How Long Does it Take For Charcoal to Be Ready For Cooking?

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Barbecue Grill With Hot Charcoal

One of the drawbacks of grilling with charcoal is the waiting that’s involved. You can’t just fire it up and be ready to cook within minutes, the way you can with a gas grill. How long does it take for charcoal to be ready for grilling? 

How Long Does it Take For Charcoal to Be Ready? 

Depending on the type of starter you use, the weather conditions, and the state of the charcoal, it might take anywhere from 15 to 35 minutes before your charcoal fire is hot enough to start grilling. You’ll know the coals are ready when they’re almost completely covered in a layer of fine white ash. 

How To Tell When Charcoal is Ready 

Timing isn’t the primary factor when you’re checking to see if charcoal is ready. More than the clock, you need to rely on the charcoal itself. 

Charcoal is ready for cooking when the coals are coated with a layer of silvery-white ash. Prior to this, they haven’t gotten hot enough to get the job done. The ash indicates that the coals themselves have ignited and are burning in a self-sufficient manner. 

In the past, I’ve made the mistake of starting to cook when just a handful of coals were coated with ash. It’s important to wait until the majority of them have reached that stage. Otherwise, you’re bound to be disappointed with the results. 

How Long Does it Take For Charcoal to Be Ready? 

Grill Ready for Use

The answer to this question depends—at least in part—on the method you use to light the coals. But in general, you can expect the process to take 15 to 35 minutes. 

When using a chimney starter, the coals might be hot enough to start cooking in 15 minutes. It sometimes takes as long as 25 minutes, depending on the quality of the charcoal and the weather conditions. 

Lighter fluid and firestarter bricks should coax your coals along at a slightly slower pace. For these methods, 25 to 30 minutes is the norm. 

When using an electric charcoal starter, expect to wait for about 30 to 35 minutes before you can start adding food to the grill. This longer wait time—coupled with the fact that these starters require a power supply—reduces the efficiency of this particular method. 

Again, I would rely on the appearance of the coals before setting a timer. But it’s still a good idea to have a general sense of when the fire might be hot enough to start grilling. 

What Happens if You Start Before the Charcoal is Ready? 

Outdoor Barbecue Grill

There are several possibilities, and none of them bode well for the success of your barbecue. If you start adding food before the coals are hot enough, the fire might go out altogether, meaning you’ll have to start all over again. 

Even if the coals do manage to stay alight, the cool ingredients will lower the grill temperature. That means you won’t be saving any time by rushing things. On the contrary, the food will probably take longer to cook than it would if you’d waited. 

Even worse: If you used lighter fluid or something similar to get the fire started, the chemicals won’t have a chance to burn off. Your food will have an off-putting bitter quality, and might even be dangerous to consume. 

How To Get The Fire Started in a Hurry

I get it—you’re anxious to get the grill going so you can feed the hungry masses. We’ve all been there. 

A chimney starter offers the fastest route to white-hot coals. If you don’t already own one, now is the time to take the plunge. 

When you use a charcoal chimney, you’re lighting the coals from the bottom. The design allows enough oxygen flow for the coals to ignite quickly, while packing them closely enough together that they practically all light at the same time. 

Flaming Hot  Chimney Starter

After 15 to 20 minutes, the charcoal should be hot enough to add to the grill. Be forewarned that since a lot of coals will be lighting at once, there will be a lot of smoke pouring out of the chimney. Fear not—that’s exactly what you want. 

Tips on Starting an Efficient Charcoal Fire 

—Decide beforehand whether your grilling plans call for a classic pyramid, a two-zone fire, or a snake formation. It’s a lot harder to reconfigure the coals when they’re already burning. 

Avoid instant-light charcoal. It’s less effective and the chemicals involved can impart a weird flavor to the food. 

—For a fire that burns hot and fast, try lump charcoal instead of briquettes. 

Make sure the charcoal is completely dry. Wet or damp coals will have a hard time igniting and might not get hot enough to cook with. 

Clean your grill or smoker after each use. 

Final Thoughts 

Start checking the coals after 15 minutes to see how they’re progressing. Sometimes, you’ll be ready to start putting food on the grilling grate right away. Other times, you might have another 15 to 20 minutes to wait. 

Happy grilling!

Darren Wayland Avatar


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