Charcoal is another one of those hotly debated topics within the barbecue community, and if you’re new to all of this, it can be confusing. I’m going to try and keep things as simple and non-scientific as possible, and hopefully this will help you decide which one is right for you.
I’ll start out by briefly and generally explaining what charcoal is.
Charcoal is essentially carbonized wood. It’s created by burning wood in a very low
oxygen environment. The process is time consuming, and burns off the moisture and other elements contained within the wood, stopping before everything is burned to ash. What’s left behind is basically pure carbon, called char. This is charcoal in its purest form.
It weighs considerably less than the original wood (about 75% less). Due to the moisture and other elements having been burned off, the resulting char burns hotter, cleaner, and
more steadily than wood, creating a perfect fuel for barbecue. Now, there are more forms/types of charcoal aside from lump charcoal and briquettes, but these are the most common and most readily available, so I’m only going to focus on them in this post. Let’s get things started, shall we?
*Please note, this is really over-generalizing, so make sure you do your research before buying anything.
Lump charcoal is by and large made from scrap woods from saw mills, furniture manufacturers, building materials, branches, etc. Each brand of lump is different, and each brand uses different types of wood. Some claim to use no building materials at all.
Research each specific brand you’re interested in to find out what they use.
*Another note. If you read my guide to smoking woods, you’ll remember my rant about using scrap wood for smoking. Don’t send me emails about it. This is entirely different. The scrap woods used for charcoal have been carbonized and all the junk that makes it scrap wood has been burned off. And none of the scrap wood used for charcoal was
painted or stained or treated with any chemicals. So shut up. And stop looking at that damned picnic table already.
When lump charcoal is created, the wood is burned down and carbonized, as described above. Once that is complete, there is no further processing. There are no binders or other additives…just carbonized wood. What you’re left with are irregular-sized pieces of charcoal that look like…well…carbonized wood. Something like this:
Why would someone want to use lump?
Probably the two biggest reasons for choosing lump over briquettes are:
1.) Lump is considered a more natural product because of the lack of binders and such.
2.) Because of the lack of binders, lump charcoal produces much less ash than briquettes.
Why are those important?
Well, as far as being considered more natural…that just seems to be the way everything is trending. Everybody wants all-natural products, and they want everything to be 100% safe all the time, and they want meat that’s made of plants and not meat but still tastes like meat, and…well…nevermind, you see where I’m going here.
It’s a personal choice and a personal preference, so if it’s important to you to have charcoal that’s free of additives, you should seek that out.
As far as less ash production, less ash is always better. More ash means more cleaning. Cleaning sucks. More ash also means more disruption of airflow, especially if you’re using a ceramic kamado-style cooker or anything that has a smaller firebox. If I fell into either of those categories, I’d use lump charcoal exclusively.
There are a few more positives as well:
3.) Very responsive to oxygen. Need to raise the temp in a hurry? Open your vent and increase airflow…it will respond very quickly. Need a lower temp fast? Close the vent and you’ll get it promptly.
4.) Smell and flavor. Lump charcoal typically gives off a pleasant wood smell when it burns,
as well as some wood flavor. Not anywhere near as much as when burning wood, but it’s there. I know some will argue that there is no smoke and no smell and no flavor from lump charcoal, because properly carbonized wood will burn 100% clean and blah blah blah. You know what I say?
Okay, maybe 100% perfectly carbonized wood will burn completely clean with no smoke. If that’s the case, I have never encountered any lump that was made with properly carbonized wood.
Maybe that’s what it is.
Maybe not all of it is 100% carbonized, and maybe that’s because of the size differences in the pieces. Either way, I can tell you that I have never used any lump that didn’t put off smoke along with wood smell and flavor. And I’ve used a lot of it over the years.
5.) It burns hot and fast. This makes it an excellent choice for direct grilling.
I know some out there have done all the research and all the science and all the things and can show that lump and briquettes burn about the same as each other and the difference is minimal. I know. Don’t bother pointing it out to me. I still think it’s bullshit. In
my experience, lump charcoal burns much hotter than briquettes, and it also burns down to ash much more quickly.
