Friday, April 15, 2011

Charcoal Primer

Land Girls in Great Britain making charcoal for gas masks c.1949

     One of the most challenging aspects to dutch oven cooking for me has been learning temperature control.  When I purchased my first oven I had absolutely no idea how to light the coals let alone regulate the temperature.  Fortunately I had purchased a Weber chimney several years ago, it was still new in the box but I had no idea how to use it.  I had knots in my stomach wondering how I would time the lighting of my coals and how many I should even use for my first attempt at cooking.  I am definitely no expert but I have learned a few things that might be useful to the newcomer. 
     I light my coals using a chimney, it really couldn't be easier.  I fill the top of the chimney with however many coals I'll be needing plus a few extra for good measure. Then I loosely crumple up a couple of sheets of newspaper in the bottom and light it with a long tipped lighter.  Be sure to tip the chimney a little while you're lighting it so the paper can ignite in a good flame.  Make sure you get a good fire going with the paper, otherwise it will smolder, the coals won't catch, and you'll have to start all over again.  I learned this the hard way.  Some people prefer to use lighter fluid or even start the coals with a chimney over a propane burner.  Whatever method you decide to use, be careful of leaning too closely to the top of your chimney, it throws a lot of heat, many an eyebrow has been singed by the heat and flames. 
     When to light your coals.  I used to light my coals then dash into the house to frantically assemble my meal.  I was constantly watching the clock.  The kitchen would turn into a disaster zone as I scrambled to get everything ready for that magic moment when the coals would be glowing hot and ready to go.  Now I get whatever I can ready beforehand then light my coals.  While waiting for the coals to light I organize the kitchen so when dinner is ready all I have to do is enjoy the meal. 
     When are your coals ready?  Many people advise waiting until your coals are completely covered in ash, maybe 20 to 25 minutes.  The Kingsford company recommends waiting until your coals are 70 percent covered with ash and glowing red.  I have only used Kingsford charcoal, it lights easily and burns quickly.  I have found that the coals are usually ready in 15 minutes.  Seems to me they throw more heat when they the edges are white and just starting to glow. It also depends on the wind, air temperature and how many coals you start in the chimney.  If you load it up with a lot of coals, the ones on the bottom will be starting to burn down before the ones on the top are evenly lit.  If I am making something that will take more that 45 minutes to prepare I either relight another batch of coals or keep a few of the coals that I initially lit in the bottom of the chimney to help start the new ones.  Coals will burn faster on cold and windy days.  It is important to rotate your dutch oven lid every 10 minutes as the coals on the windy side of your oven will burn faster than the ones downwind. 
     There are several methods of coal placement under and above your oven.  The basic rule of thumb is to take the diameter of your oven, multiply it by two to derive at the total number of coals needed then subtract either two or three from the bottom and add them to the top.  Here is a link to a chart to help you get a feel for coal counting and temperature control. I use it as a basic guide. There is also the Dinwiddie method of placing your coals in a ring around the edge of the lid and bottom of the oven.  Most people agree that except when you are browning or sauteing over high heat, placing your coals around the diameter of the base is the safest way to prevent your food from burning.  Heat is conducted toward the center of the oven and will evenly distribute while baking. Holding your hand six inches above the coals for three seconds before it gets too hot usually means your oven is around 350 degrees.  That has been a reliable method for me. I can't really give you a hard and fast rule for temperature control, I tend to start with a hot oven then remove a few coals if the food seems to be cooking too fast.  I still have a lot to learn in this department, many people say dutch ovens cook food best at lower temperatures.
     A few notes on safety.  Please do not ever cook with coals inside your home, tent or camper.  Coals give off carbon monoxide when burned and can be deadly in a closed environment.  Don't ever pour lighter fluid or gasoline on burning coals and be sure to cook a safe distance from flammable materials. Be sure your coals are completely cool before disposing of them.  In my impetuous youth I almost burned down my neighbor's garage by dumping smoldering embers in the trash.
      The best way to learn temperature control is through experience. You may decide you prefer cooking with lump charcoal or even with campfire coals.  Over time you will develop a feel for it and how best to cook in varying weather conditions.  It may seem complicated at first but remember, you can always add more coals if your food is cooking too slowly and take away a few if the heat is too high.



  1. I have found that a 2 1/2" steel pipe cap filled with denatured alcohol to be a great way of lighting a chimney of charcoal. The Weber chimney is excellent. You can use a tin can (tuna or cat food, etc.) but they soon burn out from the heat - not a good situation - get a galvanized steel pipe cap from your big box store. The alcohol burns clean.

  2. I use fireplace starter logs. Break/cut off a chunk about the size of a golf ball. Place under chimney and light it. It lights well and stays lit. I found using news paper that it burns off fast and the ashes blow away very easily. Using the starter logs it stays in place and burns hot for a full 15 minutes. Hint: I keep a larger chunk of starter log in a large baggie to keep it from drying out. Sometimes I'll put a little lighter fluid on it before lighting, especially on a windy or very cold day.
    If you need a second round of coals, place another chunk of log on the previous clump (usually still hot), place chimney over it and the prior ashes will start the new chunk. Voila.

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