The weatherman threw a wrench in your plans, and just as you were about to start grilling, clouds appeared out of nowhere and it started raining.
At least that’s what happened at Steens the other day, and my grill—along with the bag of charcoal sitting next to it—got soaking wet.
Maybe you’re also here because you left an opened bag of charcoal on your porch, in your garage, or in the root cellar for way too long, and the moisture found its way into the bag.
Whatever your story (I’m curious by nature, so don’t forget to share yours in the comments below), you’re here to understand two things. First, can wet charcoal can be salvaged? Second, and if the answer to question number one is “yes,” then how can it be done?
Let’s not waste any more time and get right to the point. The question is, “Can you grill over wet charcoal?”
Moisture will crumble cheap charcoal briquettes, rendering them worthless. Don’t even bother trying to use them and buy yourself a new bag of coals instead. Wet lump charcoal, on the other hand, can be dried in the sun for a day and used up.
The mechanics behind this are simple:
Dry the coals in the sun for as long as possible, light them in your chimney starter as you’d normally do, then pile them up in the pit and wait until they’ve started to ash over. That’s how you know they’re ready to cook on.
Expect the coals to take longer to ignite, and don’t expect them to give off too much heat at first. Until the fire is burning properly and the coals are completely dry, they’ll smoke and burn at a lower temperature.
It goes without saying that moldy charcoal should never be used. Not only can it give the food a bad taste, but the smoke can also be toxic and therefore harmful to your health.
Some claim that it’s okay to cook over moldy coals as long as you wait until they turn white and ashy. I wouldn’t take the chance, and if you want to follow my advice, you shouldn’t either.
What to Do With Wet Charcoal Briquettes
Briquettes were made a household staple by none other than 20th-century industrialist Henry Ford.
In 1919, after selling more than a million Model Ts, each of which required 100 board feet of wood to produce, the Ford Motor Company found itself overwhelmed with sawdust.
Ford, businessman that he was, looked for a way to put this waste to better use. He found his answer by compressing the sawdust with coal dust, borax and petroleum binders, and turning it into fuel for the American homeowner.
That answer required the help of Thomas Edison, who designed Henry Ford’s first charcoal briquette factory. The factory was ran by Edward G. Kingsford, who had helped Ford source the wood in the first place, and whose wife happened to be a cousin of Ford.
And so, the briquette charcoal company that we know today as Kingsford was born. The rest, as they say, is history.
The composition of briquette coal makes it an affordable and relatively good fuel for cooking. It’s also the main reason briquette coal does not hold up well to moisture. Moisture eats away at the petroleum binder and turns the coal into a useless pile of black dust.
This is also true of biomass briquettes, a lesser-known cooking fuel that uses plant starch instead of petroleum derivatives as a binder. I leave it to you to imagine for yourself what water can do to them.
When in doubt, go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and get dry charcoal. A bag of good charcoal costs five dollars. That’s definitely a lower price than leaving family and neighbors hungry at a barbecue.
What to Do With Wet Lump Charcoal
Lump charcoal is different from briquettes. Made from trees, logs, or pieces of wood burnt in a furnace with the absence of oxygen, lump charcoal holds its shape well, even when it’s exposed to excessive moisture.
That process, in case you’re wondering, is what draws the sap and the moisture out of the lumps, allowing them to burn hotter and longer than briquettes do.
Expose the lumps to dampness, though, and they will soak almost all of the lost moisture right back up. The good news is that it’s reversible, not like briquette charcoal.
To dry wet charcoal, cover a strip on your driveway or a sunny patch in your backyard with painter’s plastic or a cardboard sheet, spacing out the coals on it and leaving them to dry in the sun. Turn the coals over halfway in until they are no longer moist.
Preferably, you found that your coals were wet in the early morning, let them dry in the sun before noon, turned them over in the afternoon, and lit them in the early evening.
Patience is a virtue: the more time you take for this step, the better you will succeed in saving the coals.
You can go without the cover, but 1) collecting the dried charcoal will be harder, as you’ll have to do it coal by coal, and 2) you’ll end up with a hell of a mess to clean from where the coals sat.
In other words, do yourself a favor and do not skip the ground cover. At the very least, place the coals on parchment paper, which I am sure you have plenty of in your kitchen.
The Right Way to Store Charcoal
How to prevent charcoal from getting wet? Fellow bloggers will advise you to protect it from rain, but you already know that.
Opened or torn bags of charcoal should be used up quickly, especially if they have been treated with lighter fluid. Roll up the bag, cover it in a container, and store it away from direct sunlight in a cool but not damp place indoors.
A dry basement or cellar with a dehumidifier is suitable, as is your garage or a well-built garden shed. The container should be raised off the ground and placed away from windows and/or direct sunlight.
Unopened briquettes have a shelf life of 1-2 years from the time of purchase, while lump charcoal can last up to 10 years.
You can barbecue with wet charcoal as long as it’s not turned to dust and you’ve taken the time to dry it in the sun.
If the weather or the season prevents you from doing so, throw away the wet coals, get in your car and drive to the store to get a new bag. /wp:paragraph