Over the years, human beings have devised so many different ways to cook their food, and they can vary based on the region that you’re in. After all, someone who lives in a snowy northern area likely won’t want to head out to grill their dinner every day, but if you’re lucky enough to live in a temperate region, this is one of the best cooking methods.
When it comes to barbecuing food, the age-old debate between propane and charcoal still rages on. While most will admit that charcoal gives the food more flavor, few will argue against propane’s greater convenience, ease of use, and even portability, to a certain extent.
On top of all of the other difficulties with charcoal, we’re going to see if it can also go bad over the course of today’s guide. However, before we get into the details of why charcoal can or can’t go bad, we’ll first have to explain what it is, and whether or not different types are more susceptible to it.
What is Charcoal?
While charcoal may not seem like it’s that interesting, the science behind why it works is a lot more fascinating than you would expect. Charcoal is created by taking organic matter and removing all of the volatile ingredients, including water, leaving behind what is essentially carbon.
This remaining material is then taken and put through the process of pyrolysis, which is heating something up in an environment which doesn’t contain oxygen. Since the charcoal is slowly heated in this oxygen-free environment to a temperature of over 1000 degrees F, it will never burn.
Pyrolysis removes all of the additional ingredients from charcoal, getting out the non-volatile constituent elements, and leaving behind only pure carbon. This ensures that charcoal can reach a high temperature and fuel your fire without creating noxious smoke that could otherwise ruin the flavor and the grilling experience.
Does Charcoal Go Bad?
Whether or not charcoal can go bad will depend on the kind of charcoal that you have purchased and if it has been treated with something else during the manufacturing process. Since real charcoal is a solid lump of carbon and nothing else, then there is nothing in it that can go bad.
Due to all of the organic matter having been removed before or during pyrolysis, there are no elements which can go stale or rot in it, but that doesn’t mean that all charcoal can be left around forever. While pure charcoal won’t go bad, it may also be harder to use than a kind that has been treated.
A lot of the time, charcoal is treated with oxygen crystals and other additives, which help ensure that it can burn consistently. These treatments are usually along the outside of the briquette, so they can catch fire with relative ease, and they will sometimes wear away if the charcoal hasn’t been used for a long time.
If these treatments wear off, then your charcoal will still be usable, but it will be a lot harder to light, often to the point that you can get a fire to burn consistently without it. Since this is essential for even heating and a quality meal, then you will often have to get a whole new bag of charcoal.
If you don’t like the idea of wasting an entire bag, then you could mix in some of the old briquettes with the new ones, but don’t put too many in the grill or you’ll risk unbalanced temperatures. Should you do this, be sure to space the old charcoal evenly enough so that you won’t have any particularly cold areas if some briquettes fail to light.
Another thing to consider is that charcoal won’t be able to light if it is wet, so that may be another reason why it isn’t working. If charcoal gets wet, it will typically crumble as it dries, and even if it doesn’t, it will emit much more smoke when it is finally burned, even if dried out.
Types of Charcoal
Briquettes are the most common form of charcoal that you’ll find available, mainly because they are easy to produce and store. This form of charcoal comes in pieces that have all been pressed into the same shape, ensuring that it can burn more consistently than the other varieties.
However, this is the kind of charcoal that is the most vulnerable to going bad, because it typically features chemicals which help it ignite and bind together. This is usually the kind of charcoal that will turn to powder if it gets wet, so you’ll want to be very careful about where you store it.
Flavored briquettes are another kind of pressed briquette, and they’re produced in nearly the same way as the kind that we just discussed. Once again, this kind of charcoal has been treated chemically so that it can perform better, but it will also use a kind of wood to add some extra flavoring.
While you cook with this kind of charcoal, the smoke will drift up to your food, and it will become embedded in it, making it taste that much more delicious. The same advice we provided for the regular pressed charcoal briquettes applies for these, as the flavor doesn’t change the composition much.
Match Lighting Charcoal
Much like standard briquettes, match-lighting charcoal is also extremely vulnerable to time and the effects of poor storage. This kind of charcoal is still pressed into a convenient shape, and it features a similar production process to regular briquettes, but it has additional igniters added in.
Since there are even more igniting chemicals in this kind of charcoal, it can easily be lit with a match, ensuring that you don’t need to buy any firestarters. If you don’t use your charcoal often, then we wouldn’t recommend this variety because of how vulnerable it is to the passage of time.
This is the best kind of charcoal if you’re worried about it going bad because it is the least likely variety to have been exposed to chemicals which can then wear off. This form of charcoal tends to be pricier than the pressed type, and you’ll often need to purchase it from a local store.
While it’s harder to find, lump charcoal typically doesn’t have added binders or chemicals, and it will still burn reliably. This means that you shouldn’t have any trouble using it to get a fire started, provided it hasn’t been sitting out in the rain or otherwise been exposed to water.
Storing Charcoal So That it Doesn’t Go Bad
There are a few ways to store your charcoal to reduce the likelihood of it going bad or being damaged by elements like water. First, you’ll want to try and keep the charcoal in the bag that it came in, as this will minimize the amount of moisture that is present in the container.
Of course, if you put that bag into another storage area, go through and make sure that it’s completely dry first. Also, consider what will happen if it rains. Check to see if there are any roofs that water can drip off of, and keep it far away from any pools or water hoses.
All of this advice applies for minimizing the humidity in your charcoal storage area as well, as it can steadily degrade your charcoal as surely as running water. Keep in mind that flavored charcoal will have a shelf life for the smoked flavor, so be sure to check that periodically, or make a mental note of it.
Keep in mind that this advice applies for pressed briquettes as well as lump charcoal, as all varieties are vulnerable to water damage.
Why Is Using Charcoal Worth the Effort?
You may be wondering whether it’s even worth using charcoal in the first place if you have to put so much effort into making sure that it’s still usable. While propane will be a lot more user friendly, it can’t hope to match the flavor that you get when using real charcoal.
Along with a better flavor, charcoal is also a lot more versatile than propane, as you don’t necessarily need a grill to cook with it. While propane requires a specialized grill that is designed to burn it, you can cook using charcoal in something as simple as a fire pit made of stones.
The choice of different kinds of charcoal also means that you can add an extra layer to your cooking. If you want to add a bit of a sweeter flavor to your meal, then you can cook using mesquite charcoal, or a similarly-flavored variety. While you can add wood chips to a propane grill, the flavor won’t be as defined.
While charcoal can’t necessarily go bad, the chemicals used to treat it can wear away and make it either harder or impossible to use. We hope that we’ve been able to share some helpful info about grilling with charcoal.