I’m sure we’ve all been there. You plan everything out for your first barbecue of the season—burgers, chicken, maybe some corn. The family is excited. Beer is hand, and you’re ready to grill. You head out to the barbecue, throw on a pile of charcoal, and light it…and nothing happens. The charcoal smolders and dies out. Hmmm, maybe you try again and end up with the same result. After the 3rd try, it finally lights but takes forever to get up to temp. Now the kids are hungry, and your grillmaster status has been knocked back down to apprentice. Does charcoal go bad, or did you forget how to light it over the winter?
Does Charcoal Go Bad?
Well, I’m here to tell you that charcoal can, in fact, go bad. Not so much bad in the same vein as spoiled milk. But it is prone to absorbing moisture, making it difficult to light or even start to grow mold!
What is Charcoal?
Charcoal, in its simplest form, is wood that has been burned in an ultra low oxygen environment. This burns off any water and other organic compounds found in wood. The result is a lump of almost pure carbon which, when mixed with heat and oxygen, will produce a clean, long lasting source of heat.
Charcoal briquettes are made by combining the powder from of this carbon and mixing it with binding agents. Often cornstarch, among other things. And pressing the resulting mixture into the small pillow shapes we all know and love.
Lump charcoal is essentially the same save for the last step when the carbon is turned into a powder and shaped.
I personally like using lump charcoal as I have a good feel for it when doing low and slow cooks on the smoker. But for a lot of folks, even professional level barbecuers, they will use any form of charcoal interchangeably.
How Long is Charcoal Good for?
Raw charcoal, like Kingsford Original or lump style charcoal, can last indefinitely when stored properly. By keeping your charcoal closed in its bag or an airtight container and a cool, dry place, your charcoal will last for years.
With that said, there are some charcoal varieties, like Kingsford Match Light varieties, that they recommend using within 1-2 years.
However, this is more due to the solvent used for a quick light evaporating than the charcoal actually going bad. You may just need to light it using traditional methods rather than just throwing a match on the pile and walking away.
Can Charcoal Get Moldy?
Believe it or not, yes! If you allow your charcoal to get wet or even absorb enough moisture from the air, it can start to grow mold. This is especially prevalent in charcoal briquettes with additives that may encourage more organic growth than the purer carbon varieties.
I personally would toss a bag of moldy charcoal as it is probably wet and will be a pain to light. But once the charcoal is up to temp and ashed over, any of that mold will have burned off.
With that said, I’m not sure you’re going to be making many neighborhood friends or barbecue admirers by pouring a bag of moldy charcoal on the grill and telling them “don’t worry, I use this all the time.”
How to Store Charcoal
Proper storage of your charcoal is the best way to prevent it from going bad. Moisture is the ultimate enemy here so there are a few ways to keep your briquettes clean and dry.
Keep the Charcoal Away from Water
Water is enemy number one with charcoal. Take proper precautions like not leaving the bag of charcoal outside or sitting in a puddle to keep water out. It can be a bit of a pain but I always keep my charcoal in the garage and off the floor.
When its time to barbecue I’ll bring it out, pour it on the grill, and take it straight back into the garage. Its way too easy to get complacent and leave the bag out and it only take one hit from the hose to turn an entire bag of charcoal into a slow starting mess.
Seal Up the Bag
Charcoal is shipped in heavy paper bags for a reason. This paper forms a layer of protection from the elements. It is thick enough to absorb any ambient moisture in the air or even a light sprinkle outside while still keeping the charcoal dry.
By keeping the bag rolled up from the top you’ll keep air out and the charcoal dry inside.
Invest in a Charcoal Container
Charcoal containers can be as simple as a small metal garbage can, or you can get fancy (but still inexpensive) with one of these plastic charcoal containers with an easy pour top.
With either option you’ll have a convenient place to keep your charcoal while keeping water away.
Final Thoughts on Charcoal Going Bad
There is nothing worse than a pile of charcoal that you can’t use but with a little planning and a few precautions you can keep your charcoal fresh almost indefinitely. My next question would be why do you need to keep it indefinitely? Get outside and start grilling!