Charcoal: Inexpensive Fuel for Outdoor Emergency Cooking

Emergency cooking can be a bit challenging as you look at how to safely store enough fuel to get you through the crisis. Charcoal briquettes not only give you the biggest bang for your cooking fuel buck but they are safe to store in large quantities and have an indefinite shelf life. In this post, we will share with you how to make cooking with charcoal outdoors an adventure every day as well as when disaster strikes.

How can I cook outdoors during an emergency using fuel that is inexpensive, safe to store, and that will last indefinitely? One of the least expensive emergency outdoor cooking fuels is charcoal. This economical fuel can cook amazingly delicious foods that can change a disaster into a party. Charcoal briquettes burn very hot and distribute heat evenly for great results. Charcoal is stable and can be safely stored without the dangers that accompany other fuels. Charcoal has an indefinite shelf life when stored correctly. 

Now let’s walk you through everything that you need to know when it comes to purchasing charcoal, storing charcoal long term, and cooking with charcoal. Your mission is to take this information, create a plan that works well for your family, and start practicing. Building your skill level will enable you to create delicious meals and provide a familiar level of comfort when the world is crazy around you.

What is Charcoal?

Charcoal is wood that has been slowly burned with very little oxygen, turning it into carbon. This process allows the charcoal lumps or briquettes to burn hotter than wood and produce less smoke.

Best Varieties of Charcoal for Long Term Storage

Charcoal can be purchased in several forms including briquettes, lump charcoal, flavored briquettes, and quick light charcoal. For the purposes of emergency cooking and long-term fuel storage we will compare the two main varieties; natural lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes. Each type of charcoal has unique advantages and disadvantages that will influence what you store.

Charcoal Briquettes

Charcoal briquettes are made from wood by-products and compressed with additives into a uniform shape and size. Standard charcoal briquettes may contain any of the following basic ingredients; wood char, mineral char, mineral carbon, sawdust, coal, nitrates, starch, borax, and limestone. These ingredients provide the fuel, control the rate of burn, facilitate lighting, and hold the briquette together.

Briquettes made from 100% natural wood without additives are also available. Charcoal briquettes are very inexpensive and can be stored indefinitely under the right conditions.

  • Burns longer and cleaner than natural charcoal
  • Uniform briquettes make temperature control simple and consistent
  • Takes up less storage space
  • May take 25-30 minutes to reach cooking temperature
  • Burns cooler than natural lump charcoal (which is actually an advantage if you are baking or simmering)

My preference for an emergency cooking fuel supply is charcoal briquettes. They are more versatile than lump charcoal and can be used in a wide variety of applications. That being said, it may be a good idea to store a few bags of lump charcoal for a backyard grilling party to cook all the meat in your freezer when the power goes out. Both forms of charcoal will store well and can be used as an emergency cooking fuel.

Hardwood Lump Charcoal

Lump charcoal is pure wood without additives that have been created by burning natural wood in a low oxygen environment and can be stored long term. It looks like the coals that are left after a campfire. Each piece is unique in both size and shape. Lump charcoal takes up significantly more storage space than charcoal briquettes.

It burns at a very high temperature and is ideal for searing steaks but may not work as well if you are baking bread in a Dutch oven. The variation in the sizes of the lumps can make it a bit challenging to calculate cooking temperatures accurately. It is also more expensive than charcoal briquettes.

  • Burns cleanly and produces very little ash
  • Easy to light and burns very hot, reaching temperatures between 800-1000 degrees Fahrenheit
  • One pound of natural wood charcoal will produce about the same amount of heat as 2 pounds of charcoal briquettes
  • Achieves cooking temperatures quickly within 10-15 minutes
  • Shorter burn time than charcoal briquettes so it is not ideal for foods that require longer cooking times
  • Pieces of charcoal are inconsistent and chunks may need to be broken up to create uniformity in lump sizes

Storing Charcoal Long Term

Charcoal is a fantastic storage fuel because it is not combustible or explosive like many other fuels. It can safely be stored in large quantities for an extended period of time.

Charcoal briquettes will store indefinitely if they are kept in an air-tight container that protects them from moisture. When charcoal is exposed to the air, it readily absorbs moisture rendering the briquettes useless. The good news is that the briquettes can generally be renewed by spreading them out on a driveway or other hard surfaces on a hot dry sunny day. This should effectively pull the moisture back out of the charcoal.

When storing charcoal long-term, we recommend purchasing a high-quality briquette without added lighter fluid. The lighter fluid on the easy-to-light versions will evaporate over time and be of no value. It is safer to store regular charcoal.

Storage Methods for Charcoal Briquettes

Storing charcoal briquettes in the original paper bag is not ideal for long term storage. Over time, the charcoal will absorb moisture through the bag.

  • Plastic Buckets – A handy way to store charcoal briquettes is in 5-gallon buckets. This is a great use for clean non-food grade recycled plastic buckets. The bucket needs to seal well to protect the contents from moisture. You may consider adding a desiccant packet for moisture control if you are planning on storing it for a long time.
  • Barrels – Charcoal briquettes can also be stored in the original bag and placed in a barrel with a tight-fitting lid. A garbage can with a tight-fitting lid will also do a great job for long term storage.

