How much charcoal do you need for a BBQ?
Summer is finally arriving and the days of BBQs, long lunches outside, and relaxing evenings on the patio with a glass of wine are all on their way but how much charcoal do you need for a BBQ?
Everyone’s an expert when it comes to BBQs yet, we’ve all been to one where the food is cremated or, worse still, you end up with food poisoning from undercooked food.
Finding a balance between the heat and cooking time when cooking with charcoal is tricky, especially if you’re new to it.
Luckily, we’ve done all the hard work and compiled a list of guidelines on how much charcoal you should be using depending on how long you want to cook for, to help you find your BBQ mojo.
First up, let’s look at the charcoal you’re using
There are two basic types of charcoal available, briquettes and lumpwood. Each has its own respective pros and cons for your BBQ.
Briquettes are the most popular type of charcoal sold in the UK and can be purchased in many different qualities (just as you would with a wine or beer). The higher quality briquettes burn for longer, although this does not mean that the lower grade won’t do just fine in the short term.
Pros of using briquettes:
Can help you control how much charcoal is needed for the size of BBQ you’re cooking on.
Produce less ash than lump wood.
Cons of using briquettes:
Produce more smoke than lumpwood, which can be a nuisance in the kitchen/garden.
The shape of the briquette can make them difficult to light.
It is difficult to gauge how long the briquettes are going to burn, because of their shape and quality.
Lumpwood charcoal can cost a little more than briquettes and burns a little faster but is more stable and predictable when it comes to controlling the heat.
Pros of using lumpwood:
It burns at a steady pace and doesn’t need so much attention. This makes it great for entertaining as it’s fairly predictable and you’re less likely to get ‘hot spots’
Lumpwood typically produces less smoke.
Cons of using lumpwood:
Lumpwood charcoal burns faster than briquettes, meaning that you may have to be more vigilant and top-up when BBQing.
Lumpwood can be messy to cook with, as it produces lots of ash.
How much charcoal do you need for a BBQ?
So, now back to the main question How much charcoal do you need for a BBQ?
If you are cooking for up to 4 people then you’ll need about 3kg of charcoal to produce a really nice BBQ. If you’re planning to cook for more people then take a look at our handy quick cheat sheet to help you work out how much you’ll need:
- 3 kg of charcoal is good enough for a small BBQ for up to 4 people.
- 6 kg of charcoal is good enough for a small BBQ for 6 people.
- 9 kg of charcoal is good enough for a small BBQ for 8 people.
- 12 kg of charcoal is good enough for a BBQ for 12 people.
- 15 kg of charcoal is good enough for a BBQ for 16 people.
Deciding how many people you’re expecting to feed is the most important factor. The amount of charcoal you use will vary depending on your BBQ size and the type of food you’re preparing.
So, in order to calculate the amount of charcoal you should be using for your BBQ size, take the number of people you’re expecting to feed and divide it by the total charcoal weight.
For example, if you’re expecting 10 people for dinner, divide 10 by the total weight of charcoal (in kilograms) to find out how many kg of charcoal you should be using. If you took 6 kg of charcoal, then you should be using 2 kg per person.
The total amount of charcoal needed for a BBQ depends on the size of your BBQ and the scale of the food you’re cooking, but it is always better to err on the side of too much than too little.
Remember, it’s very easy to top-up the coals during your BBQ, so don’t be tempted to shy away from more charcoal. It’s a much bigger problem if you run out of charcoal before you’ve finished cooking so always have some spare in case you need to extend the cooking time.
How much charcoal should I use to start with?
As a general rule of thumb, take into consideration the following factors:
The size of the charcoal grill as the bigger the grill, the more charcoal you need to cook on it. You’ll want to fill out your entire cooking base in most cases to maximize the available grill area you can use.
The kind of food that you’re cooking on the BBQ. If you’re cooking something that has a high-fat content, you’ll need more charcoal to maintain a constant heat to cook it.
The time of year. If we’re having a crazy British heatwave and the sun is blazing, then you may want to add 10-20% more charcoal than usual just in case the sun gets the better of your BBQ and it overheats.
How do I adjust the heat output of a charcoal BBQ?
Adjusting the heat output of your BBQ depends on whether you’re using briquettes or lumpwood, and how much charcoal you’ve used.
How to increase heat with briquettes:
Put more briquettes onto the fire, one or two at a time. This will increase the overall temperature as well as the amount of air that is entering the grill.
If you add a few too many then don’t worry, just put them around the edges of your barbecue so that they’re not directly under any food (or remove them). Give any new coal time to heat up before deciding whether the BBQ is now hot enough, it’s not instant heat.
How to increase heat with lumpwood:
Put more lumpwood on your fire as required. You can also add briquettes on top of lumpwood to extend the cooking time. Start slowly and allow the charcoal to heat up. Work your way up until you’re happy with heat output. If it gets too hot, you can always move some of the lumpwood to the edge so that you’re not cooking over a searing heat.
How do I light my charcoal?
There are a couple of ways to consider:
The best way to light your charcoal is with a chimney starter. This is the most efficient way to get hot coals ready for cooking on your BBQ in a very short amount of time.
Firstly, you’ll want to fill the bottom of your chimney starter with kindling and light it. This is to create some heat and help get your lumpwood or briquettes going.
Light some paper (or newspaper) under the kindling and wait for it to start burning. You’ll know that it’s ready when you see smoke coming out of the top of your chimney. Then put your briquettes or lumpwood on top.
If you want to find out more about charcoal chimneys you can read more in our How to Use a Charcoal Chimney Starter article.
BBQ Lighter Fluid
Secondly, you can use BBQ lighter fluid as a way to light your lumpwood or briquettes. This is not as efficient as a chimney starter, but it’s still a good way to get your BBQ up and running.
To do this, you’ll first want to fill your charcoal basket with lumpwood or briquettes and then pour some fluid onto the top. Ignite the fluid then wait for the magic to happen. Once the coals are hot enough, they’ll start to burn and spread.
Be really careful about putting more lighter fluid onto the coals if it’s already hot as this can cause flashbacks and is extremely dangerous.
Never be tempted to use petrol or anything other than proper lighting fluid or gel! Patience is a virtue!