Cooking Tips

No Chimney Starter? Measure Your Briquettes with a Milk Carton

No need to panic. Just grab a half-gallon milk or juice carton. 

Published May 15, 2023.

Mastering a charcoal grill is an art form. A gas grill is as easy as turning on propane and pressing ignite. But charcoal requires a bit more attention. 

For starters, your charcoal needs to be measured. The amount of charcoal varies depending on your recipe, so you want to make sure it’s accurate.

Ideally a large, 6-quart chimney starter is the best way to measure. But maybe you forgot to pack it in your camper. Or maybe you haven’t bought one yet.

Either way, we’ve got a plan B. Just grab a half-gallon milk carton.

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Before I measure, which charcoal should I choose?

There are two types: lump (aka hardwood) and briquettes. Lump resembles the wood it comes from. Briquettes, the most common form, are compact pucks made from sawdust and other materials. Both are great for direct, fast grilling—think steaks, chops, burgers, and hot dogs. 

If you’re grilling something that takes more than 40 minutes to cook or you’re planning to grill several items over a period of time, go for briquettes, since they stay hot longer.

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I don’t have a chimney starter. How much charcoal do I need?

Have no fear! You can measure the amount by volume.

Just grab a clean, empty half-gallon milk or juice carton, which holds about 2 quarts.

Here’s a chart to help you measure:

How to Measure Charcoal with a Milk Carton


Mounded chimney starter

7 quarts, or 3½ milk cartons

Full chimney starter

6 quarts, or 3 milk cartons

Three-quarters full chimney starter

4½ quarts, or 2¼ milk cartons

Two-thirds full chimney starter

4 quarts, or 2 milk cartons

Half-full chimney starter

3 quarts, or 1½ milk cartons

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