Charcoal is a popular fuel source for many outdoor cooking enthusiasts, but proper storage is essential to ensure it maintains its quality and effectiveness. Knowing how to store charcoal can help extend its lifespan and make sure it’s always ready to use when you need it. In this article, we’ll explore some tips and tricks for storing charcoal that will keep it dry, clean, and free from contamination. Whether you’re a seasoned griller or just starting, learning how to store charcoal is a crucial step toward perfecting your outdoor cooking game.
What Is Charcoal?
Charcoal is a lightweight black carbon residue produced by removing water and other volatile constituents from animal and plant materials. Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood or other organic materials in the absence of oxygen. The absence of oxygen means that the wood does not combust completely and the carbon does not turn into carbon dioxide as it would during perfect combustion. Instead, the volatile compounds are driven off, leaving behind mostly pure carbon.
The resulting charcoal is a porous, lightweight material made up primarily of carbon with minor tar and mineral residues. Charcoal has been used for thousands of years by humans for cooking, art, and other purposes. It continues to be used today by blacksmiths, cooks, and artists. Activated charcoal is also widely used as a filter to adsorb impurities and toxins. Its high porosity and chemical reactivity give it an enormous surface area per unit volume, which allows it to efficiently adsorb gases and dissolved substances.
What Are the Different Types of Charcoal?
There are several types of charcoal, depending on the material and production process.
Wood charcoal is the most common type. It is produced by burning wood in the absence of oxygen. Another type is bamboo charcoal, made from bamboo. Bamboo charcoal is extra porous and lightweight, making it ideal for fueling barbecues. Sugar charcoal is made from sugarcane residue and coconut charcoal comes from coconut shells. Peanut charcoal is made from peanut shells.
Activated charcoal is made from wood, coal, and coconut shells that have been subjected to a steam activation process which creates a highly porous material. It has a massive surface area to volume ratio, which makes it useful for filtration, purification, and as a catalyst. Bone charcoal, also known as bone black, is produced from animal bones. It consists of about 10% carbon and 90% calcium phosphate. Bone charcoal is often used as a pigment or to remove heavy metals from liquids.
Lamp black is soot produced by collecting fine black particulate from burning organic materials, such as oil, tar, and wood. It is the purest form of amorphous elemental carbon and is used in products like printer ink, paint, and rubber. Coal is made from partially decayed vegetation that has been subjected to both microbial digestion and heat over long periods. It comes in various grades based on carbon content, hardness, and impurities. Coal charcoal is made from coal through pyrolysis and is used as a fuel source.
How long can charcoal be kept?
The shelf life of charcoal depends on the type and how well it is stored.
When stored properly in an airtight container, most types of charcoal can last several months or even years. However, its effectiveness and quality start to deteriorate over time through the absorption of moisture and exposure to air.
Wood lump charcoal, when stored in an airtight container or bag, can last up to five years. Briquettes have a shorter shelf life of three to five years since they have been compressed into their shape. Activated charcoal has the shortest shelf life of only one to two years due to its high porosity. Bamboo charcoal sticks can last two to three years.
For best results, charcoal should be stored in an airtight container, such as a sealable bag, bucket, or bin, away from excess heat or moisture. Make sure the storage container is clearly labeled and dated when you purchased the charcoal and replace the charcoal after the recommended time for that type. Crushed or broken charcoal pieces tend to deteriorate faster, so handle bags and containers carefully.
Properly stored charcoal may be safe to use beyond the recommended shelf life, but it starts losing its ability to heat and filter over time. For cooking uses like grilling, older charcoal may burn unevenly and produce excess smoke. Activated charcoal can lose up to 50% of its filtering capacity after a year in storage. As a precaution, you should replace charcoal every 1-5 years depending on the type to ensure best results.
What Is the Best Charcoal to Grill With?
For grilling, lump hardwood charcoal is generally considered the best type of charcoal to use. Lump charcoal is made from natural hardwoods, usually oak, hickory, maple, and mesquite, that have been burned down into solid pieces of carbon. It lights easily, burns hotter and longer than briquettes, and infuses food with a natural smoky flavor. Popular brands of lump charcoal include Fogo, Jealous Devil, and Kamado Joe.
Charcoal briquettes can also work for grilling but impart a slightly chemical taste to foods. Briquettes are made from sawdust and fillers that have been compressed into pillow-shaped pieces. While convenient and inexpensive, briquettes tend to produce more ash than lump charcoal and burn at lower, uneven temperatures. Some all-natural briquette options, like Weber’s Smoke ‘n Sear Briquettes, are better for grilling.
Avoid instant light briquettes and pre-soaked coals that contain petroleum distillates or lighter fluid. They can release volatile chemicals during cooking that could be harmful if ingested. They also tend to burn unevenly, produce excess smoke, and leave a chemical aftertaste on foods.
