If your charcoal has been around for a while, you might be wondering: Does charcoal go bad, or will it keep indefinitely? It’s a fair question, and one you should definitely know the answer to if you have a charcoal grill that you use often.
Here’s our guide on the shelf life and proper storage techniques for charcoal.
Does Charcoal Go Bad?
While charcoal doesn’t “go bad” in the usual sense, it can be more difficult to light if it’s gotten wet at any point. The longer the product has been around, the likelier it is that it’s been exposed to excess moisture. If you’re not sure whether the charcoal is damp or not, try burning a small test batch to see if the fire stays lit.
Types of Charcoal
There are two main types of charcoal on the market: briquettes and lump charcoal. These aren’t the only two kinds of charcoal in the world, but they’re the most common ones when you’re talking about grilling.
Briquettes are made of densely packed sawdust, along with other binders that help them maintain a cube-like shape. They’re inexpensive, easy to find, and provide consistent and long-burning heat.
Hardwood lump charcoal, by contrast, is a natural product. It’s made from chunks of real hardwood that have been transformed into carbon, or char. This product burns hotter than briquettes do, but the heat it provides is less predictable.
As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to use briquettes for long cooking applications and lump charcoal if you’re just grilling a few burgers or hot dogs. However, if you prefer the all-natural qualities that hardwood lump charcoal offers, it’s fine to stick with it.
Here’s another flavor-boosting tip: Try using a bed of briquettes and adding a handful of lump charcoal onto the pile once it’s been burning for a while. The hardwood will provide real smoke flavor without sacrificing the even heat you’ll get from the briquettes.
Does Charcoal Go Bad?
The short answer is no, charcoal doesn’t expire in the usual sense of the term. The product isn’t perishable, so it should keep indefinitely under the right conditions. This is true of all three types.
There are a couple of exceptions to this basic rule, though. First of all, instant-light or match-light charcoal includes flammable chemicals that can lose their potency over time. That doesn’t mean it “goes bad” exactly, but the coals will be harder to light.
The charcoal also won’t light as effectively if it has gotten wet. Even if you do manage to get the coals lit, they’ll probably have a hard time staying that way. Coals that have been exposed to moisture won’t burn as effectively as dry ones.
None of this means that burning wet charcoal is harmful. However, if the product has grown mold or fungus, you shouldn’t use it to cook food.
How Long Can You Store Charcoal?
As we’ve established, natural charcoal (that is, the kind that doesn’t include additives) isn’t going to expire. If you store it in a dry environment, it should keep forever.
Start with high-quality charcoal instead of the cheaper store-brand stuff. Good charcoal holds its shape longer, while the low-end products tend to break into smaller pieces over time.
Before you decide what kind to buy, check to find out whether the brand is better for grilling or smoking. It’s fine to keep a supply of both on hand, but it helps to know which is which.
Your next step is to invest in a heavy-duty storage container with a tight-fitting lid. Companies like Traeger and Kingsford make bins that are specifically designed to hold charcoal, but an inexpensive yet sturdy plastic tub from Walmart would work just fine.
Once you’ve filled the storage container, it’s time to find a decent place to keep it. If you have a shed, barn, or garage, that would be ideal. Even though the container should be well sealed, it’s better to store it somewhere dry.
Those of you who live in humid environments would do well to invest in a dehumidifier to keep near the charcoal. In addition to protecting the fuel, it will reduce the risk of mold growth in the general area.
Why is Wet Charcoal Ineffective?
Charcoal is extremely porous, so it absorbs moisture with ease. If the briquettes have been exposed to wet conditions, there’s a good chance they won’t perform as well as you’d like.
In addition to being hard to light, wet charcoal doesn’t heat or burn consistently. These uneven temperatures can lead to disappointing results, especially during long cooking applications.
How To Test Charcoal
What if you’ve had charcoal around for a long time and aren’t sure whether or not it’s gotten wet? In this case, your best bet is to test a small batch to see if it still burns effectively.
Testing the charcoal isn’t all that different from using it normally, but you don’t need to use much. Just build a small pile in your grill or load a chimney starter, then light the coals. If they don’t light, or if they have a hard time staying lit, the charcoal is probably damp.
A Word About Lighter Fluid
You can use lighter fluid to help get the fire started, but I prefer to avoid it whenever possible. Lighter fluid leaves a funny aftertaste on the food. Besides, you have to wait at least 30 minutes before putting the food on to ensure that the chemicals have burned off.
As an alternative, I like to use small pieces of dry kindling, sawdust, or crumpled newspaper. In short, you can start a charcoal fire the same way you would a campfire. The food will taste better, too.
Can You Save Charcoal That’s Gotten Wet?
That depends on how wet it is. Charcoal that’s been saturated with moisture needs to be thrown out, but if it’s only a little bit damp, it might be possible to salvage it.
Spread the charcoal out on large sheets of parchment paper. Then leave it out in direct sunlight for at least a full day, perhaps two. Don’t be tempted to substitute wax paper, or the wax will melt in the sun and contaminate the coals.
Test the charcoal using the method described above. If it burns effectively, then you probably succeeded in drying it out. Otherwise, you should toss it.
Shelf Life of Lump Charcoal vs. Briquettes
In terms of longevity, does it matter what type of charcoal you buy? As long as the product is kept dry, not really.
But if the charcoal does get wet, lump charcoal is likelier to ignite and stay lit afterward. Briquettes have a harder time getting the job done when they’ve been exposed to moisture.
Why the difference? Hardwood lump charcoal is made up solely of carbonized wood, so it can expel moisture more easily when heated. The additives in the briquettes will retain moisture longer, even causing them to lose their shape when they’ve gotten too wet.
The Bottom Line
If you’re not sure whether your charcoal will be usable or not, it’s better to just throw it out. The product isn’t that expensive, and you don’t want to wait around for an hour or more for the fire to get started.
Grilling over a charcoal fire should be an enjoyable experience and not a hassle. Why make it harder on yourself by starting with charcoal that won’t burn efficiently?
Best of luck, and happy grilling!