Indefinite Shelf Life

The buckets in the photo below were repurposed laundry soap buckets. We filled them with charcoal in 2005 and caulked the lid shut to ensure a tight, moisture-proof seal. Each of these buckets contains 15 pounds, or 240 briquettes, which is enough fuel to cook 10 meals for our family. They have been stored in a garage and in an unheated outbuilding. We cooked with some of this 14-year-old charcoal today and it worked perfectly.

Be creative and use whatever resources you have available to protect the briquettes from moisture. Charcoal briquettes are almost impossible to light once they have absorbed moisture. You do not want any surprises the day your power goes out and you are depending on them to cook your meal.

These are a few great brands of briquettes that you can purchase on Amazon for long term fuel storage:

You can also watch for sales at your local stores. Charcoal tends to be a seasonal item, and many stores will discount it at the end of the summer. That may be a great time to stock up and save money building your emergency fuel supply.

Charcoal Calculations for Long Term Fuel Storage

In order to determine exactly how much charcoal you need to store for your family, you need to determine the following:

  1. What type of cooking device(s) will you be using to burn the charcoal?
  2. How much charcoal is required to cook a meal using that device?
  3. Which type of charcoal you are planning to use (original, natural wood, or lump charcoal)?
  4. How many meals do you want to be able to cook?

We compared a bag of Kingsford Original Charcoal and Kingsford 100% Natural Charcoal Briquettes. You may be interested in what we learned.

The bag of Kingsford Original Charcoal Briquettes weighed 21.6 pounds. We counted the briquettes into little piles of 24 each. That is the exact amount of briquettes that are required to cook a meal in a 12-inch Dutch oven for one hour. That means that we can theoretically get 16 meals from one bag of charcoals. There are 18 briquettes in one pound of the original charcoal.

The bag of Kingsford 100% Natural Charcoal Briquettes only weighed 18 pounds but could also theoretically cook the same 16 Dutch oven meals. The 100% natural briquettes will not burn as long as the original briquettes but they do burn hotter. They are nicer coals to work with and do not tend to crumble as much as the original version.

One of these bags of charcoal has the ability could cook one meal a day for two weeks, or two meals a day for one week. Either variety is a good option for long term storage.

Cooking with Charcoal

Energy efficiency and versatility is an important consideration when you are selecting a charcoal cooking method. You have a limited amount of fuel. Your ability to use that fuel efficiently will enable you to stretch your fuel resources.

Starting Charcoal

The charcoal briquettes must be started before they are ready to use. A charcoal chimney is a great way to accomplish this. The briquettes are put in the top of the chimney grate and a small newspaper fire is started underneath, igniting the charcoal within a few minutes.

I actually prefer to use Safe Heat to start my coals. I light the can and place it under the chimney. No blowing or tending the fire. Guaranteed to start without any hassle every time. Once they are covered with white-gray ash they are ready to use for high-temperature cooking.

Charcoal Grill

A charcoal grill is a popular method for cooking with charcoal. The coals need to be started before grilling. The heat in a charcoal grill is controlled by the vents. Open vents allow more oxygen to the coals and produce a hotter fire. As you close the vents, the amount of oxygen is reduced, lowering the temperature. Completely closing the vents will extinguish the charcoals.

Charcoal grills are not energy efficient and require a lot of coals to get the job done.

Volcano Grill

A Volcano Grill is a handy device that can be used as a stand-alone grill, a fire pit, or to increase the efficiency of a Dutch oven. Depending on the model, it can be fueled with charcoal, wood, or propane. The versatility of the Volcano makes it a good option for emergency preparedness.

Generally speaking, a Volcano use about one-third as much charcoal to create the same delicious Dutch oven meals. By regulating the airflow and channeling the heat to the sides of the pot it enables the Dutch oven to cook better using less fuel.

Cobb BBQ Grill and Oven

The Cobb Cooker is a fuel-efficient portable cooker and unlike a traditional portable grill, it can bake, roast, smoke, and fry. It is portable and very easy to use. The base stays cool to the touch and can be placed on any surface. It uses 8-10 charcoal briquettes and is ideal for 2-3 people.

EcoQue Portable Grill

Formerly known as a Pyromid, the EcoQue Portable Grill is is a highly versatile tool. The energy-efficient pyramid design means it uses 75 percent less fuel. It is designed to burn charcoal or any biomass fuel (sticks, twigs, wood chunks). It can be used on a tabletop outdoors. The temperature can be controlled to allow for baking by placing the charcoals on the lower grate. One nice feature is that the charcoals can be easily started inside the EcoQue grill.

Dutch Oven

My favorite way to use charcoal briquettes is with Dutch oven cooking. A great Dutch oven meal can turn a power outage into a special occasion. Dutch oven cooking takes a little bit of practice to master but can be a fun and tasty hobby.