Kiln-dried or aged hardwood is the premium choice for grilling. More moisture means it lights faster and burns hotter. Look for large chunky pieces of charcoal for better airflow. An ideal size is about the diameter of a tennis ball. Charcoal made from dense hardwoods typically burns the longest.
How to store charcoal – The best ways
Storing charcoal properly is key to making sure it stays dry and ready to use whenever you need it. Here are some of the best ways to store charcoal:
How to store charcoal in Plastic Caddy
A plastic charcoal caddy, also known as a charcoal dispenser or charcoal carrier, is a convenient storage container for charcoal. To properly store charcoal in a plastic caddy, follow these tips:
Choose a caddy made of high-density polyethylene or polypropylene plastic that is specifically meant for charcoal storage. These plastics can withstand high heat and will not melt. Metal containers should be avoided as they conduct too much heat.
Place the caddy on a fireproof surface, away from direct sunlight. Do not put it directly on grass or wood. Concrete, stone, and dirt surfaces are good options.
Keep the caddy at least 10 feet away from your grill or any source of flames. This is a safe distance to prevent the charcoal from heating up and causing a fire hazard.
Fill the caddy no more than 2/3 full with charcoal. Leave some headspace for air circulation and in case some pieces break into smaller bits. An overfilled caddy is difficult to carry and can lead to spills.
Seal the caddy with its airtight lid after each use to protect the charcoal from moisture and prevent impurities from getting in. An unsealed container will speed up the deterioration of charcoal.
Replace the charcoal in the caddy at least once a year. Properly stored charcoal will last up to 5 years but may start to crumble over long periods in a container. It is best to start fresh with a new bag of charcoal each grilling season.
Handle and move the caddy carefully to avoid dropping and breaking the charcoal pieces inside. Dropped or crushed charcoal will not burn as well. Use gloves when handling to prevent charcoal residue on your hands.
How to store charcoal in a Metal Bin/Trashcan
A metal bin or trashcan can also be used to store charcoal, provided some precautions are taken:
Choose a bin made of galvanized steel, aluminum, or another metal that is non-combustible and corrosion-resistant. Plain steel bins will rust over time when exposed to the moisture in charcoal. Stainless steel is a good option.
Line the bottom of the bin with 2-3 inches of sand or dirt. This creates a barrier between the charcoal and the metal bin to help prevent corrosion and melting.
Do not fill the bin more than 2/3 full with charcoal. Leave ample headspace for airflow. An overfilled bin will not properly ventilate the charcoal, causing it to deteriorate faster.
Seal the bin with an airtight metal lid after each use. The lid should fit firmly over the rim of the bin, covering it completely. This protects the charcoal from weather and pests.
Vent the bin regularly to release any built-up gases from the charcoal. Prop open the lid slightly for several hours once a month or so. built-up gases can be a fire hazard.
Place the bin on a fireproof, non-flammable surface like concrete, not wood or flammable ground cover. Elevate the bin at least 10 feet away from buildings, vehicles, and flammable objects.
Wear heat-resistant gloves when handling the bin to prevent burns. The metal bin will conduct significant heat and the charcoal residue can get very hot during venting.
Dispose of used charcoal and start with fresh charcoal every 1-2 years. Replace the sand or dirt lining the bottom at this time as well.
Handle and move the metal bin carefully due to its weight, especially when full. Dropping the bin can cause coal dust to scatter, creating a mess, and possibly damage the bin.
How to store charcoal in an Airtight Container/Box
An airtight container, such as a sealable plastic or metal box, is one of the best ways to store charcoal. To properly store charcoal in an airtight container:
Choose a container specifically meant for charcoal storage. Plastic boxes should be made of high-density polyethylene or polypropylene that can withstand high heat. Metal containers should be made of aluminum, galvanized steel, or stainless steel.
Do not overfill the container. Fill it no more than 2/3 full with charcoal to allow for proper ventilation. Overfilling can lead to trapped moisture and increased deterioration of the charcoal.
Seal the container completely after every use. Make sure the lid forms an airtight seal around the rim of the container. This prevents oxygen, moisture, and pests from reaching the charcoal.
Vent the container at least once a month to release any built-up gases from the charcoal. Open the container in a well-ventilated area away from any sources of ignition. Gases can accumulate even in a sealed container and may be a fire hazard.
Place the container on a fireproof, non-flammable surface in a shaded area away from buildings or flammable objects. Do not put it on wood, grass, or directly on the ground. Elevate at least 10 feet high.
Wear heat-resistant gloves when handling the container. The seal may briefly release gases when opened and the residue on the container can be extremely hot.
Replace charcoal at least once every 1-2 years for the best quality. Discard used charcoal and line the container with fresh charcoal.
Handle and move the container carefully, especially when full. Dropping a heavy, airtight container of charcoal can lead to breakage, spills, and injury. Get help moving larger containers.
Label and date the container when you put new charcoal in for easy tracking of when it needs replacement. Most charcoals last 1-5 years when properly stored.
