Consider this as your charcoal guide manual — how much to use, heat ranges, and a simple illustration guide to popular charcoal arrangements.
How much charcoal should you use?
This depends on what you are cooking, how much you are cooking and how hot you want the grill.
If you need high heat, you’ll want a full chimney. If you want lower heat, then there’s no need to fill the chimney all the way and wait for the heat of all those coals to dissipate.
Here are some guidelines. These numbers are based on the capacity of a standard charcoal chimney.
- High heat450°F to 550°F1 full chimney
- Medium heat350°F to 450°F½ to ¾ full chimney
- Low heat250°F to 350°F¼ full chimney
Be reminded, the maximum temperature and the length of the cook depends on how you spread out the coals. If you spread the lit coals in a thin layer across a larger area, temperatures will be lower and the heat will dissipate faster. If your layer is deeper and the coals are more concentrated, temperatures will be higher and stay hot longer.
How hot are the coals?
The most accurate way to gauge temperature is with a thermometer. However, if your cooker does not have one built in, you can use the hand test. Simply hold the palm of your hand about 5 to 6 inches above the grill grate. Leave it there until you have to pull it away. The number of seconds you can keep your hand there gives you an indication of how hot the coals are at the grate.
: High heat450°F to 550°F 2 to 4 seconds
: Medium heat350°F to 450°F 5 to 6 seconds
: Low heat250°F to 350°F 8 to 10 seconds
Best arrangement of coals for cooking?
Here are the basic and more advanced configurations:
Coals are spread out in a single layer across the bottom cooking grate. Ideal for high-heat cooking and thin cuts of meat. Unless you absolutely need the entire grill space, it’s still best to leave a void zone.
: High-heat 450°F to 550°F
: Coals needed: 1 whole chimney, about 100 briquets
The 2-zone fire
Your go-to configuration for almost everything. Coals spread out over half the grill, leaving the other half empty. Gives you all the advantages of direct heat for searing and the flexibility of indirect heat for cooking slowly or managing flare-ups. Ideal for steaks, chops, bone-in and boneless chicken cuts, and seafood.
: High-heat450°F to 550°F
: Medium-heat350°F to 450°F
: Coals needed:½ to 1 whole chimney, about 50–100 briquets
2-zone fire: parallel configuration
Coals spread along either side of the grill, with an empty space down the center. Ideal for smoking and low-temperature cooking of larger roasts, whole chickens and turkeys.
: Low-heat 250°F to 350°F
: Coals needed:1 whole chimney to start, about 100 briquets. Additional coals later.
The charcoal snake
Unlit coals and smoke wood are arranged in a circle around the inside edge of your grill. A few lit coals are added to one end of the snake, which burns slowly over several hours.
: Low-heatsmoking 225°F to 250°F
: Coals needed:100 unlit coals; six to eight lit coals to start the snake. Additional coals later.
Smoking is a low and slow cooking method where meats are cooked over indirect heat at low temperatures for hours at a time. Hardwood chunks or chips of wood soaked in water are added to lend smoke aromas and flavors to the meats. There are several different types of smokers available, but all use indirect heat.
: Low-heatsmoking 225°F to 250°F
: Coals needed:Fill your charcoal bed with unlit coals, and add only a few lit coals to start the process.