Does Charcoal Go Bad?
For me, there are few smells I associate more with summer nights than the smell of burning charcoal. I know I’m not alone in that, either. It’s a time-honored tradition, firing up a kettle grill with some charcoal and cooking dinner. I also remember (and have experienced) finding deals on two bags of charcoal that…
For me, there are few smells I associate more with summer nights than the smell of burning charcoal. I know I’m not alone in that, either. It’s a time-honored tradition, firing up a kettle grill with some charcoal and cooking dinner.
I also remember (and have experienced) finding deals on two bags of charcoal that I just couldn’t pass up. That inevitably led to partial bags of charcoal getting stored where they wait until next summer before getting lugged out again.
This begs the question: Can charcoal go bad? Let’s be real, sometimes our sheds, garages, or other storage areas might not get a lot of foot traffic and we forget we’ve got charcoal tucked into a corner. A bag could sit for a few months, a year, or even more. So how do you know if your charcoal is still good?
What Is Charcoal?
In an industry that is increasingly defined by technological advancements, we’ve been depending on charcoal for cooking for an incredibly long time. At its roots, charcoal is simply hardwood that is burned or cooked in an extremely low-oxygen environment. The result is essentially pure carbon that burns quite well, allowing you to cook food over direct heat while also working well for creating indirect heat and serving as the base for burning wood in an offset smoker.
However, if you go to a big-box store or any sort of store where you can buy grilling-related things, you’ll find that there is more than one type of charcoal.
Now when most people think of charcoal, this is what they think of. Due to the regular size of each briquette, regular charcoal burns evenly. It also burns a long time without generating a ton of heat. That makes it ideal for two-zone cooking or even smoking.
There are multiple types of briquettes. I’m a fan of using all-natural briquettes that do not have any additives or fillers in my grill. There are other options, including small bags of charcoal that have been soaked in essentially lighter fluid that you can put in a grill and light. This works if you’re going to a park and are using one of those park grills. We’ve got a list of our favorite charcoal briquettes for you to check out if you’re in the market for a new brand.
If you’re looking for the most natural charcoal, getting a bag of lump charcoal will do the trick. You can tell that it was made from chunks of hardwood being burnt down just by looking at it. It doesn’t have any of the fillers or additives that a number of charcoal briquettes have, so you can trust that all you’re burning is charcoal.
Lump charcoal can be made from a number of different hardwoods like oak, hickory, apple, and cherry. If you’re interested in checking it out, check out our list of the best lump charcoal.
Can Charcoal Go Bad?
Now that we know what charcoal is, we can tackle the big question: does charcoal go bad? In ideal conditions, the answer is no for all-natural charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal. Thanks to the process of making charcoal, anything that would rot or otherwise get ruined with time is removed.
So that means we’re good to go with storing charcoal wherever we want, right?
No. Due to charcoal being essentially carbon, it’s extremely porous and it doesn’t work well if it gets wet. In fact, if you keep charcoal wet for an extended period of time, it can actually break down and become unusable. It can also mold over time if it stays in a dark and damp environment.
That doesn’t mean that if your charcoal gets wet, it’s ruined forever. In fact, in our article on how to put out a charcoal grill, we highlight the method of dunking charcoal in water to instantly put it out. Why would we do that if it permanently ruined the charcoal? (Though we do note that if you get cheap stuff, it could fall apart.) Since charcoal is essentially carbon, it also can dry out. So if you find that you’ve got damp or wet charcoal that isn’t falling apart or has any mold growing on it, get it out of the damp environment and into the sun or other warm, dry area for a day. It’ll dry out and be usable.
What About Match Light/Treated Charcoal?
While untreated all-natural charcoal will last for an incredibly long time as long as it’s stored properly, what about charcoal that’s been doused in flammable material like lighter fluid?
Well, a quick check of Kingsford Match Light Charcoal’s webpage gives us a quick answer. To quote, “Kingsford Match Light Charcoal should last 1-2 years in unopened bags in a cool, dry place.” Kingsford also recommends that we should store an open bag by rolling “tightly down to the level of the briquets in the bag and securely closed.”
The issue is that the lighter fluid that the charcoal is soaked in will evaporate over time, rendering the fast-lighting properties useless. Now you might be able to use the charcoal as normal charcoal, but I would simply recommend practicing best storage practices and using it up within the time frame Kingsford says.
How Should I Store My Charcoal To Keep It Safe?
Now, I’ll be completely transparent here: I typically toss my half-used back of charcoal into my shed on the floor after rolling it up and let it be until the next time I need it. For the most part, that’s fine especially if you fire up a charcoal grill regularly or if you use charcoal to fire up an offset smoker on the weekends.
However, if you’re not using charcoal for a while, it’ll pay off to be a little less haphazard. You’ll want to roll that bag up tightly and find a way to ensure it stays closed. That could be taping it shut, using clamps, or some other way of your own devising. You’ll also want to make sure that you’re keeping it in a dry environment. You don’t want to leave it in your basement or crawlspace that’s prone to flooding or staying quite damp.
If you’re concerned about storing charcoal during the offseason or live in an area with a ton of humidity/rainy weather, there are some other options to consider. A big five-gallon bucket with a lid is a good, cheap option (also for wood pellets if you’ve got a pellet grill.) For a really cheap option, you can even put your charcoal bag inside a clean (emphasis on clean) garbage bag and tie it shut for extra protection.
There are also plenty of outdoor storage solutions where you could put your bag of charcoal to keep it out of the worst of the weather as well like deck boxes or shelf units.
Kingsford even makes a plastic container to store charcoal. The unit below holds up to 22lbs of charcoal and will keep it nice and dry.
What Do I Do If My Charcoal Gets Wet?
As I said earlier, just because your charcoal got wet doesn’t mean it’s ruined. You’ll want to evaluate the condition of the charcoal first.
1. Look At The Charcoal
When you notice that the bag is wet and/or see the charcoal is wet, look for two specific conditions. Is there mold growing on the charcoal, and does the charcoal look like it’s falling apart? If the answer to either question is yes, then it’s time to throw the bag out and go get a new one. If the answer to the first question is no and you’re unsure about the second, move to the next section
2. Grab A Piece And See How It Feels
If the charcoal looks fairly okay, reach in and grab a few pieces. Do they crumble or feel mushy? Get rid of it. If they still feel solid, then chances are you’ll be able to save them.
3. Dry Them Out
If it’s a warm and sunny day, find a good spot where you can lay the charcoal out. That could be on a piece of plastic sheeting that you might use as a drop cloth. It could even be out on your patio. Simply spread the charcoal out and let it dry.
If it’s not a sunny day, you’ll want to find a warm and dry area inside to spread the charcoal out and let it dry. You could even theoretically use fans to help circulate air more quickly over the charcoal. You’ll want some sort of protective layer like the plastic sheeting mentioned above. No one wants charcoal stains on the carpet.
Wrapping It Up
The good news is that lonely bag of charcoal that’s been sitting unopened in the back corner of your storage area for who knows how long is still likely good to fire up. As long as it’s dry and all-natural, you should be good to fire it up.
You want to ensure that you’re storing your charcoal properly by keeping it safe from moisture, and if you’re successful, that chunk of carbonized wood should catch fire just like it would if you brought the bag home from the store and threw it in the grill.
If it’s a Match Light or otherwise treated charcoal, it’ll last somewhere around one to two years if you’re storing it properly. If you leave that bag open though, the lighter fluid could evaporate early.
What’s your preferred way of storing charcoal? Got any tips? What’s the longest you’ve ever kept a bag of charcoal before burning through it all? Let us know in the comments!
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