Charcoal is ready to cook when there is a grey ash cap covering the coal and any lighting fluid or other igniter has completely burned off. Charcoal can take up to 20 minutes to be ready, but this time frame can be affected by the type of grill, weather conditions, and, of course, the type of charcoal you are using.
Also, the process you choose to light the charcoal will affect how soon it will be ready. Using a charcoal chimney generally takes about 20 minutes and is chemical-less, whereas using lighter fluid can reduce the time to about 10 or 15 minutes, but there is often a strong chemical smell left behind. Usually you have to wait a few extra minutes to burn off that chemical smell.
Lump charcoal lights up faster and can be ready in about 5 to 10 minutes, and briquettes take longer, up to 20 minutes in some cases. This all depends on the grill and the type of charcoal, but once the coals are ready, expect hours of heat.
When is charcoal ready to be used to cook food?
When the charcoal turns grayish-white.
When the briquettes are a uniform black color, even if on fire, they are neither ready nor ready to cool. The coals will burr for a while and start generating heat, but that doesn’t mean they are ready. If you used lighter fluid, it can be absorbed by the coals and create a fire frame, but that does not mean your grill is ready. Also, when using lighter fluid to light coals, it’s important to open every air vent in your charcoal grill to avoid a flare-up.
Cooking times once the charcoal is ready vary depending on whether you are using lump or briquette coals. Lump charcoal burns faster than briquettes, but lump burns hotter and puts out more heat per pound. I wrote an article on the differences between these two types of charcoal, and there are many.
Charcoal is part charbon, or char, which is the product of cooking wood in low-oxigen silos. The process burns off tar, moisture, and other compounds until the wood turns to char and before it turns to ash.
The white or grey cap on the coals is an indication that the coals are fully ignited and combustion is in full swing. When charcoal is first ignited, you will notice a blue flame at first. This is an indication of hot gases burning, not combustion. Eventually you start seeing that orange color around the coals and the white caps, which is why the white caps are a good indication that combustion is fully on.
Steps for Getting Charcoal Good and Ready for Cooking
Grab your favorite bag of charcoal, whether it is lump or briquettes. Remember, there are many ways of lighting charcoal, and my preferred method is using a chimney starter and not lighter fluid. There are many methods and alternatives to lighting charcoal without using lighter fluid.
If you are using a charcoal chimney, which works great, fill it to the desired level and light up the bottom of the chimney until the coals are lit. I have a detailed guide on using chimneys to light charcoal. To start a fire and light the charcoal, place newspaper at the bottom of the charcoal chimney starter.
If you don’t have a charcoal chimney, pile the coals in a pyramid shape and use a lighting wax cube or smoker stick; whatever you use, try to avoid using chemicals to avoid a chemical odor on your food.
Open all your air vents in your grill to allow oxygen into the grill and get a healthy fire going. Always be sure your charcoal grill is away from flammable items and things that can get damaged by high heat.
Let the charcoal or briquettes burn until they’re covered with white-gray ash, adjust the airflow in your charcoal grill, and you are ready to cook.
Get the grill Prepared for charcoal
Make sure your grill is ready, clean, and ash free. Old charcoal ash can prevent new charcoal from lighting correctly, disrupt air flow and prevent you from getting a healthy fire. I like to scoop old ash and coals out of my kamado grill before each cook, and sometimes using a shop vac is necessary.
Once you make sure you grill is clean it is ready for the new charcoal.
Tips when getting charcoal ready
Before you start grilling, I also recommend doing a temperature check to make sure the charcoal is at the temperature you desire. Some grills make this simple as they have a built-in lid or cooking chamber thermometer. If you are cooking something simple like burgers and hot dogs, you do not need to add too much charcoal to the grill. Half a charcoal chimney full of charcoal will generate enough heat.
When getting charcoal ready, weigh in the amount of food you are planning on cooking and the temperature at which you want to cook it at.
If you are planning on cooking for long periods, add a full charcoal chimney full of charcoal and use the air vents in your charcoal grill to control the temperature.
If you use an electric starter, make sure it’s long as they tend to make the charcoal spark a lot. Pile up the coals in a pyramid shape and light the bottom charcoal first. As the flames consume the bottom charcoal, they will light up the top ones, but keep in mind that it does work as well the other way around. Always light the bottom coals first.
Make sure that you are find a good place in your home to work and cook with your charcoal grill. These grills can get very hot and generate a lot of smoke, so a good open area is always best.
One Last Word
Regardless the type of charcoal you like to use, it is ready when the charcoal firsts turns white. The lighting process can take up to 20 minutes. To speed up the lighting process open all the air vents on your grill and wait until it is to temperature before cooking any food.