Are there any negatives when it comes to lump charcoal?
Ayep, there are a few:
1.) Lump charcoal is harder to find than briquettes. It’s not impossible to find, but it’s nowhere near as readily-available as briquettes are, and you may not be able to find
much of a selection.
2.) It’s more expensive. Like a lot more expensive. I can get two 20-pound bags of Kingsford briquettes for around $20. That’s 40 pounds for a little more than twenty bucks. Not bad.
Most brands of lump will set you back $25-$30 or more for a 20-pound bag. There are some cheaper brands, but umm…well, you get what you pay for. Add to that the fact that you may not be able to find a lot of options near you. Then you’ll have to order it online. Then you’ll likely be adding shipping charges on top of that.
Although I must say that a 20-pound bag of lump is a lot larger than a 20-pound bag of briquettes. I think pound-for-pound, a pound of lump goes about as far as a pound of
briquettes (I have nothing scientific to base that on…just my opinion), but you’re still looking at twice as much $$$ per pound…or more…for lump.
3.) Extra stuff.
Wait…isn’t extra stuff a good thing?
Well, that depends. It can be.
When it comes to lump, however, it’s generally NOT a good thing. You see, while lump charcoal generally doesn’t contain any real additives per se, you will from time to time
find some extra stuff in the bag. Extra stuff being things like rocks, pieces of PVC, nails, rope, and other assorted things from the manufacturing facilities where the wood is initially gathered.
Now to be fair, that doesn’t happen all the time, and it’s going to vary from brand to brand. Some brands are better at their screening processes than others. Always make sure to check for any weird foreign objects, especially when trying out a new brand.
4.) Inconsistent sizes. This is just the nature of the product. You want something minimally processed? Here you go. The wood pieces come out from the charcoal-making process looking very much like they did going in, just in carbon form. This leads to very
irregular-sized pieces of charcoal.
Again, some brands are better than others. There’s always going to be a mix, but you want to stay away from brands that routinely have a ton of tiny pieces and dust, or massive hunks that you’ll have to break up in order to use it. If you buy a cheaper brand of lump and find that half the bag is unusable, you’re really not saving any money.
I know that sounds like I’m hating on lump, but I’m really not. I like and use lump. I also use briquettes. At the end of this article I’ll talk about what I use and when I use it, and why. Speaking of briquettes…
*Please note – once again, this is really over-generalizing, so make sure you do your research before buying anything.
The process of creating charcoal briquettes is very much the same as lump, at least in the beginning. They are generally made from sawdust and scrap wood chips from lumber mills. All of it goes through the same burning process as above, and the result is the same char.
After the burning process is where things go in a different direction. The resulting char is crushed and mixed with all those dreaded additives. Please note that these additives are generally 100% natural, as in they can be found in nature. I’m talking about things like cornstarch, limestone, sodium nitrate, and borax. These are all substances that we are around and ingest all the time.
If that whole idea freaks you out…trust me, don’t be scared…it’s fine…hunt around. Some
use less additives than others, and some claim to use no additives at all. Go with what you’re comfortable with.
Why do they use additives in the first place?
Each of the additives used serves a purpose. They serve as binders to hold everything
together, they promote even burning, they make it easier to light, and they make it easier to form into the little pillow-shaped briquettes we’ve all seen a thousand times. You know…like this:
Why would someone want to use briquettes?
I’m glad you asked!
1.) They’re cheap and readily available. You can find briquettes at virtually any grocery store, convenience store, hardware store, etc. It’s also cheap. Much cheaper than lump, as I went over earlier.
2.) Even, steady burning. Unlike lump which burns hotter and faster, briquettes top out a little lower on temps but burn longer and more evenly. That’s because of the consistent shapes and all those additives. Briquettes are set up specifically to do this.
And no, I still don’t give a shit what so-and-so said after all their experiments. I don’t do
experiments. I cook. And not in a lab. On my grill and in my smoker. In my yard. Like normal people. Get a life.
