We love to smoke meats using charcoal. While pellet and electric smokers offer convenience, charcoal lends authenticity to the whole process.
The problem is, most cuts of meat need to cook for a long time in order to gain any benefit from the exposure to the smoke. That means your smoker will probably need to be reloaded at some point. Here’s our guide to adding charcoal to the smoker.
Adding Charcoal To Smoker
Since it usually takes several hours—sometimes as much as a day or more—to smoke meat, you may have to add more fuel to the smoker at some point. This is true especially if the unit doesn’t retain its heat well, or if the weather outside is cold and windy. Lighting the fresh coals beforehand will help the fire maintain its temperature.
How Often Will I Need To Add Charcoal?
There’s no clear answer to this question. The rate at which the charcoal burns can be affected by several different outside factors, as we’ll discuss in the next section.
However, we can give you a ballpark estimate. You’ll probably need to add more charcoal to your smoker every 3 to 4 hours. It’s best to check the condition of the fire at around the 2-hour mark, just to see how things are progressing.
It’s possible for the original charcoal to last for the entire duration of the smoke, even if the meat has to cook for 8 hours or more. But since it’s difficult to predict whether this will be the case, you should plan on adding more at least once.
What Conditions Can Affect the Burn Rate?
Although we all wish the environment inside the smoker would be unaffected by the weather, that’s not the case. If it’s cold, windy, raining, or snowing outside, the smoker will go through more charcoal than it would on a warm day.
It works the other way as well. On very hot days, you won’t need to worry as much about adding charcoal to the smoker.
Type of Smoker
We’ve already determined that you’re using a charcoal-fired unit, but that doesn’t narrow it down completely. Charcoal smokers come in a few different varieties.
For example, offset smokers are designed to burn through fuel quickly. With this type of smoker, you can expect to add more fuel every hour or so. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to be charcoal—you can add wood chips or wood chunks to boost the flavor and keep the fire going.
Kamado smokers are extremely well-insulated, especially the ones with a ceramic construction. They hold their heat so well, you can get through an 8-hour smoking process without having to replenish the charcoal.
While we’re on the subject of insulation, be sure to select a smoker with a durable construction. The thicker the shell is, the more heat it will be able to retain.
The unit should also be tightly sealed. If it leaks a lot of smoke when the fire is lit, then you can be sure it’s letting heat out as well.
Type of Charcoal
Are you using charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal for your fire? Briquettes are formulated to burn longer, so keep that in mind.
While lump charcoal burns faster, it also burns hotter and produces less ash. Opt for the lump variety if you prefer a more natural product.
Did you know that the configuration of the charcoal in the smoker can have an effect on the burn rate? Knowing how to stack the charcoal properly will help you save money on fuel costs over time.
When it comes to layering your charcoal, you have a couple of options.
The first method involves arranging the briquettes in the shape of a circle, then removing a few from the center to create a donut shape. Next, add a chimney that’s about half-full of charcoal to the middle of the ring.
When you light the chimney, that charcoal will ignite the next ring in the circle. Then that ring will light up the next, and so on and so on, until the fire burns itself out. Known as the “minion method,” this process allows the charcoal to burn for several hours.
The second technique, or the “snake method,” works great if you’re using a Weber kettle grill. To create the snake, make a double line of charcoal briquettes that measures 1 to 2 briquettes tall, wrapping it around the perimeter of the smoker bowl. Once lit, the rows of charcoal should last for up to 8 hours.
Adding Charcoal To Smoker During Cooking
Should you need to add charcoal to the unit after it’s been going for a while, it’s better to use lit charcoal. This will help the temperature remain consistent. However, if that’s not an option, you can add the extra fuel without lighting it first.
For example, if you’ve used the snake technique, you don’t have to light the new coals. Just remove the meat and the cooking grate, add more briquettes to the end of the snake, and then replace the grate and the ingredients. Continue cooking as usual.
For the minion method or a 2-zone fire, you can use a chimney starter to light the coals before adding them. If you don’t have one, simply lay a handful of extra briquettes on top of the fire, taking care to add them in a single layer.
What if it’s too late and the fire has gone out entirely? We wouldn’t recommend starting a new one—it will take too long for the coals to be ready. Instead, consider finishing the process in the oven. The food should already have a good dose of smoke flavor.
How Long To Let Charcoal Burn Before Smoking
Speaking of which, charcoal should be allowed to burn for at least 20 minutes before you start to cook. At first, the coals will create a billowing thick smoke that can impart a bitter flavor to the food. Let this “dirty smoke” burn off before adding your meat.
Tips For Making Charcoal Burn Longer
—Use a grill cover or smoker jacket to shield the unit from the elements.
—Keep the smoker in a sheltered area, out of the wind and rain. Obviously you can’t use it indoors or on an enclosed porch, but the more protection it has from the elements, the better.
—Buy quality charcoal from a reputable retailer. The cheap stuff from Walmart won’t cut it if you’re hoping to use it for long cooking applications.
The Bottom Line
If you’re lucky, you won’t need to add any charcoal to the smoker once your original batch is lit. The techniques we’ve mentioned can point you in the right direction.
Still, since there’s no way to be sure how long the coals will last, knowing how to add charcoal to the smoker during the cook is a skill that every pitmaster should have.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!