How To Tell When Charcoal Is Ready (With Pictures)

We’ve all been there.

You’ve lit the charcoal and started grilling, only to find out things aren’t getting as hot as you’d hoped for.

After further inspection, your charcoal simply isn’t burning properly.

Yup, it hurts. 

So, before you start cookin’ you better be lookin’ at your charcoal, making sure it’s adequately ashed over and properly burning!

Here’s everything you need to know to go from an amateur to a pro, pardon the rhyming.

Instead of giving you a loosely pre-defined time frame of how long it takes for your charcoal to start burning enough to be considered “ready” to use for cooking, I’m going to literally show you the only rule you’ll ever need to follow.

What I mean here is, you know the charcoal is ready to use for cooking when it forms a full layer of white ash over itself. This indicates that the actual piece of charcoal has started self-sufficiently burning.

The key here is patience. Don’t be too eager and think it’s ready when you see a handful of pieces ashed over, no, no. Wait until the majority of your charcoal is almost fully ashed over before you even consider starting to cook with it.

This goes for both charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re getting ready to grill or smoke with it!

What Happens When You Use Charcoal Before It’s Ready

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what happens if you start cooking with charcoal that’s simply not ready. Chances are you’ve been there, done that.

But, to reiterate the importance, if you start using charcoal before it’s ready (that is before it’s fully combusting and has ashed over), it’s very likely:

  1. The charcoal may just go out entirely.
  2. Your grill may struggle to get up to temperature.
  3. Your food may take waaay longer than expected.
  4. If you’re using lighter fluid/charcoal starters, then your food may end up tasting bitter or weird.

Need I go on?

How Long Does It Take For Charcoal To Be Ready?

The time it takes to light your charcoal till it’s ready for use entirely depends on your chosen method.

In reality, there are more than a handful of ways to effectively light your charcoal. But in general, you can expect it to take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes until it’s adequately ready for grilling or smoking. 

Here’s the rough time it usually takes for your charcoal to be ready using different starting methods (assuming your normal charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal):

  • Charcoal Chimney (With Newspaper Starter): 20 minutes- 25 minutes
  • Lighter Fluid/Firestarters: 25 – 30 minutes
  • Electric Charcoal Starter: 25 – 35 minutes

Of course, there can be some variability in the times based on anything from charcoal quality and quantity to climate, and even weather conditions.

Instead of following the timing, simply look for the white ashy layer – when it’s mostly covering your charcoal then it’s a clear indication it’s burning properly and ready for cooking.

Fastest Way To Light Charcoal

Either you’re in a hurry to start cooking or you simply don’t feel like testing your patience today.

In any case, you better hope you’re equipped with a trusty charcoal chimney, if not you better haul your behind to the closest home depot or barbecue store.

Really though, the fastest and most reliable way to light your charcoal is by using a charcoal chimney. It doesn’t even need to be fancy either – it’s simply the natural shape and design which does it.

Charcoal chimneys allow you to light your charcoal from the bottom (using any kind of newspaper, kindling, or fire starter you wish), and its design helps the charcoal heat up quicker, and light all the only pieces inside it over such a short time. 

Not only that but it’s extremely easy to operate and safe to pour into your grill or smoker when your charcoal is ready, after about 15 – 20 minutes. Yup, that fast. 

Note: Because it’s a lot of charcoal lighting at once, it’s often accompanied by a fair amount of smoke – so don’t be alarmed.

Tips for Preparing Charcoal for Grilling

If you’re new to the world of cooking with charcoal, then you’re bound to make a bunch of mistakes early on, and learn a whole bunch more.

To speed up some of the learning, here are some quick and easy tips for preparing your charcoal for cooking:

  1. Determine your charcoal arrangement before you light it: it’s much harder to rearrange your charcoal after it’s lit. Determine whether you want to do a classic pyramid, a two-zone set-up for indirect heating, or a snake for longer slow-cooking sessions.
  2. Where possible, avoid using lighter fluid or quick-light charcoal: the more unnatural substances you use to light your charcoal, the more likelihood that some of these very same chemicals can end up on your foods.
  3. Try cooking with each charcoal briquette AND lump charcoal (during separate cooks): each has inherently different qualities, so it’s worth cooking with each of them to get a better grasp on their advantages and the overall experience of cooking with charcoal.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

Ya’ll already know it’s 100% OK to make mistakes when you’re using charcoal, whether you’re grilling or smoking. But, you owe it to yourself to identify what actually went wrong and fix it for next time.

Here’s a compilation of some of the easiest and most common mistakes to avoid when it comes to lighting and cooking with charcoal:

  1. Don’t try to use damp charcoal.
  2. Don’t smother your charcoal.
  3. Keep your grill or smoker clean. Really.
  4. Don’t try cooking with charcoal until it’s adequately lit. It’s just going to slow the lighting process and prolong the cook, and possibly even ruin the texture of the food too.

For the full story and more, see our guide here.

And There You Have It

Although you can expect charcoal to take between 20 – 30 minutes to be optimally ready for cooking, the better method is to observe the white ashy layer which builds up around the charcoal as it burns.

This is a sure fire way to tell that your charcoal is burning properly. When most of your charcoal develops a full layer of white ash around it, then it’s 100% ready for cooking, and you completely eliminate the risk of it going out on you, or inadequately cooking your food!

After a few experiences lighting your charcoal and observing this white ashy-ness, I guarantee you you’ll be able to tell when your charcoal is ready simply by looking at it!

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