You start off the smoking process with charcoal but then, about a couple of hours later, you realize that the temperature seems to be dropping.
This is not ideal, so you need to add more charcoal to fuel it up.
That’s the thing about cooking with a charcoal smoker – the smokes are long and so you’re required to add additional charcoal briquettes or lumps.
Alternatively, you can also add some wood chunks or wood chips if you don’t mind the extra flavor because these act as a great fuel source too. And did you know you can even use wood pellets on a charcoal smoker?
But I digress.
When using a charcoal smoker, you need to add more charcoal if the temperature drops below 225 degrees F or every 2-3 hours.
You should monitor temperature readings at all times so you know when it’s best to add more coals.
Compared to an electric or gas smoker, or even a pellet smoker, you need to be aware of how quickly your coals burn in the charcoal smoker and then add charcoal while cooking to maintain the ideal temperature range.
When should I add charcoal while smoking?
Adding more charcoal helps maintain a steady cooking temperature in your smoker. After all, charcoal will burn to ashes after a couple of hours and needs replenishing.
The first instance where you should add more charcoal while smoking is if you notice the temperature dropping below 225 F. In this case, you must increase the temperature fast so you need to add lit coals.
The second instance when you should add charcoal is if you notice a slight temperature dip, but it’s very minor and doesn’t affect the cooking of the meat.
In this case, you can add unlit coals which will light up automatically from the other lit coals in the firebox.
When cooking with a charcoal grill or smoker you need to use a smoker thermometer to check the temperature every 3o minutes or so.
The ideal cooking temps for smokers is between 225 -250 F so you must place the thermometer near the top vent so it can hang down towards the cooking grate and take accurate temp readings that show the real internal temperature.
That way you know if you need to add more unlit coals or not.
How much charcoal do I need for 250 degrees Fahrenheit?
When you cook in a smoker, you’re cooking at low temperatures (up to 250 F) and often with indirect heat. Therefore, you don’t need to use a large quantity of charcoal.
Usually, about 10-12 (or a handful) of lit coals will bring the temperature in the smoker to about 225 – 250 F. So, you should spread out the unlit coals in the firebox and then add lit charcoal briquettes between the unlit pieces.
You will have hot charcoal for about 1-2 hours for sure depending on your smoker. Make sure you operate the vents and dampers properly or else the charcoal can burn too fast or slow.
Charcoal smoking requires the careful operation of air vents. If you don’t adjust the airflow accordingly, you can mess up the smoke.
You want the coals to burn slowly to avoid sudden temperature dips when smoking meat. You can look into the use of firebricks to maintain a steady temperature while smoking.
Another thing that can help you maintain a steady temperature in your smoker is smoker insulation (explained here).
How long does charcoal last in a smoker?
Charcoal is a slow burner and coal briquettes can last many hours, especially if you put a wood log or add wood chunks on top.
Regardless, you still need to add more coals when smoking because you’re not cooking with direct heat like on a charcoal grill, therefore, you don’t fill up the firebox.
If the firebox is filled to the brim with coal, the air inside the smoker stays hot at around 225 F.
A stander 15 lb bag of lump charcoal or the equivalent in charcoal briquettes can burn at least 15 hours. Now, that’s longer than it takes to smoke a brisket.
For example, pressed sawdust pellets, and wood chips burn faster than coals.
Is it OK to add charcoal while smoking?
Many newbies always ask if it’s okay to add more charcoal to the smoker.
Surely, you need to add more charcoal to keep the temperature high enough for smoking. If the temperatures begin to fluctuate, you’ve got a problem!
I explain the dangers of smoking with too cold temperatures in my post about the smoking danger zone.
Using only charcoal
Charcoal is not the same as wood for smoking, that’s a whole different thing that is all about adding smoky flavors to the meat.
Charcoal is there as your smoker’s fuel source. But, when doing long smokes, you can also add some more smoke wood and it acts like fuel.
Here’s the thing: adding more wood chips will increase the burning temperature in charcoal smokers. Also, wood chunks provide even more heat so be careful.
It’s best to add only charcoal to the smoker.
You can add more charcoal while smoking but make sure you don’t add quick light charcoal.
How to add more charcoal while smoking
There are 2 contradictory opinions on how to add more charcoal to the smoker.
Some people say you can add unlit coals or lit charcoal to the smoker and this won’t have a significant impact on the smoker’s temperature – it will, however, ensure the temperature stays consistent and doesn’t drop.
Other people remind us of this issue: if you add charcoal briquettes directly on top of the burning coals, it can lower your smoker’s temperature by a few degrees.
Some pitmasters recommend you light the charcoal briquettes in a chimney starter, then add the lit charcoal briquettes on top of the burning coals.
Don’t use lighter fluid
By the way, don’t light charcoal briquets using lighter fluid because it can emit smoke with a very unpleasant smell.
You want your meat to have intense flavor from the woods. The smoky flavor is much better than the awful lighter fluid fumes.
Here’s how to light charcoal without lighter fluid (the easy way).
The bottom line is that you need to add more charcoal to the smoker every 2-3 hours, depending on the temperature readings.
If you don’t add charcoal while cooking, the charcoal smoker won’t operate properly and your meat won’t be well smoked and cooked.
Also, keep in mind that if you get a good quality hardwood charcoal you won’t have to replenish the coals only once every couple of hours.
Still looking for a great charcoal smoker? These 10 Best Charcoal Smokers will have you smoking like a pro