Are there any negatives when it comes to briquettes?
Of course there are!
1.) All those additives. I don’t consider it a negative, but a lot of people do. Again, if the idea of additives bothers you, seek out charcoal that has none. It’s out there.
2.) Ash production. This is where the additives can be a negative in my book. A lot of those additives don’t combust the way that the char does, leaving behind a LOT more ash than you’ll get using lump. This is especially important if you have a small firebox where the vents can be easily clogged. If you use a cooker where ash production can be an issue, you may want to look into using lump.
3.) Less responsive to oxygen. Unlike lump, briquettes take longer to react when you open and close your air vents. Again, briquettes are designed to hold a steady temp, so they’re just doing their job. You can still control your temperatures, but you’ll have a hard time bringing the temperature up and/or down quickly.
4.) Smell. Yep, we come back to those additives again. When you first light a bunch of briquettes, you may notice a chemical smell that can be off-putting. Once the charcoal has ashed-over and is ready to use, you won’t smell that odor anymore. To be honest, I only notice it when I first light a chimney of briquettes. When I’m smoking, I start with only a small amount of properly lit charcoal and allow it to spread to the other unlit briquettes throughout the cook. I have never noticed any chemical smells or flavors by having unlit coals combusting during cooks. Your mileage may vary.
Okay, there’s your introduction to charcoal and the differences between the most commonly used variations out there. I didn’t get all crazy and throw down all the
sciences and specifics. It’s too much to go into because there are so many different brands and so many manufacturing processes.
This is just the basics. I’m a basic kind of guy. I don’t like to over-complicate things. And I’m no scientist. I’m a barbecue enthusiast. The technical stuff is out there, but this is just enough knowledge to get you started. I hope you found this useful.
If you care to know which I use, the answer is….both.
I don’t think it’s a great idea to limit yourself to one option when there are multiple good options available. There are positives and negatives to each type of charcoal. The key in my mind is to use each one where its strengths come into play.
If I’m direct grilling I use lump, and I use lump exclusively (unless I didn’t stock up and don’t have any). It’s ideal for direct grilling. It puts out a ton of heat so I can get that perfect char, and I get the bonus of some light wood smoke odor and flavor to boot. In addition, it burns out fairly quickly. If I’m grilling steaks, chops, burgers, etc. I don’t need the grill to stay hot all night. Briquettes work just fine for grilling as well, but I just prefer lump.
If I’m smoking I use briquettes, and I use them exclusively. To me, this is using them to their strengths and setting them up to succeed. I would have been a great coach, huh? I don’t need or want really high temperatures when I’m smoking. I’m looking for a long, steady cook with a heat source that will hold temp throughout the cook. This, in my mind, is exactly what briquettes are designed to do.
Some would say it’s a strike against them that they are not as responsive to changes in air flow, but to me that’s a positive. I don’t want to change temperatures all over the place when I’m doing a long cook. I’m looking for exactly the opposite of that. I want to get my cooker up to the temperature I want it at, and then I want to lock it in and sustain it. That is precisely what briquettes do for me. I don’t get temperature spikes and my cooker will hold a steady temp for about 9-10 hours on one load of briquettes.
In addition, I find that any flavor that is put off by the briquettes is very neutral and very minimal. I have never noticed any chemical flavors, and it doesn’t compete with whatever wood I’m using for flavor.
Lump doesn’t put off a lot of flavor, but for me it’s too much for smoking. It may only be slight, but over 6, 8, 10+ hours it’s very noticeable. Some brands are stronger than others, but I want control of my flavors as much as I want control of my temperature.
This is all my opinion based on my experiences. I’m not going to say anyone else is wrong for using what they use or cooking the way they cook. You’ll find that I’m all for people doing what works for them. There really aren’t any rights or wrongs when it comes to barbecue.
Unless you’re doing it in a lab. Just so you can compile numbers and argue with people. You’re an asshole. And you’re doing it wrong.
To the rest of you…keep smoking.