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Moldy Charcoal

I’ve loved playing with fire since I was a kid. Lots of pyros are drawn to its beauty, its destructive power, its mathematically chaotic nature. I’m drawn to its self-sustaining behavior, its propagation and eventual exhaustion. A systems analyst to the end. And experts will assure you there’s always something to learn. They say the same about concrete. Experts are funny that way.

Anyway, I learned something new about fire lately. Our charcoal somehow got damp over the winter, despite being set on a raised platform in a dry shed. I suspect a leak in the roof, especially since some of the briquettes got moldy, an inverted cone of moldy bricks in the bag suggests moisture from above. Regardless, the charcoal got damp, and I didn’t want to spend the time or money getting a fresh bag, so I decided to make due with what I had for the year’s first grilling, resigning myself to sizzling the steaks in a cast-iron skillet if necessary.

Knowing the charcoal would be difficult to light, I supplemented the newspaper kindling with actual kindling: a few twigs scavenged from the back yard. Even this wasn’t enough, and I had to start over, this time with a veritable bird’s nest of pine twigs. This second attempt succeeded. Expecting the charcoal to burn slowly and none too hot, I overloaded the grill, seeking to make the most of the possibility that the first few briquettes to light would help dry the rest of the batch and aiming to keep the grill warm despite inferior fuel. It worked. Too well.

To my surprise, dampness didn’t slow the fire at all, once it got going in the first place. Either the drying process worked way, way better than I anticipated, or there was less moisture trapped in the charcoal than texture suggested, because the energy required to boil that moisture away was insignificant—and I do have experience with the difference between damp wood, green wood, and dry wood. Quite rapidly, I had a bed of glowing coals too hot to approach even with grilling tongs, and I had to adapt to cooking at a much higher temperature than usual. (Grilling cookbooks suggest a spray bottle of water to cool overactive coals, but a little extra moisture had already failed me!)

There’s no scientific mystery here: more fuel means more heat, sooner or later, as long as the fire can sustain itself. Still, the results were surprising, even paradoxical in the word’s informal sense. Pound for pound, dry charcoal burn hotter than wet charcoal does, no question. But to casual observation, a wet charcoal fire burns hotter than a dry one, because the threshold of sustainability is higher. Dry charcoal can burn steadily in a manageable little pile; wet charcoal is either inert or an inferno.

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