Smoking is one of the ways to prepare juicy and tender meat with a rich smoky flavor. A lot of people usually do this cooking without any systematic form. But as the grillmaster, it really does pay off to know exactly how much charcoal to use in a smoker grill beforehand.
Nonetheless, not even the best charcoal smoker grills use about the same amount of coal. Every grillmaster has his/ her usage meter, which, by the way, isn’t just with charcoal systems. It also applies to gas grills, whereby you can drain a 20lb propane tank in one session, whereas your neighbor does five.
In any case, this guide covers a few tips that you can use to estimate the amount of charcoal that will be enough to cook on your grill. But before we come to the figures….
What Kind of a Smoker Grill Do You Own?
There are various styles, designs, and sizes of smoker grills on the market. We have the combo grills like Masterbuilt 800 and 1050 that are not only large but also cook indirectly with the firebox outside the main cookbox.
Indirect heating is also how we often use an offset smoker, only that some people only use charcoal here to start the fire. Once with a good fire foundation, the rest of the cook can be done by adding wood instead of more charcoals.
Apart from the design, the construction material of your smoker grill also does determine how much charcoal you’ll use in your cooking. A well-insulated ceramic design like Primo or Kamado Joe means the cookbox will have a steady and high heat retention rate. Thus, using less coal than those cheaper smokers with a thin metallic housing (low heat retention).
We have other charcoal smoker grills, such as Weber Go Anywhere and Smokey Joe, with solid steel build and an outer porcelain coating. They’re able to lock in heat inside the cookbox pretty decently, which in turn cuts down coal usage.
Tip: if you have an old charcoal grill, do make sure you fix any holes in the bottom before you use it. Otherwise, this hole/s will cause excess airflow that will make your coals burn down much faster.
Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes
While looking at how to use your charcoal grill right, we concluded the types of coals we have don’t burn equally. Charcoal briquettes for smoking usually have a uniform size that burns evenly and with more consistent temperatures for a long time. Thus, you’ll cook with much lesser fuel than lump charcoal, which tends to light up faster.
Moreover, lump charcoal usually comes in irregular shapes and sizes, which may be inconvenient on a two-zone grill setup.
Yes, you could chop the larger charcoal lumps into smaller pieces that can burn more evenly. But do know very small sizes will also affect the burning rate: they burn much faster. And that will end up using more fuel.
Tip: You could use a briquette/ lump charcoal mix in your smoker to take advantage of both fuels: quicker and longer burning time.
Other Factors That May Affect How Much Charcoal You Use in a Smoker
Apart from the type of smoker grill and coals, the amount of charcoal you use for the cooking will also vary with:
- The method of cooking, whereby you’ll use fewer coals at low-and-slow temperatures than with hot-and-fast smoking cooks.
- The amount of food to be cooked also does determine how much charcoal you’ll be using in your smoker grill. The more food and the longer it takes to cook, the more coals you’ll also use.
- The charcoal arrangement can also help you save or waste away your fuel. In the former, the snake and minion charcoal method is the best to effectively smoke your food while also saving on fuel. But a lot of people usually pour the coals haphazardly- without any design, from the bag into the firebox.
- Weather Outside will also affect how much charcoal to use in a smoker grill. Wind, cold, rain, and snow, all lead to more heat loss that eventually ends up having to use more fuel. Then hot weather like now in the summer will have relatively less heat loss, and so is coal usage.
How Much Charcoal to Use in a Smoker
There are a few tricks that you can use to estimate how much charcoal to use in a smoker grill. The said tricks revolve around the various points we’ve just highlighted above:
- How Much Charcoal to use for Snake Method Arrangement
The snake charcoal method is the best way to arrange your coals in the smoker for low and slow cooking. It involves stacking two layers of your fuel in the form of a letter C (or semicircle line arc) around the firebox.
So, we could say it will work best on round charcoal smoker grills like the Kamado Joe and Primo or Weber Kettle 18 and 22.
Also, the snake charcoal arrangement will be easiest to build with charcoal briquettes for their even size/ shape and the slower burning style. It will take about 44-50 charcoal briquettes to cook at 250-275°F for about six hours.