Why Proper Charcoal Storage is Important
Here are some reasons why proper charcoal storage is important:
Prevents loss of effectiveness. Charcoal loses its ability to heat and filter properly over time through exposure to moisture, oxygen, and handling. Proper storage in an airtight container slows down deterioration and helps charcoal last longer.
Prevents fire hazards. Improperly stored charcoal that is exposed to excessive heat, sparks or an open flame can readily ignite. Charcoal releases flammable gases as it deteriorates, so venting and eliminating ignition sources are critical.
Maintains quality. Charcoal absorbs odors and moisture from the air, which affects how well it lights, burns, and the flavor it imparts to food. A sealed, vented container prevents contamination and keeps charcoal fresh.
Prevents waste. Charcoal is often disposed of prematurely when it crumbles or will no longer light efficiently due to improper storage. Keeping charcoal in an optimal environment means you can use it for its maximum shelf life, reducing waste.
Allows tracking. With an airtight, labeled container, you know exactly how long the charcoal has been stored and when it is time for replacement. This avoids using old, ineffective charcoal that will not light or burn well.
Reduces mess. A sealed charcoal container prevents residue, dust, and small fragments from scattering. Any escaping pieces can create a mess and wasted charcoal.
Prevents pests. Open or unsealed charcoal invites insects and rodents to seek a shelter or nest. Proper storage deters pests from infesting the charcoal, which could later come into contact with food.
Easier handling. Smaller packs of charcoal can be conveniently dispensed from an airtight container without the mess of a large open bag. Spills, tears, and residue on surfaces are minimized.
Safety. Appropriate charcoal storage, especially in a metal container, requires fire-safe handling precautions to prevent burns, injury, or igniting the charcoal. Proper technique must always be used.
Will Charcoal Spontaneously Combust if Stored Incorrectly?
Charcoal releases flammable gases such as methane, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide as it deteriorates over time due to exposure to oxygen and moisture. When these gases build up in large enough quantities, especially in hot and confined spaces, charcoal can potentially spontaneously ignite without an external ignition source. However, this does not happen instantly or inevitably with improper storage. Several factors must be present for spontaneous combustion of charcoal:
High moisture content – Wet charcoal produces gases more rapidly as bacteria thrive and the charcoal breaks down. Dry charcoal is less prone to spontaneous heating.
Fine particles – Crushed or powdered charcoal has more surface area so it releases gases faster. Whole lumps or briquettes of charcoal combust more slowly.
High ambient temperatures – Warm or hot temperatures speed up the release of gases from charcoal. Over 90 F, the risk of spontaneous ignition increases significantly.
Poor ventilation – An unvented, airtight container or storage area allows gases to accumulate until they reach the lower explosive limit and auto-ignite. Venting and airflow help prevent this.
Time – The longer charcoal is subjected to improper storage conditions, the more gases build up. Charcoal should be sealed for no more than a few months to a year before venting and replacing.
Large quantities – More charcoal means more potential fuel for a fire, so limit the amount in any one container or storage space. Separate into smaller lots when possible.
Other oxidizing materials – Storing charcoal near strong oxidizers, acids, or alkalis can speed up its breakdown and increase the chances of spontaneous combustion. Keep these materials well apart.
Can You Use Wet Charcoal?
Wet charcoal is difficult to light and burn efficiently, so it is best avoided when possible. However, in some situations using wet charcoal may be unavoidable or necessary. Here are some tips for using wet charcoal:
Dry the charcoal first if possible. Spread out the charcoal in a dry, well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight. Turn the pieces regularly and allow up to 2-3 days for hardwood lump charcoal to dry completely. Briquettes may take longer due to their density.
Use more starter fuel. Have extra lighter fluid, kindling, firewood, or starter cubes on hand. You will need a longer, hotter starter fire to generate enough heat to light the wet charcoal.
Create airflow. You may need to keep your fire starter going for 30-60 minutes until the charcoal is producing an even, high heat. Position the charcoal in a tightly stacked chimney starter or pyramid over the fire to maximize airflow. Spread out in your grill basket or smoker once lit.
Be patient. It can take significantly longer for wet charcoal to light and for the individual pieces to develop a gray ash coating. Don’t assume the fire is out if temperatures seem low after the first 20-30 minutes. Keep the starter fuel fed for as long as needed.
Vent the grill. With some grills, especially kettle grills, you may need to keep the vents open wider to create an adequate draft to light the wet charcoal. The excess moisture will produce more smoke, so venting prevents it from stifling the fire.
Use metal grates. In a campfire, wet charcoal may burn better on metal grates set a few inches above the ground. This provides, even heating of the pieces for more complete combustion. On the ground, wet charcoal is smothered by its moisture.
Stir the coals. Once lit, stir the charcoal with grilling tools every 15-20 minutes to knock excess ash from the pieces, increase surface area exposure, and improve airflow. This helps wet charcoal burn hotter and more consistently for cooking.