Anything you can cook in a kitchen oven can be made in a Dutch oven … breads, cobblers, cakes, potatoes, roasts, casseroles … seriously the possibilities are endless. A Volcano cookstove is a great way to increase efficiency and conserve fuel while cooking in a Dutch oven. The cast-iron cookware also works well over an open fire with coals created from the burning wood.

The chart below will give you an idea of how many charcoals you may need to cook in your Dutch oven. Baking requires even heating and careful distribution of the coals on the top and bottom of the oven. Frying, boiling or steaming all require more heat on the bottom of the Dutch oven.

The Formula for Calculating Charcoal Required for Dutch Oven

A charcoal briquette will add 10-13 degrees Farenheight. You need roughly 8 to 10 briquettes to add 100 degrees to the oven.

The general formula for calculating the number of charcoals needed to bake at 350 degrees in a Dutch oven is as follows:

  • Take the size of the oven (12 inches) and double it (24)
  • Divide that number by 3 (24 divided by 3 equals 8)
  • Place one-third of the coals under the oven (8)
  • The remaining coals are placed on the lid (16)
  • Add 2 to 4 additional coals on the lid if you are using a “deep” Dutch oven.

Charcoal briquettes will provide an average of 60 minutes of cooking time before needing to be replaced. If you stack the Dutch ovens on top of each other, you can save fuel.

The chart below can help you get a basic idea of how many bags of charcoal briquettes you may want to store for emergency cooking in a Dutch oven. The calculations are based on one year. For instance; if you want to cook once a week for a year in a 12-inch Dutch oven you will need to store 3.3 bags (18-21 pounds) of charcoal briquettes. Planning to cook with charcoal in the same Dutch oven 3 times a week for a year? Store 10 bags of charcoal briquettes.

Rocket Stove

Rocket stoves can burn wood, charcoal or any flammable biomass material. Our rocket stove is designed specifically for charcoal in addition to sticks of wood. The sticks are fed into the stove through a small door at the base, and the pot sits on the top. The chimney effect creates a nice hot fire using minimal fuel. A quick internet search will produce a variety of plans for homemade versions of rocket stoves. Click here for current pricing on a StoveTec Rocket Stove.

InstaFire Ember Oven

The InstaFire Ember is the world’s first indoor/outdoor portable emergency oven. It can be purchased from InstaFire here or from MyPatriotSupply here. It can be used indoors with canned heat but the thing I like best is that you can bake with it outdoors using sticks or charcoal. 

Charcoal Reflector Box Oven

You can also bake with charcoals in a reflector box oven. An inexpensive box oven can be created out of a cardboard box and aluminum foil. These simple tools allow you to bake in your regular kitchen pans using charcoal briquettes.

Apple Box Charcoal Reflector Oven

Inexpensive but efficient, this oven is constructed using an apple box (free for the asking at most supermarkets), heavy-duty aluminum foil, spray adhesive (optional), a cooling rack, and a blanket for insulation in cold weather.

An apple box reflector oven bakes using only 10-14 charcoal briquettes. Use one briquette for every 35 degrees desired, for example, 10 coals = 350 degrees. More coals may be required in cold weather to achieve the same temperature.

Place hot coals on the foil surface, position food on the rack and place the oven on top. The oven can maintain temperature for 45-55 minutes.

Detailed instructions for creating an apple box charcoal reflector oven can be found here.

Paper Box Charcoal Reflector Oven

A paper box oven is a creative tweak on the apple box design. The smaller size requires fewer coals to accomplish the same job, thus stretching your fuel supply. Use 8-10 coals to bake at 350 degrees for 60 minutes.

Similar to the apple box oven, this small homemade oven is just big enough to bake using a 9 x 13 pan. It is made using a box that contained reams of letter-size paper. Coals must be placed on an inverted cookie sheet or pie tin on the bottom of the box. If coals are placed directly on the bottom of the box, it will burn.

Detailed instructions for creating a paper box charcoal reflector oven can be found here.

Safety Precautions

The one major drawback of charcoal briquettes is that they produce large amounts of carbon monoxide (a deadly gas) and should never be used indoors or in a garage where fumes might seep into the house. Please be safe! Do not ever burn charcoal indoors!

Consider Adding Charcoal Briquettes to Your Fuel Storage

Indefinite shelf life, inexpensive, and very safe to store. It really doesn’t get much better than that. A stash of quality charcoal briquettes and a few tools can allow you to cook gourmet meals outside during a power outage or any other time. Disaster preparedness will take on a whole new meaning when it means that it is time to grill or pull out the Dutch ovens.

Check out these posts to learn more about storing fuels for emergencies:

Thanks for being part of the solution!


Kylene Jones is a blogger, content creator, published author, motivational speaker, homesteader, prepper, mother, and grandmother. She practices self-reliance, provident living, and emergency preparedness in her everyday life. She loves working with her husband, Jonathan, and is committed to helping our community be prepared to thrive during the challenges that lie in our future.

Recent Posts