If you wanted a longer cooking time without having to add coals now and then, build a longer “snake” circle in the firebox.
A long snake of 100 briquettes can consistently smoke your food for up to 12 hours. But for optimal effectiveness, make sure you leave a gap at the point where your fire will start burning. Otherwise, your fire will start from two sides, which will end up burning all your coals much faster.
- How Much Charcoal to use for Minion Coals Arrangement
The Minion method is also a great way to cook your meals at low-and-slow temperatures while saving on fuel. You can make it work on lump charcoal, but briquettes will be the most effective from their even and slower burning style.
Another thing, the minion charcoal arrangement is fit for about any type of charcoal smoker: kettle/ drum/ box. All you do is arrange/ pour your unlit coals into the firebox while leaving a hole in the middle. The hole in the middle is where you’ll then pour a couple of lit coals. So, your fire will burn slowly from the center as it spreads outwards.
It’s possible to low-and-slow cook at 250°F for 10-12 hours with about ¾ of a 7.7lbs bag of charcoal briquettes. Then again, the size and type of your charcoal grill may be a determining factor.
- How Much Charcoal to Use in Unsystematic Coals Arrangement
Technically, I’m using this method to refer to the usual way most of us put the charcoal coals in the smoker grill. Correct me if I’m wrong, we just dump unlit and lit charcoal lumps or briquettes into the firebox, then stir them together.
The method is usually still possible to low-and-slow cook at 250°F. But the unsystematic burning will end up using much more charcoal than the Minion or Snake arrangement method. It will be easy to use up the whole 7.7lbs bag of briquettes or more in 10-12 hours.
- How Much Charcoal to Use for a Kettle Grill
In general, the amount of charcoal you use in any type of grill will be dependent on all the other factors. A perfect example will be our kettle grill here, whereby you can build a snake of 80 briquettes that burn for 8-10 hours. A longer snake- say with about 100 briquettes could low-and-slow cook your food for up to 12 hours.
If you’d prefer the Minion charcoal arrangement, a kettle grill can burn a little over 12 hours with a full 7.7lbs bag of briquettes. A 22-inch Weber kettle grill is a perfect example here, but I’d believe similar other brands will be the same/ closer.
- How Much Charcoal to Use for a Drum Smoker?
First, most drum smokers are the offset grills, which have a separate charcoal hopper on the outside. And like with the kettle designs, the size of the equipment, cooking temperature, plus the rest of the factors will determine how much coals are used.
But unlike the kettle grills, a drum smoker isn’t ideal for the minion or snake charcoal arrangement. The exterior hopper means you can only use the usual irregular/ unsystematic charcoal arrangement.
As was mentioned earlier, though, here you can use the charcoal to build a fire foundation, then continue to cook with wood. And that will not only embellish your food with a richer smoky flavor but also uses less charcoal.
- How Much Charcoal to Use for a Kamado?
Last but not least, the Kamado (ceramic) grill also works great on low-and-slow cooking. You might find it much more gentle to control the temperature and also locks in the heat better than drum/ kettle grills.
Moreover, a Kamado grill has a round design that can perfectly work with either of the three charcoal arrangement methods. So, you can very much expect to use a 7.7lbs bag of charcoal briquettes for up to 10-12 hours at 250°F.
Note: I’ve opted to use briquettes as my unit of measurement in this guide since they usually have a uniform shape and size. Lump charcoal coals are usually irregular both in shape and size.
Play Your Charcoal Smoker Right!
In conclusion, you can see we have no fixed amount of charcoal that you should use in a smoker. True, a 7.7lbs bag of briquettes will be enough to low-and-slow cook at 250F for up to 10-12 hours in most cases. But that will all depend on what you have (tools and food) and how you do the entire cooking.
It’s worth noting most of the charcoal smokers in the market don’t have a built-in control panel to regulate the heat. You’ll still have to keep an eye on your cooker and play with dampers/ vents when the internal temperature spike or drops beyond the requirements.