Odds are you’ve used charcoal at one point or another in your lifetime. Popular amongst grillers and preppers for high-heat cooking over a fire pit, charcoal has been used as a source of heat for as long as anyone can remember.
No, 100% pure lump charcoal will not go bad as long as you’re able to keep it away from moisture. If your charcoal is low quality or has additives, then the shelf life may be shortened based on storage factors.
Of course, the infinite shelf life of charcoal is subject to many factors, mainly environmental, that can cause it to degrade.
Whether you’re using charcoal briquettes or pure charcoal, ensuring you properly store it will maximize the quality and shelf life.
What is Charcoal?
Charcoal is a man-made byproduct of burning wood, primarily hardwoods until they are lumps of unburned carbon.
The process of making charcoal involves heating the wood without any oxygen present.
Charcoal has been made for centuries using a fire pit and mud to partially combust wood.
Naturally, the process is called charring and effectively removes any water or impurities while leaving the carbon behind.
This product burns much hotter than regular wood and it does so cleanly as there are no impurities within.
Smelters use charcoal to get their fires hot enough to manipulate metals while grillers use it to cook up the perfect meals.
Do not confuse regular lump charcoal with briquettes as they aren’t the same thing.
Activated charcoal is another different product that is porous and used in a variety of medical applications.
Can Charcoal Go Bad?
Since charcoal is devoid of any moisture you can expect that any humidity or water will cause the effect to fail.
This can mean that it won’t light or it will smolder and not give off a lot of heat.
When determining how long the shelf life of charcoal is we need to look at a few factors surrounding it.
How Long is Charcoal Good For?
With proper storage and environments, charcoal will hold up indefinitely.
Scientists are finding plants from millions of years ago that have turned into charcoal which can still easily be lit to this day.
Of course, the process in which it was created matters since the slightest temperature difference can affect the quality by not purging enough of the impurities out of the wood.
Can Charcoal Go Moldy?
Charcoal can indeed go moldy although you’re more than likely going to see it on briquettes rather than natural charcoal.
The mold can appear as white or black fuzz and can be found growing all along the exterior.
Lump charcoal is an arid environment for bacteria to multiply which is why you’ll seldom see it.
Briquettes are treated with other compressed compounds that are organic and thus, bacteria can thrive on them in the right conditions, If you come across moldy charcoal it is best to return it to the store or throw it away.
Even inert mold is bad to breathe in and if you’re using charcoal to cook, then it can permeate into the food itself.
Most people will say that the charcoal will get too hot and incinerate the mold before it contacts your food.
While this is true, spores can be released into the air and it’s probably best to exercise some caution in this scenario.
Keep in mind that mold on your charcoal is a rare occurrence and you more than likely will never have to deal with it if you’re keeping the charcoal in a garage or shed.
What Makes Charcoal Expire?
The main reason that charcoal goes bad is because of how much moisture has been absorbed into it throughout its lifetime.
Another reason is that the combustion process was incomplete and the charcoal was incorrectly made.
Since there is still moisture in the wood then it won’t burn probably and you might get a hot smolder instead of a sharp heat.
Additionally, the unburned wood can leave a bitter taste on any food that you might be cooking with it.
Charcoal and Moisture
Too much moisture is very bad for your charcoal. With most cases of mild exposure to moisture, you might be able to save the charcoal by slowly drying it out.
If the charcoal has been submerged for a longer period then it might not be so simple to dry it out and try to light it. Sometimes the water will be so deep that air has a difficult time reaching it to dry it out.
If you find your charcoal sitting in a puddle or having been sitting in a damp bag for a long time then it is more than likely that you’ll have to discard it and get some more.
How to Dry Damp Charcoal
Drying damp charcoal is when you suspect that your stock has been subject to a little moisture.
The easiest way to dry out the charcoal is to spread it on a baking sheet and leave it in direct sunlight for a day or two.
If you decide to dry it out over multiple days, be sure to bring it inside at night since condensation can undo all of the hard work you did earlier.
Once it’s ready to test you can try lighting a little bit to see if it’s able to catch the heat and ignite. Otherwise, keep drying it out in the sunlight or toss it away and get some new charcoal.
How to Store Charcoal Properly
Storing your charcoal is not unlike storing a dehydrated or freeze-dried meal. The objective is to keep any air and moisture out of it.
Keeping it in an uninsulated garage or a damp basement won’t work and will probably degrade the product.
Choose the Right Storage Location
Ideally, the best location is somewhere that is warm, draft-free, and insulated against condensation and precipitation. An outdoor shed or basement crawlspace are excellent ideas for storage options.
In the summer, humidity can be a problem so make sure that your storage shelter has a lot of ventilation so that your charcoal can breathe.
Pick a Suitable Container
A plastic, airtight container is your best bet for preserving charcoal without the fear of moisture getting inside.
There are several options available on the market but it is wise to take the charcoal out of the paper bag that it came in, Paper retains a lot of moisture and this perpetual dampness can transfer over into the charcoal.
Some of the best storage solutions for preserving charcoal include:
- Metal trash can
- 5-gallon pails
- Plastic trash can with wheels and a handle
- Plastic storage totes
You’ll notice that a lot of these options are used to keep animals and weather out anyway.
It’s a great way to discern whether or not the container you want to use will be ideal for storing charcoal.
Tips on How to Test Potentially Old Charcoal
The best way to check if your charcoal is still good to use is to try and light it. Good charcoal will steadily produce heat without showing signs of stopping.
If your charcoal has too much moisture inside of it then it will have trouble staying lit.
You can try using some lighter fluid to help evaporate the moisture as you light it but sometimes it might be too far gone to use.
If the charcoal does light with the lighter fluid then be sure to let it go for at least 30 minutes to burn off any excess chemicals.
Well, there you have it. The charcoal will last indefinitely as long as you can protect it from the elements.
This involves putting it in a dry and dark location while being stored in airtight containers.
Mistakes can happen and if your charcoal does happen to go bad then don’t be dismayed, it is generally inexpensive enough that it won’t break the bank to buy more.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.