When Is Charcoal Ready To Cook On? (5 Tips)

Many barbecue recipes out there are frustrating because they aren’t written specifically for cooking over charcoal, so they don’t tell you how to know when it’s time to grill your meat, or they tell you wrong. I once read a recipe that told me to wait until there was a layer of ash on my charcoal before putting my meat on.

But that wasn’t specific enough. White charcoal isn’t always an indication that it’s time to begin grilling. For example, if you put the chicken on the grill right after you see ashes, you’ll end up with a black chunk of burnt bird. To make matters even more complicated, different types and cuts of meat require different charcoal conditions to cook best.

Despite the additional complexities of grilling with charcoal, charcoal grills continue to be a favorite among serious outdoor grillers because of the flavor they impart that gas and electric grills can’t.

The trick is learning how to read the coals and test for temperature, but once you gain those skills, the grilling possibilities are endless and delicious. Below are five tips on how to know when your charcoal is ready to cook on.

#1 Consistency is key

Making sure the charcoal is burning at a steady temperature before you begin cooking your meat is the key to both perfectly grilled food and safety. As I mentioned before, grilling as soon as you see ash on your charcoal is usually a mistake. The first coat of ash means that your charcoal is hot on the surface but cool underneath.

For even heat, you need to wait until two-thirds of the charcoal is white. Another sign you are ready to go is the absence of smoke. Remember to use your poker to shift the coals around. You want everything to be as evenly and consistently spread out as possible.

#2 Know what you’re working with

A variety of factors can influence how quickly and to what temperature your charcoal heats up. These factors are charcoal type, the amount of available oxygen, and your grilling environment.

  • Charcoal Type

The type of charcoal you use to power your grill goes a long way in determining how long you need to wait between lighting it up and putting your food on the grill. The fastest type of coal is charcoal briquettes because many are made with petroleum additives to help speed up the process.

Other fast heating options are char wood or natural lump coals. These are very oxygen-friendly choices that you can light up quickly because they are made of unadulterated wood. The options that take the longest to prepare are coconut shell-based coals and binchotan.

  • The Amount of Available Oxygen

Even children know that oxygen is an essential ingredient to a good fire. The volume of oxygen you are letting through to your coals is a key matter to consider when you are determining how long to wait before beginning to grill. The more oxygen your coals have access to, the faster they will burn.

  • Your Grilling Environment

Anything we do outside is in some way at the mercy of mother nature. The weather and altitude can have an effect on how quickly your coals heat up. Cold winds and higher altitudes mean less heat and oxygen, which will slow down the burning process, while a hot day and lower altitudes may speed it up.

#3 Each meat is different.

As mentioned before, different cuts and types of meat need different charcoal cooking conditions. Putting your meat on the grill as soon as a layer of ash forms on your charcoal can work for burgers and steak, if you want some sear on the surface, but cooking chicken like that will just burn it.

For more delicate types of meat like poultry and fish, you want to start cooking only after your charcoal has broken down to an even heat.

#4 Test the temperature

This might seem obvious, but testing the temperature is one of the surest ways to know when it’s time to put your food on the grill.

While an experienced griller might be able to gauge the readiness of the coals just by looking at it, normal people like you and me can benefit from the use of a thermometer and our hands.

  • Invest in a Thermometer

Many grills come with thermometers built into them, but if yours doesn’t, then investing in a good thermometer can save you from burning or undercooking your food. There are a lot of amazing and inexpensive options on Amazon like the Dozyant grill thermometer.

  • The Hand Method

The hand method is another way to test the temperature of your coals. Put your palm about 6 inches from the charcoal and take it away when you begin to feel pain. If your hand is over the coals for 12 or more seconds, then the heat is low. This is great for slow cooking or smoking brisket.

If your hand is there for around 7-11 seconds, then you’re at the medium low. If you can only take it for about 5-6 seconds, then you’re at medium heat. This is great for chicken. 4 seconds is medium high, and 1-3 seconds is high – perfect for steak.

#5 Be clean and patient

When you’re hungry and all you want to do is to get the food cooked and the party started, it can be hard to remain patient. However, it is important to do so. Don’t give in to the temptation to put your food on the grill too early.

Remember that charcoal that isn’t stabilized can easily burn your food, or leave it charred on the outside and undercooked on the inside. Also, resist the urge to keep checking the food by lifting your grill cover.

When you lift the cover, it lets a sudden burst of oxygen in that makes the fire stronger. That means that if you lift the cover too often, you might accidentally burn the meal.

Another good thing to do is to do regular grill maintenance. Sweep out the ash and wipe up the residue that can accumulate in your grill because that can dampen your grilling efforts.


A great aspect of grilling with charcoal is that while there are a few rules and methods to learn, you can measure everything.

Whether you choose to purchase a thermometer like the Dozyant grill thermometer, use the one that came with your grill, or test the heat using your hand, amazing charcoal cooking is easily within your reach.

If you found this article helpful, leave a comment below and share it with your friends. Happy grilling!

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