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One of the biggest draws to offset and charcoal smokers, is their ability to produce great smoke flavor from using charcoal and wood; however, unlike a pellet grill which has an auger that continuously feeds cooking pellets, both charcoal and offset smokers require constant attention.
And until they come out with charcoal that burns forever, you are stuck with manually having to add charcoal anytime your fire gets low.
Or do you?
In this article we will look at how often you should be adding charcoal to your smoker, how to tell when you need to add more charcoal, how much charcoal to add, and how you can make your charcoal last longer in your smoker so you aren’t constantly adding more charcoal.
How Often To Add Charcoal To Smoker?
On average, you will need to add charcoal to your smoker every 3-4 hours to maintain your temperature; however, there are many factors that affect how often you will have to add charcoal to your smoker including: the type of charcoal used, the type of smoker used, how you arrange your charcoal, how long you are smoking, and weather conditions.
And if done right, you can easily last and entire 8-10 hour smoke without having to add more charcoal.
What Affects How Long Charcoal Lasts:
Type Of Smoker:
The type of smoker you are using is the biggest factor in how long your charcoal will last. Some smokers just burn more fuel than others. This is largely due to the design of each smoker.
If you have an offset smoker, you are going to have to add more fuel every hour (offset smokers typically use charcoal as their base fire then add wood splits every hour to keep the fire going). Offsets are designed to have a hot fire so naturally they are going to burn more fuel.
Kamado smokers on the other hand, are able to go a complete 8-hour smoke without ever having to replenish the fuel. They are made of ceramic and hold their heat incredibly well.
How Well Insulated Your Smoker Is:
The more heat you are able to retain, the less your fire has to burn to maintain your temperature. This is why insulation is important. When looking for a smoker, buying a quality smoker with thicker metal will help hold more heat in.
Additionally, take a look at how well your smoker is sealed. Is it leaking lots of smoke? if so you are also losing valuable heat. Making sure your smoker is sealed and insulated will help you use less fuel.
Type Of Charcoal:
There are two types of charcoal, lump charcoal, and charcoal briquettes. And while this isn’t an article going into the two and which one you should use, you do need to know that lump charcoal is going to burn faster than charcoal briquettes would.
How You Arrange Your Charcoal:
Are you lighting an entire basket of charcoal and throwing it in your smoker? If so, then you are going to be adding charcoal every couple hours when the charcoal burns out. Instead, using a method such as the minion method or snake method will allow your fire to slowly grow lasting many hours. More on this below!
The one thing you can’t control, weather! Is it cold? Windy? Raining? Snowing? All these are going to cause more heat loss resulting in you having to use more fuel. On the other hand, if it is really hot out, you are going to use less fuel. Weather plays a big factor in how much heat your smoker is going to lose.
With so many variables, I can’t give you a straight answer on how often you need to add charcoal to your smoker; however, I can tell you how to recognize when your smoker needs more charcoal, how to add more charcoal, and how to make your charcoal last longer!
How To Arrange Charcoal In My Smoker For Longer Smokes
We know that charcoal doesn’t burn that long. So how do you smoke for 8 to 12 hours without having to refill the charcoal every hour. It all comes down to how you arrange the charcoal in your fire box.
Getting your charcoal to last longer comes down how well you are able to keep the heat in your smoker. If your smoker is already good at retaining heat, then you need to look at how you are arranging your charcoal in your fire box.
Instead of just lighting and throwing your charcoal all in at once, you want to use a layered approach. Using layers of unlit charcoal strategically placed will allow your fire to slowly grow of the hours.
There are two main ways you can do this.
The Minion Method
The more popular choice for charcoal smokers, the Minion Method involves spreading your charcoal out in the shape of a circle. You then remove a few briquettes in the center to create a donut shape before adding half a chimney full of charcoal to the middle.
The lit charcoal in the middle will light the next ring, which will light the next ring and so on. I have used the Minion Method in my Weber Smokey Mountain to smoke up to 8 hours.
The Snake Method
This method is more common when using a weber kettle and involves creating a snake with your charcoal. Create a line of charcoal 2 briquettes wide and 1-2 briquettes tall that wraps around the edge of the smoker/kettle.
Both of these methods allow for the fire to slowly expand over the course of hours allowing you to do longer smokes without having to add more charcoal manually.
How Else Can You Get Charcoal To Last Longer?
Add More Insulation: We already talked about how insulation helps retain more heat so your fire doesn’t have to work overtime. So if your smoker isn’t the most insulated smoker in the world, add more insulation.
This can be done by using a welding blanket or a smoker jacket. These are both fire proof and help add more insulation to your smoker.
Get Your Smoker Out Of The Elements: Rain, wind, and snow are all weather conditions that will take heat away from your smoker. When smoking in these elements, you are going to use more charcoal.
You can use a tarp, some wood, a pop-up tent, or whatever else you have on hand to protect your smoker from the elements by creating a barrier.
How To Tell When Your Smoker Needs More Charcoal
Now that we know what affects how long our charcoal burns and how to make our charcoal last longer, how do we determine when it is actually time to add more charcoal. There are two things you should look for that indicate your smoker needs more charcoal.
