How much charcoal to use?

How Much Charcoal Should You Use In A Charcoal Grill?

Are you wondering how much charcoal to use when smoking meat using charcoal grill? It depends on three factors: the type of meat you are smoking, the size of the cut, and the amount of heat you require. A full chimney would be an ideal option when high heat is needed.

But when you need to cook slowly in low heat, you don’t have to stack the entire chimney with charcoal and wait for the heat to recede. This guide presents useful tips on how to use a charcoal grill. But before that, there are some concepts you need to know regarding temperatures. Since we will be talking about low, medium, and high heat, here is what they mean.

  • Low heat: represents a quarter of a chimney filled with charcoal at 250°F – 350°F
  • Medium heat: half or three-quarter of a chimney at 350°F – 450°F
  • High heat: a full chimney at 450°F –  550°F

Note: The specifications are based on standard charcoal chimney capacity (~100 briquettes) which is found in local hardware shops.

Another important thing you should know is that how you spread your coals can determine the cooking time as well as the maximum temperature. If you want your meat to cook slowly and for long hours, concentrate the coal at a point and deepen the layer.

On the other hand, spreading hot coals in shallow layers in a wide surface area makes them lose heat quickly thereby reducing the length of cooking.

Monitoring the temperatures

0When searing meat, you must be sure of the cooking temperatures, otherwise you may end up with completely ashed steaks or undercooked briskets. A thermometer will help you gauge the temperatures accurately. Consider a hand test if your grill doesn’t have an inbuilt thermometer.

Put your hand 5” – 6” above the grate and leave it until you feel the need to pull away. Count the number of seconds you have managed to keep your hand over the BBQ. This will give you an idea of the hotness of the grate. Here are the standard indications.

  • 8 – 10 seconds: Low heat (250°F – 350°F)
  • 5 – 6 seconds: Medium heat (350°F – 450°F)
  • 2 – 4 seconds: High heat (450°F – 550°F)

How to arrange the coals in a grill

Once again, how you place the coals is a matter of what you are cooking and the technique you want to use. Here is a comprehensive guide to arranging the coals.

Direct grilling

1Suppose you want to sear beef ribs directly. You can spread the coals out in one layer across the grate. This method is perfect for cooking thin steaks of meat in high temperatures. You don’t always need to use the whole grilling surface, so you should leave some space uncovered.

Direct heat grilling requires the entire chimney to be filled with charcoal which must reach 450 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit. A full chimney is equivalent to 100 briquettes.

Dual-zone grilling

2You can cook just anything with a two-zone fire grill. Here, you spread the coals across one half of the smoker and leave the other half bare.

This gives you the complete benefit of direct heat that’s needed for searing as well as the convenience of indirect heat required to manage flare-ups and slow cooking.

This method is most suitable for cooking seafood, chops, steaks, and chicken cuts (boneless and bone-in). Basically, dual zone fire requires coals up to half or full chimney and high to medium heat.

Dual-zone fire (parallel configuration)

3Here, the coals are distributed along the two sides of the smoker. A void is left in between. This is the best fire for smoking and low-heat cooking of bigger roasts, full turkeys, and chicken.

You need low heat in this case and a whole chimney full of charcoal. You might need to add more coals afterward.

The charcoal snake

4Arrange the wood and coals in a circular manner along the edge of the grill. Add some lit coals at one end of the charcoal snake. This will allow the unlit fuel to burn slowly for the next few hours.

To start the snake, use about 100 unlit coals and 6-8 lit coals. You may add coals later on. Low heat is required in this case, i.e. 225 – 250°F.


5Smoking is a low-heat and slow-cooking technique. You place your meat on the grill indirectly at low temperature for several hours at a time. The idea behind smoking is to give your meat a woody flavor.

So, you need some hardwood chips which must be soaked in water first. Different woods have different flavors so you should choose according to your taste, e.g., mesquite, applewood, maple, hickory, cherry, etc.

Regardless of the type of smoker you have, you must use indirect heat. You need to fill up the charcoal bed with coals and only include a few lit coals in the beginning. Low-heat smoking requires 225-250 °F.


Hopefully, your question of how much charcoal to use for grilling has been answered. This is the rule of thumb: the more you add the charcoal the hotter your fire becomes.

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