When Is Charcoal Ready?

When Is Charcoal Ready?

Cooking with charcoal produces amazing results but can be very tricky from the instant you open the bag they come in. Knowing when charcoal is ready to cook on alone already takes a lot of work.

Despite this, though, charcoal remains to be a landslide favorite when it comes to outdoor cooking precisely because of its performance. So, instead of joining the small band of electric grill and smoker fans, why not learn how to work with the tried and tested charcoal?

First things first: When is charcoal ready to cook on? Find out how you can tell when your charcoal is ready and learn a few things or two about effectively controlling it.

Why Timing Is Crucial

Cooking with charcoal directly exposes you and your property to fire and serious injury. Avoid accidents (and terrible food) by taking timing seriously.

Just because the area above your coals feels hot does not always mean that they are hot enough. What you can feel around the fire is only radiant heat and does not reflect the temperature on the grates themselves.

If you use radiant heat as your indicator, you may end up placing your meat on your cooker too early. If you do that, you may experience inconsistent heat levels throughout your cook.

That will then lead to unpredictable cooking time, which will, in turn, leave you with undercooked or overcooked food. Also, your food will definitely stick to the grates.

If those are not enough to discourage you from winging your charcoal timing, keep in mind that starting to cook before your coals have burned down can start a fire.

It can be so small as to burn only your food, but it can also get large enough to cause serious damage.

What Affects Charcoal Readiness

Essentially, charcoal is ready when it is hot enough, and just how hot it can get in a certain period of time depends on many factors. Let us go over them one by one.

Charcoal Type

Your choice of coal partly determines when you may start cooking. Charcoal briquettes are the quickest ones to light up and heat up because most of them have petroleum binders and accelerants.

Natural lump charcoal or char wood also lights up fast because it's pure wood composition makes it highly responsive to oxygen.

The premium binchotan and coconut shell coals, meanwhile, take a longer while to get ready.

Oxygen Levels and Airflow​

​Without oxygen, there won’t be any fire and your stack of coals will just be a mass of cold, charred wood. The amount of oxygen that gets to them through your cooker’s vents is an important factor to consider when determining when to start cooking.

Other Environmental Factors​

Things that fall outside of your control can also significantly affect your coals’ readiness. A relatively low ambient temperature and cool winds, for example, will blow cool air towards your charcoal, slowing down the heating process.

Altitude can also affect charcoal’s burn rate. At higher altitudes, there is less oxygen and lower temperatures.

This means that the higher your location is, the longer it will take your coals to heat up.

How Ready Is Ready?

The food you are cooking is what determines what exactly “ready” means. Naturally, there is no one-size-fits-all timing because different kinds of food cook well over different kinds of heat.

You know how so many grillers recommend that you start cooking the instant your coals turn white? At that point, only the surface of the charcoal is hot, but the internal temperature is still relatively cool, meaning the fire is yet to intensify.

You hear about this advice so often that you may be thinking it applies to any food. It does not!

Actually, that only works for food like steak, burgers, and jerky. Putting them on the grates that early will sear the surface of the meat, but you will have to let your food cook longer to thoroughly cook the inside of it.

However, if you try cooking chicken the same way, the sudden rise in temperature will burn your bird to a black hunk of flesh even before it begins to cook.

For chicken and similar kinds of meat, you may only put your food on the grate once the coals have completely burned down and settled on a stable temperature.

How to Know When Charcoal Is Ready

Experienced and dedicated outdoor cooks can already tell by sight, smell, and sometimes sound if their coals are ready. We, mere followers, on the other hand, have two widely accepted ways to check if charcoal is ready to cook on.

Using a Thermometer

Do not risk ruining your food by insisting that your gut feel can give accurate temperature readings. Invest in a good thermometer.

Nowadays, you can buy outdoor cookers that come with built-in thermometers. These are located in the center of the lid, though, so the reading it gives you is roughly the average between the left and right sides.

Unless you are using a two- or a three-zone setup, you should do just fine with that kind of cooker.

You may also opt for a remote thermometer. On Amazon alone, you can find some for really affordable varying prices--take your pick!

Using Your Hand​

Place your hand about five inches over the charcoal with your palm facing down. Hold it there and pull away when it starts to hurt.

If you are able to sustain the heat for more than 11 seconds, that indicates low heat--between 225F and 250F. This is the perfect heat for low and slow barbecuing or smoking those briskets and ribs.

Medium low heat--between 250F and 325F--allows you to put your hand over your coals for about 8 to 10 seconds. When your charcoal fire is within this temperature range, you either have to add more coals to increase heat or wait a bit longer for a lower heat.

Being able to hold your hand above the charcoal for 6 to 7 seconds indicates medium heat. At 325F to 375F, your coals are ready for turkey, chicken, and other food that are best cooked over indirect heat.

The heat level enables them to develop just enough crust on the outside while gently cooking them thoroughly on the inside at an even rate.

If you have to pull away after 4 to 5 seconds, it means your coals are burning at medium high heat, or roughly 375F to 450F. Starting to cook at this stage will cause your food to crust over nicely while cooking through slightly.

You can cook burgers, fish, and thick veggie slices at this point.

Finally, if you can only stand the heat for 1 to 3 seconds, that means your charcoal is at high heat, ranging from 450F to 650F. This temperature window is good for food that should be seared to form crusts in seconds--steak, pork chops, or thin vegetables.

Quick Tips

  1. Clean ash and residue buildup because they can slow down burning and smother your fire altogether.
  2. Use your cooker’s vents wisely. They are the key to controlling temperature and the internal convection currents.
  3. Be patient. To a hungry cook’s eyes, a burning stack of coals is already equivalent to food.

    Resist the temptation of just slamming your food down on charcoal that aren’t thoroughly covered in gray ash yet. As we mentioned earlier, when you have burning coals that are still mostly black, they are yet to ignite even more.

    Avoid scary surprises by waiting for the charcoal to stabilize.
  4. Avoid lifting the lid too often. When you open a charcoal grill’s cover, oxygen comes in and makes your fire burn hotter.

    This means that the more you lift that lid, the more you risk burning your food.

Ask a Better Question!

At the end of the day, it is not really a question of when charcoal is ready. Ask this question instead: When is it not ready?

Charcoal is ready to cook anytime. It is just a matter of determining which food it is ready for, as different kinds of food favor different temperatures.

If you want your food to develop crust in seconds, you can place them on the grates even at high heat. If you want a nice and juicy roast, wait for your coals to go down to medium heat before placing your chicken on the grates.

Finally, if you are targeting a low and slow cook, sit back and wait for your charcoal to get to an ultra-low temperature range of 225F to 250F.

The best thing about determining when charcoal is ready for cooking is that it involves no guesswork at all. Everything is measurable--If you do not have a thermometer to measure heat with, use your hand!

Sure, there are external factors involved. However, although these factors are not controllable, they are still measurable.