The easy answer to the question of whether you can leave a charcoal grill unattended is, of course, no. The safest thing to do when it comes to grills that are lit is to attend to them.
In other words, don’t leave an active grill all by itself. This goes for charcoal grills, smokers, gas grills, and even outdoor fire pits.
This isn’t only to prevent fires, but also to prevent injuries and other accidents that can easily come about because a grill is left operating without anyone there to keep a watchful eye on it.
Now, you might be thinking, “Hey, aren’t charcoal grills a little different? They take a while to get going and you can’t just shut them off like a gas grill. What if, you know, mother nature calls?”
Well, before answering that question or delving any deeper into grill safety and why attending to a grill that’s lit is always a priority, let’s take a look at the other point you just made.
Charcoal grills are different.
And they can’t just be shut off like a gas grill.
There are no ON/OFF knobs or a gas supply valve that can be closed.
This is why it’s even more important to make sure that a charcoal grill is watched, especially when the fire is lit and the coals are hot. Now that that’s said, let’s get into the gritty details.
Planning Is Key
It’s easy to say it takes some planning to get a charcoal grill going.
We’re not only talking about making sure you’ve got enough briquets—or decide how you’re going to get the coals going.
If you’re a charcoal grill enthusiast, you already know there’s some pre-grilling and always post-grilling cleaning involved:
There’s food preparation time, figuring out how many briquets to use, how to place them on the grill based on if you’re going to use direct or indirect heat, and are you going to use a chimney starter or go old fashion?
A charcoal grill isn’t like a gas grill where you only have to make sure you have enough gas in your propane tank to grill what you want to grill, ensure there are no leaks, and have all your cooking items ready to go. From there, you turn on the gas, ignite it, and go about your grilling business.
Not so with charcoal.
Besides the burden of lighting the coals and getting them hot, you also have the post-grilling portion, also known as, “Now what do I do with these hot coals?”
Which also takes planning because once your briquets are nice and hot, they don’t cool down right away, even if you’re done with all your food.
Long story short: You can’t just walk away from a charcoal grill by turning off the gas like you can with a gas grill.
Putting Out a Charcoal Grill
As mentioned, with a gas grill you simply have to cut off the fuel.
First, you turn your burner knobs to OFF and then you turn your propane tank valve to CLOSED. Other than letting the grill grates and surfaces cool off, you’re pretty much done and can go on your merry way.
A charcoal grill takes more effort than that. Not a great deal of effort, but it does require you to one, decide how you want to put out your charcoal grill, and two, make sure the way you choose actually, you know, puts the grill out.
(If it doesn’t, you might be attending to your grill for a lot longer than you originally planned.)
Ways to put out your charcoal grill:
When it comes to smothering your coals, you can do it one of two ways.
The first is to simply close your grill’s lid and shut all the vents.
The grill won’t go out or cool down immediately, but closing the lid and vents cuts off the oxygen supply needed to keep the coals hot and prevents any reflash.
If you’re concerned your grill isn’t exactly air tight, try to position it in a place where the wind is minimal to cut down on drafts as well.
If you want to smother your coals but don’t want to leave them in the grill, you can also get an ash bucket.
The best are the kind that have tight lids that allow for the smothering of hot coals and ash in a place separate from the grill.
They should also come with a nice scoop and handle for easy transfer and dumping. The great things about these types of buckets are they’re not too expensive, can be moved around easily, and can also be used for fireplaces, etc.
Dousing hot coals and ash is exactly what it sounds like.
It’s the quickest way to cool the coals. As you pour the water in, you can stir the coals, breaking them up and exposing more of the surface area to the water.
The only drawback to this method is the fact you’re basically creating an ash slurry inside the bottom of your grill. Well, and a face full of hot steam if you’re not careful when you pour water in the first time.
Breaking up the coals is similar to dousing them with water and breaking them up, only without water.
This is probably the most common way people put out their charcoal grills on a long day when you’re not going anywhere for a while. Separating the coals prevents the continued transfer of heat between coals. It takes a while, but if you’re watching sports, you’re not going anywhere anyway.
The last way is, of course, to combine all three methods. As long as you’re not throwing hot coals and ash into a regular trash can or on a pile of dry leaves, you should be okay.
Other Safety Concerns
Don’t throw hot coals or ash on a pile of dry leaves or directly in normal trash. Also, have something to put a fire out handy (like a dry chemical fire extinguisher).
Don’t grill indoors or under flammable coverings. And try to avoid grilling in windy conditions where you can’t block the wind.
It’s never wise to leave a charcoal grill unattended. However, if you’re willing to put the effort into prepping and using a charcoal grill, the last thing you should want to do is leave it alone and unattended.
That’s how accidents, fire, and ruined food can happen.