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When Is Charcoal Ready: To Cook, Grill or Smoke

when is charcoal ready

When is charcoal ready? Plain and simple, charcoal is ready when the majority of coals have a beautiful white ash cap. Knowing when charcoal is ready is important. This is due to the fact that during charcoal ignition emits unpleasant, dirty smoke that can impart a bitter flavor to your food.

Charcoal is a popular fuel source choice known for its ability to provide high heat and enhance the flavor of various foods. Whether you’re a seasoned grill master or just starting to experiment with outdoor cooking, understanding when charcoal is ready for use is a good idea to avoid running whatever you are cooking.

When is Charcoal Ready to GO

Before placing that beautiful steak on that grill and running that beautiful seasoning job. The charcoal needs to be ready. Charcoal is ready to go and ready when the lower coals, and closets to the bottom of the grill, show red and amber. This is a sign of combustion and means the coal is fully lit and there is enough airflow to support clean burning.

The higher pieces of coal should have a nice white ash cap which means that the coal is ignited. When the charcoal is ready you’ll notice thin blue /white smoke. This is clean smoke and is time to cook. If you notice a lot of black smoke, two things are happening.

First, the coals are still igniting and second, there isn’t a lot of oxygen flow yet. If you “choke” the fire, you will see a lot of black dirty smoke. You do not want to cook while black smoke is present as not only will the food be bitter but it will also be tainted with black smoke.

Understanding the Charcoal Types

Two different types of charcoal are available but the same lighting and readiness guidelines apply.

  1. Charcoal Briquettes: These are the most common type and are made by compressing sawdust, wood scraps, and other additives into uniform shapes. They often come pre-soaked with lighter fluid, which simplifies the ignition process. These briquettes can leave a chemical taste in food but are also available without lighter fluid or chemicals.
  2. Lump Charcoal: This type is made by burning hardwood in the absence of oxygen, resulting in natural charcoal without any additives. Lump charcoal is known for producing higher heat levels and providing a unique smoky flavor in some cases, depending on the brand. Lump charcoal is as natural as it gets.

The Charcoal Ignition Process

When it comes to igniting charcoal, there are several popular methods you can choose from:

  1. Chimney Starter: This is a preferred method among grilling enthusiasts. Simply place crumpled newspaper or fire starters under a chimney filled with charcoal, light the paper, and allow the flames to ignite the coals from the bottom.
  2. Electric Starters: These devices use an electric coil to ignite the charcoal. It’s a convenient option, but keep in mind that it may take slightly longer than other methods.
  3. Lighter Fluid: While convenient, using lighter fluid can leave a chemical taste on your food if not used correctly. Apply a small amount evenly over the charcoal, and wait for a few minutes to let it soak in before igniting.

Determining Charcoal Readiness State

Once the charcoal is lit, you’ll need to wait until it reaches the appropriate readiness for cooking. Here are some indicators to help you determine when the charcoal is ready:

  1. Ash Appearance: As the charcoal burns, it gradually transforms into ash. When the coals are ready for cooking, they should be covered with a layer of grayish-white ash, indicating that they are adequately heated.
  2. Glowing Red Coals: Take a closer look at the lit charcoal. When it’s ready, the coals will emit a consistent, glowing amber, red-orange hue. This indicates that the charcoal has reached its optimal heat level for cooking.
  3. Heat Level: If you’re using a temperature gauge, it’s recommended to wait until the temperature stabilizes within the desired range. Each recipe may require slightly different heat levels, so ensure you follow the specific guidelines provided. For searing you want the charcoal to be completely lit, for maximum heat before adjusting your grill’s vents for stabilizing the temperature.

Safety Precautions

While waiting for the charcoal to reach readiness, it’s essential to prioritize safety. Remember to:

  • Keep a safe distance from the flames and hot coals.
  • Avoid using excessive lighter fluid to prevent flare-ups.
  • Use heat-resistant gloves and long-handled utensils when handling hot charcoal.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher or a bucket of water nearby for emergencies.


Knowing when charcoal is ready for cooking is important for achieving good results on the grill and also good-tasting food. By using visual signs like ash appearance, the glow of the coals, and heat levels, you can ensure that your food is cooked using a natural and clean fuel source. Remember to prioritize safety throughout the process and enjoy the flavorful benefits that charcoal grilling brings.

Picture of Writen By: Hector

Writen By: Hector

Hector is the CEO and Founder of Stella On Fire Co. As a self-taught chef and entrepreneur at heart, he set out to create amazing seasonings and rub flavors everyone can enjoy. Hector is also our Food Safety and Protection Manager for Stella On Fire Co.

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