Although charcoal grills look a lot simpler than gas grills, charcoal grilling can be a lot more complicated than gas grilling. Because it’s too simple, there are not many features that can help with fire control and temperature control.

That’s why when using these grills, it’s crucial to know how much charcoal you should use. This way, you’ll be using charcoal efficiently, you’ll be setting the temperature right, and you can grill your meat perfectly.

How much charcoal you use will depend on many factors, which means that there are also no exact measurements on how much charcoal you need to use. Instead, we highly suggest that you get a charcoal chimney as this can serve as your charcoal measuring cup.

If you don’t know what a charcoal chimney is, it’s a great tool you can use in starting your fire. It ensures that your fuel burns correctly and efficiently, giving you a great tasting grill or smoked meat all the time.

So, how does having a charcoal chimney help? Well, that is exactly what we’ll explain below.

How much charcoal to use when grilling

How much charcoal you use will depend on several factors, including:

  • The type of meat you’re grilling
  • What temperature are you going for

We already mentioned above that having a charcoal chimney is very helpful as it can serve as a measuring cup. So, here’s an excellent recommendation as to how much charcoal you should put in your charcoal chimney when grilling different types of meat or when you’re trying to reach a specific temperature:

  • 25% Full: Fill your chimney 25% full if you want to grill under low heat. This is also the perfect temperature if you’re going to grill tender meats like white fish.
  • 50% Full: If you’re looking to get medium heat, fill your charcoal chimney up to 50% full. This is a great temperature if you’re looking to grill burgers and sausages.
  • 75% Full: If you’re looking to grill at medium-high heat, fill your chimney at 75%. This temperature is still perfect for burgers and sausages, depending on the type of cook you want on your meat. It’s also a suitable temperature if you want to get a good sear on your meat.
    75% full is also perfect for medium heat, given that the charcoal is more spread out and the grill is full.
  • 100% Full: If you’re looking for a perfect sear or really high heat grilling, fill your charcoal chimney to 100% full. It’s also great even if you don’t want a sear but just want to cook something hot and fast.

Do note that these measurements are only perfect for starting your grill. However, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll only need this much charcoal throughout your whole grilling session.

Other factors that may play on the amount of charcoal you use will include how long you want to stay at a specific temperature, the spreading out of your coals, and how much air is available.

Basically, if you’re cooking long hours and looking to maintain a specific temperature, you would need to add more charcoal. If it’s too windy outside, then the temperature may rise, and if you don’t want that, you need to block some air that’s coming in.

The spreading out of charcoal also affects the temperature. If your charcoal is too spread out, the grill temperature tends to be lower. This is because fuel is not reaching your cooking grates well.

How to gauge how hot your charcoal is

We’ve determined above how a charcoal chimney can help you reach your desired temperature. However, we’ve also mentioned that a 25% full chimney charcoal may not be enough to help you get 250 °F due to several factors.

That’s why for you to gauge how hot your charcoal is, you need to do a hand test.

A hand test is when you put your hand at least 1 inch over the cooking grates. After that, you need to count how many seconds your hand can stay there before you start feeling pain (3). Depending on the length, you’ll be able to know at what heat your coal is.

Here’s the standard measurement on how you can tell the temperature based on a hand test:

  • 10-15 seconds: 200° – 250 ° F (low heat)
  • 8-10 seconds: 250° – 325° F (medium-low heat)
  • 6-7 seconds: 325° – 375° F (medium heat)
  • 4-5 seconds: 350° – 450° F (medium-high heat)
  • 2-3 seconds: 450° – 600° F (high heat)

But what if your hand can’t last for even a second?

Then, that may mean the grill temperature is too high, and you can’t start cooking yet, even at high heat, as you may end up burning your meat. You should also note that the results of this test may also vary.

How to set up your charcoal

How you set up your charcoal can also influence your grill’s temperature.

We already mentioned above how spreading your charcoal thin can result in lower temperatures. On top of that, fire is distributed evenly, making thus blowing the fire out quicker. But if you gather charcoal in one space, you’ll be having a hotter fire that stays burning longer.

And this is actually one of the advantages of using a charcoal grill. It may not have various burners as gas grills, but you can still set up coals in a two-zone cooking setup.

A two-zone cooking set-up gives you the ability to cook meat with indirect and direct heat. Naturally, direct heat is hotter and will allow you to sear meat, while indirect heat gives you lower temperatures.

grilling zones

So, how do you set this up?

It’s pretty simple. After you’ve burned your coals using the chimney charcoal, pour the coals over your charcoal grill. Divide your charcoal grill into two sides – on one side, you’ll have a thin or one layer of charcoal (the cool zone), and on the other side, you’ll have several layers of charcoals (the hot zone). 

This set-up is perfect for those who like cooking two dishes at the same time. Or if you want to cook your meat at lower temperatures first before searing them at high heat.

If you have a larger charcoal grill, you can even do a three-zone cooking set-up.

This time, you’ll be dividing your charcoal grill into three instead of two. You’ll be putting one layer of charcoal on one end, 2-3 layers of charcoal on the middle, and three or more layers on the third zone.

How much charcoal to use when smoking

Grilling is very different from smoking. When smoking meat, you require to cook meat in lower heat for very long hours. And since temperature control is challenging in charcoal grills, smoking meat can be challenging and may require a different set-up on how you use your charcoal.

Smoking generally maintains a low temperature of 225-250 °F. And if you’re using a standard charcoal smoker, it’s highly recommended that you use the minion method.

It’s the easiest method you can use to reach and maintain a 250 °F heat without adding more fuel every time. Thus, giving you great convenience.

So, how does this method work?

It’s quite simple.

Grab a can and place that at the center of your charcoal smoker. After that, get your charcoal and fill the sides of the charcoal smoker. By the time you fill that up, you might notice that the only part left empty is the center part. Put a couple of charcoal inside, probably just 2-5 pieces.

After that, get your charcoal chimney, fill it up to a quarter because, again, we’re aiming for low temperature. Start our fire and let the charcoal burn until the top charcoal layer is ashy. Then, pour it over the can you placed at the center of your charcoal smoker.

Once your done, grab a tong and remove the can. And you’re all set!

If you need to control the temperature, you can use the air vents to let air come in and out. But, this method can give you consistent heat for up to 18 hours.

You should also consider other factors like wind, moisture, humidity, and air temperature, affecting how fast your charcoal will burn.

An alternative you can try is the snake method. It’s when you place a double semicircle of charcoal inside your smoker. It’s usually just two layers deep and two charcoals wide. You just have to light up the one end using some charcoal you burned using the charcoal chimney.

The charcoal will burn following the line, slowly and steadily, which helps in maintaining temperature.

Wrap Up

Charcoal grilling is undeniably challenging. But if you use great tools and great techniques, it may not be as hard as you think.

For this to work, it’s highly recommended to get a charcoal chimney, so you get proper measurements. A quarter full of the chimney charcoal will help you get to a lower temperature so you can grill tender meat while filling up the chimney charcoal will give you heat that’s perfect for searing.

But of course, since these measurements will not be the only ones to determine your grill’s temperature, a hand test is something you can do. This will also help you set up your grill with indirect and direct heat cooking so you can prepare two types of meat at the same time.

And if you’re interested in charcoal smoking, the minion method and snake method are two techniques you can do. These will help your charcoal last for long hours, and all you need to do to control the temperature is by controlling the air vents.

The biggest challenge when using a charcoal grill and smoker is temperature control. However, once you get started with the right amount of charcoal, you’ll only be making slight adjustments during the cooking process.