- Drop In Temperature:
It is normal for a smoker’s temperature to rise and drop. That is why we have vents to control the heat. If your smoker’s temperature drops, typically you open your vents to allow more air in. This will create more heat from your fire subsequently increasing your smoker’s temperature.
However, if your vents are already open all the way, and you see a drop in your smoker’s temperature, there is not enough fuel in your smoker to maintain those temperatures. This is an indicator that your fire needs more charcoal.
- Charcoal Bed Is Getting Thin
The second and easiest way to tell if you need to add more charcoal, is to simply look at your fire. As charcoal burns, it also shrinks. Once charcoal gets to a certain size, it can no longer produce the heat needed to maintain those smoking temperatures.
In the picture above you can see a freshly lit pile of charcoal. This pile of charcoal held my smoker steady at 225° for about an hour. I want you to pay attention to the size of each briquette and the density of the pile.
Now here is that same pile of charcoal after an hour of burning. Notice how the briquettes have shrunk and the overall density has gotten much smaller. It was at this point that my smoker started to slowly drop in temperature.
I know from experience that once my charcoal gets to this point I have about 20 minutes before that charcoal completely goes out. If I see my charcoal bed like this, I will grab my chimney starter and fire up another batch of charcoal.
How Long Does Charcoal Burn In A Smoker
The pictures above were part of an experiment I ran. I simply wanted to see how long charcoal would last. I filled up half a chimney full of charcoal and started it up. It took about 15 minutes for the charcoal to ember over.
I then threw that pile of charcoal into my fire box, started a timer, and let it burn. The charcoal held my smoker at 225°F for about an hour. After an hour my temperature started to decline, and it took another 20 minutes for the charcoal to completely burn up.
So, to answer your question, charcoal will burn for about an hour before it starts to lose its heat in a standard environment. This is why it is important to arrange your charcoal using the minion or snake method so that your fire can slowly expand.
Do You Add Lit Charcoal Or Unlit Charcoal
Well, it depends….
If Your Fire Is Dying Out And You need Heat Now:
If your smoker’s temperature is dropping and your charcoal is burning out, then we recommend adding charcoal that is half lit or completely lit. For one, this allows you to get heat back to your smoker quickly.
Secondly, adding unlit charcoal directly onto of your fire can give off dirty smoke which can leave your meat tasting bitter.
As you can see from the photo above, when I fire up my chimney starter to light my charcoal, I am getting a heavy white smoke. This is due to the incomplete combustion of wood that comes when wood/charcoal is heating up.
By lighting the charcoal before placing it in the fire, we are able burn off that dirty smoke avoiding adding any bad flavor to our meat.
If You Want To Extend The Ring Or Snake Before The Fire Reaches The Edge/End:
Now, if you are using the minion method, the snake method, or some other method which involves the slow spread of fire, and you simply want to extend the ring or line, then you would add unlit charcoal.
In this case, we are not adding charcoal directly to the fire but extending the ring or line, so the fire has fuel to burn when it reaches the end. This is done before the fire reaches the charcoal you just added.
You don’t have to worry about dirty smoke here as the radiant heat of the fire will preheat the charcoal. This allows the charcoal to reach complete combustion much quicker. Dirty smoke is mostly an issue with adding charcoal and wood that isn’t preheated.
For more information about dirty smoke, check out my recent post on what is dirty smoke and how to avoid it.
How Much Charcoal To Add To Smoker
When adding more charcoal to the smoker, we find that half a chimney full (about 30-40 briquettes) is the perfect amount. Adding to much lit charcoal will cause your smoker to run too hot and adding to little will cause your smoker to run too low.
Each smoker is different, so we recommend starting with half a chimney full and adjusting from there based on your smoker. If you don’t have a chimney starter, go grab one! They are cheap, widely available, and will make your life so much easier.
How Long Should Charcoal Burn Before Smoking
You should let your charcoal burn for 15-20 minutes before smoking. When you first light charcoal, if gives off a thick white smoke that can leave your meat tasting bitter. Allowing your charcoal to burn 15-20 mins before smoking can help burn off this dirty smoke.
What Kind Of Charcoal Should You Use In A Smoker
There are two types of charcoal used for smoking, lump charcoal, and charcoal briquettes. Which one you use is all personal preference. Lump charcoal tends to burn hotter and give a better smoker flavor, while briquettes will burn longer and more evenly giving you a more consistent and predictable burn.
Each has their pros and cons, but you can use both types of charcoal to smoke meat; however, regardless of which type of charcoal you use, you should use a charcoal free from chemicals and other additives as it can impart a bad flavor into your meat. Just stay away from those match light charcoals.
How Much Charcoal Do You Need To Smoke At 225
On average, half a chimney full, or about 30-40 briquettes is enough fuel to maintain 225° F in your smoker. Some smokers will require less, some will require more. Factors such as metal thickness, smoker style, weather, and type of charcoal all affect how much charcoal you need.
How Much Charcoal Do I Need To Smoke For 8 Hours
For an 8-hour smoke, you will need approximately 10-15 lbs of charcoal. Again, the type of smoker, the quality of smoker, and weather all play a factor in how much charcoal you need. Additionally, using methods such as the minion method can help you prolong the smoke.