Cooking over charcoal briquettes takes a little longer than firing up the gas grill, but your patience will be rewarded with a smoky flavor that gas just can't imitate. Technically, charcoal never expires. However, additives that make charcoal easier to light do expire. Moisture can also create problems with charcoal briquettes.
What Is Charcoal?
Charcoal is the ash left over when plants or animal products burn incompletely. It is essentially the ash left over when something burns and is created when that burning occurs in the absence of adequate oxygen. To make charcoal briquettes, manufacturers remove water and other impurities from this ash and form it into charcoal briquettes. Some companies add lighter fluid or another flammable agent that makes the charcoal ignite easier.
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Keeping Charcoal Dry
When storing charcoal, you need not worry about using it before it expires since it never does. However, charcoal can absorb dampness, and that can cause problems. Wet charcoal simply won't burn. If it gets wet enough, it will simply crumble in your hands.
To prevent this problem, always store your charcoal inside an airtight and waterproof container. If your charcoal is damp but not saturated, you may have a chance to save it. Open the bag and lay the charcoal out in the sun on a tarp or baking sheet to dry out. Arrange the charcoal in a single layer and flip over the briquettes during drying to get both sides. The drying process can take a few hours or a day or two depending on how damp the charcoal is.
Charcoal With Lighter Fluid
Sometimes, charcoal producers add lighter fluid to their products to make them light easier. While the charcoal itself won't expire, the flammable additives in it can. As such, it's best to store your charcoal for only a year or two. If it's been a little longer and you can't get the charcoal to light, you can try adding some more lighter fluid. Try lighting the charcoal before adding the fluid, however. You want to be certain the old lighter fluid has evaporated so you don't end up using too much and creating a fire hazard.
A Word on Lump Charcoal
Although charcoal briquettes seem by far the most popular with grillers, lump charcoal is also available. Lump charcoal is made from burning wood in low oxygen conditions and then collecting the remaining ash. It has no lighter fluid or other treatments added to it and is much loved by purists who feel that adding lighter fluid to charcoal makes for a bad taste.
Lump charcoal, however, burns hotter and more quickly than briquettes. This makes it a viable choice for quick meals, like hamburgers, hot dogs, and thin cuts of meat. As for storage, the rules for lump charcoal are the same as those for briquettes. Lump charcoal will last indefinitely as long as you don't get it wet.