BBQs are a skill, and much of that skill involves getting the timing perfect for cooking on charcoal. Most people will tell you that once charcoal has turned gray then you are good to go.
Today we are focusing on lump charcoal specifically and whether it turns gray in the same manner as briquettes. We explore the graying process, how it works and what it means. Not all facts are black or white, sometimes they are in fact, gray!
Lump charcoal turns gray during the burning process. Initially, the outside will gray as it burns and after enough time is given, the insides will gray too. The graying process takes around 15 minutes, then you can spread the charcoal out. This ensures the food will be cooked evenly.
How Long Does it take Charcoal to Turn Gray?
How long charcoal takes to turn gray will depend on the method used and how much you are burning. As a rule, though, you can expect the lump charcoal to be gray after 15 minutes of burning time.
During this time, you might hear some popping sounds which is normal with lump charcoal. This is the result of air pockets in the lumps of coal. It shouldn’t affect the food in any way.
Methods used to burn lump charcoal include:
The Chimney Method
Sometimes called chimney starters, many grill enthusiasts swear by them for burning the charcoal first. You take your chimney starter, pop some newspaper at the base, then add the coals, and then light the newspaper. This allows the base of the chimney to start burning, reaching the coal from the bottom upwards. When the top of the charcoal pile is gray, you are ready to pour it onto the grill plate.
The Chimney Method Without the Chimney
A chimney is a great addition to your grilling set up but it isn’t essential. You can still create the same burning process using your grill plate. Simply put some newspaper down first, then stack the lump charcoal on top. Then, light the newspaper and let the burning process start from the bottom. Again, you can spread the charcoal out once the tip of the tower has turned gray.
Lighter Fluid – Yes Or No?
Are you really a grill fan if you haven’t ever had the lighter fluid debate? This argument has been around for years and will be around forever. There are two camps when it comes to using lighter fluid on your lump charcoal.
- The ‘Yes It is Fantastic Camp’: These individuals love the stuff, there’s no faffing, it’s quick and it is easy. You simply pour the fluid over the tower (follow the quantities in the instructions) and let it soak for 30 seconds. Then you can light it and wait for the charcoal to turn gray.
- The ‘Nope Don’t Touch The Stuff Camp’: The other side of the fluid debate dislikes using it as it negates away from the authenticity of the fire experience. It is full of chemicals and some swear you can taste it in the food. Also, it seems a little counterproductive when you’ve gone for something natural like lump charcoal.
Should Charcoal be Completely Gray?
The charcoal will appear gray on the outside first which is normal. This doesn’t mean it’s gray on the inside though. It takes longer for the charcoal to be completely gray and you want to aim for this ideally. You can spread the lump charcoal out evenly once it is gray so that the heat can spread. You don’t have to wait until every visible section is gray as long as it has predominantly changed.
Once you become accustomed to the grilling routine, you learn to start using your intuition. You will find the method and technique that suits you best.
Should Charcoal be Gray Before Cooking?
You need to be aware of the perfect time for putting your food on the grill. Too soon and it’s likely you will char the outside and leave the inside uncooked. This is OK if you want to sear the meat to lock the juices in. It will need an even heat to complete the cooking process and ensure it is safe to consume.
How do you Know When Charcoal is Ready?
A good indication of lump charcoal being ready is when it is predominately gray in color and covered in ash. Again though, it depends on what you are cooking and what trying to achieve. Poultry will need to be cooked longer at a slightly cooler temperature. This ensures it cooks evenly, all the way through. Steaks you might want to sear and only cook briefly to achieve that rare outcome.
Another thing to look out for as a sign your charcoal is ready is when the smoking has stopped. When the charcoal stops smoking, it has burned to a high temperature evenly and you can spread the pieces out.
Some grills also have a temperature gauge so you can get an exact idea of what is going on. A food thermometer can also be useful, especially if you are new to the BBQ scene. You may need to keep some spare charcoal nearby in case you need to add extra.
This YouTube Video explains how to know when lump charcoal is ready to cook with, plus some other helpful information:
Why is my Charcoal Smoky?
It is a normal part of the process to see that your charcoal is smoky. How much smoke is produced depends on factors such as the source of ignition assistance, how clean the grill is, and how quickly you close the lid.
Does Lump Charcoal go Bad?
Lump charcoal is a completely natural product and therefore has no expiration date. It should, however, be stored somewhere dry. Other charcoal, such as briquettes, can go bad after time due to the additional additives.