
If your charcoal has been soaked or is quite damp you may not be able to simply dry it out, and unfortunately might have to say your goodbyes.
However, if you think your charcoal is simply a little damp, you can try to dry out excess moisture to return it to a reusable state.
Simply spread the charcoal out on some baking paper and leave it in full sunlight for a day or two. Then, test it by lighting some or by firing up the chimney starter.
Just be aware, even if you dry out your moist charcoal, it may not return back to its original quality!
Lump Charcoal Vs. Charcoal Briquettes Shelf Life
Both lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes can have an indefinite shelf life if stored in ideal, dry conditions.
But, it’s important to note that lump charcoal will be much more likely to still ignite even if it’s absorbed some moisture, versus charcoal briquettes.
This is because lump charcoal is pretty much just carbonized wood, in its whole form. Once it’s heated and the excess moisture has evaporated, it will light almost as normal.
On the other hand, because charcoal briquettes are made from wood, sawdust, and sometimes additives, and are formed and compressed under pressure, they often lose their form if they’ve absorbed too much moisture.
Because of this, you’re more likely to face issues when trying to light damp charcoal briquettes, as opposed to lump charcoal.
How To Store Charcoal Properly
1. Use The Right Type Of Container
Usually lump charcoal or briquettes will come in a thick paper bag. Although convenient and they remain dry to begin with, the paper can quite easily become damp.
It’s best to find a plastic or metal, waterproof container that seals well. So long as the bag remains dry you can simply put the bag into the container for convenience.
2. Choose A Good Storage Place
Choosing a good storage place for your charcoal is equally important.
Doesn’t matter the container, if you leave it out in the open it’s much easier to attract unwanted moisture.
It’s best to keep in a dry area undercover. Usually, a garage or well-covered shed will be fine as long as the charcoal is kept in a sealed metal or plastic container.
If you live in a humid area it’s important to take extra care, as it’s much more likely that your charcoal will spoil if not maintained well in a very dry area.
If you’re really in doubt that your charcoal is usable, it’s best not to risk it.
It would be tragic to get everything prepared and going only to find out that it’s not burning properly – especially when you’re cooking for guests.
You can always take steps to keep the quality of the charcoal by keeping it in a sealable, or moisture-proof container, and kept in a dry location away from the elements.
If your charcoal has been sitting in storage for a while but has been kept dry then it won’t have expired.
In this case, you’re free to go ahead and fire it up!