Lump charcoal can burn hotter and can be made with specific woods that impart desirable flavors on food.
Lump charcoal can burn hotter and can be made with specific woods that impart desirable flavors on food.
Photo: Andy Ciordia/Flickr

Post by Eliza Barclay, The Salt at NPR Food (5/24/13)

A lot of things about grilling can ignite a fight, including the meaning of “barbecue.” If you have a charcoal grill, the type of fuel you use is no exception, as many people are likely to discover this weekend.

To a newbie, the world of charcoal can be overwhelming, especially since the charcoal aisle of big box and hardware stores seems to be getting more crowded, with alluring chips and lumps of apple, cherry and even coconut wood. But the first hurdle is navigating the question: Do you use charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal, also known as “natural” hardwood charcoal?

Most polemicists on the matter can agree that there are advantages and disadvantages to each one: Briquettes burn more consistently, but they contain additives and generate more ash. Lump charcoal can burn hotter (handy if you’re searing meat) and can be made with specific woods that leave a trace of their scent on food. But the lumps come in a jumble of different sizes, some of which may not be evenly charred. And its bags can contain excess dust that may block the flow of oxygen in a grill.

If sales figures settle a debate, then briquettes and instant light charcoal are still the favorites by far (they made up 94 percent of the charcoal shipped in 2012, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association).

Still, lump charcoal is attracting fans, especially among backyard cooks easily sold on the word “natural,” which adorns nearly all of the dark brown bags filled with lump charcoal for sale. There are now more than 75 brands on the market. And there’s even a small community for DIY lump charcoal.

According to Craig Goldwyn (aka Meathead), who runs the authoritative The Science of BBQ & Grilling, “I see lump charcoal as just an extension of the organic movement. It’s still a tiny sliver of the market, but it reflects on the public’s desire to have less stuff in their food and their cooking.”

All charcoal is essentially the same thing: wood burned with little oxygen so that all that’s left is essentially carbon. But makers of lump charcoal claim it’s superior because of its purity — it contains no additives like regular briquettes or lighter fluid like instant-light ones.

Indeed, while lump charcoal and briquettes both originate as scrap lumber, the uniform round shape of the briquette is a result of an industrial process that depends on other materials, too. (Kingsford, the biggest maker of charcoal in the U.S., is a little vague about what exactly is in its briquettes, but its website mentions coal, limestone, borax and cornstarch.)

While breathing in too much smoke may cause adverse health effects, there isn’t much evidence that the additives in the briquettes have any impact on food. What they do impact, says Meathead, is control over the cooking process.

“I’m trying to teach people how to cook, and so I preach temperature. That means controlling heat is really vital, and briquettes are just a rock-solid heat source,” he says.

And when it comes to flavor with smoke, Meathead writes, adding small amounts of hardwood in the form of chips, chunks, pellets, logs or sawdust on top of the charcoal matters more than the charcoal itself. In other words, mesquite or hickory wood will add much more smoke flavor than mesquite or hickory charcoal.

Some serious grillers actually prefer cooking with logs instead of charcoal, but it’s a far more challenging undertaking. That’s because raw, burning wood still gives off a lot of volatile gases (that are gone once it has been reduced to charcoal).

“You have a lot of die-hards who prefer the hardwood, and the thing about hardwood is that it can have a regional, cultural aspect,” Jeff Allen, executive director of the National Barbecue Association, tells The Salt.

Allen notes that people from Georgia or Alabama are likely to prefer pecan wood because that’s one of the best hardwoods they’ve got. Over in Kansas City, another motherland of barbecue, the forests are rich with hickory, as well as oak and apple.

“When you look at the famous iconic restaurants, they’re all using wood,” says Allen. For example, Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart, Texas, slow-cooks its meat over 60-year-old-pits, using local oak wood.

Grillers with access to good local wood may also be intrigued by the nascent DIY charcoal movement. Virginia Tech and the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office have been promoting homemade charcoal made with small kilns as a way to add value to wood scraps or firewood. The “local fuel for local food” idea has caught on at a few farmers markets in the state. (Check out this YouTube video series to see how it’s done.)

According to Adam Downing, a Virginia extension officer, it’s important to choose the right wood for the kind of cooking you want to do.

“If you use pine, that would burn fast and hot — good for searing a steak,” he says. “But if you want a slower cook, you’ll want charcoal made from a higher density wood like oak or hickory.”

Downing makes his charcoal out of Ailanthus altissima, a non-native weed tree that has invaded his property in Madison, Va. “It’s the bane of people who have it on their property, but it makes great charcoal,” he says.

For the lump charcoal-obsessed who prefer to buy it, there’s The Naked Whiz’s Lump Charcoal Database, which features detailed reviews of dozens of lump charcoal products.

Copyright 2013 NPR.

The Great Charcoal Debate: Briquettes Vs. Lumps? 24 May,2013NPR Food

  • wqnoqwyi

    Ah, I love steak cooked with a real pine-seered surface. That’s good eatin.

    • Doug Hanthorn

      Lump charcoal is never made from pine. Can’t say I know if this is true about briquettes. I would doubt it though.

  • ElectricSmoker ReviewsStaff

    Well, it simply is a matter to personal choice. Charcoal is made by burning wood with very low oxygen levels. This leaves mostly carbon. In this form, it is known as natural or lump charcoal. It will be of irregular shaped pieces of wood broken up. If you shake the bag, it sounds like the tinkle of broken glass. Briquettes are different. The charcoal is ground into a powder and then additives are introduced. The additives can include starches, coal dust, oil products and other binders. Under high pressure, the ground charcoal and additives are formed to the regular shapes that are familiar to us. The advantage touted by the manufacturers of briquettes is the consistency of the product in heat output and burn rates. Lump charcoal has a higher BTU rating per pound and is preferred by many barbecuers. Never use the easy-light type charcoals for slow cooking. They have additives that must be burned off at high heat and if used in a smoker will give your barbecued meat nasty flavors.
    Cheers, Walt

  • Doug Hanthorn

    The Naked Whiz here…. I try not to be a lump charcoal snob, but there are definitely a few advantages to lump charcoal. The binder in briquettes tends to break down when exposed to heat, so you can’t snuff out the fire and then knock off the ash and reuse the briquettes for another cook usually. The main advantage in my mind to lump charcoal is for use in Kamado-style cookers. They typically have a bowl shaped receptacle to hold the charcoal. Briquettes produce so much ash, that the ash will block your airflow to the fire after not very long. Lump charcoal produces far less ash, which makes overnight 15-20 hour cooks possible. So, it depends on your cooker and how much room there is under the fire grate for ash to accumulate without blocking the airflow.

    I have done some testing with a few brands of briquettes and I will say this. I’d far prefer briquttes that contain only a natural starch binder over Kingsford. Try this with Kingsford: Start the fire and get a little smoke going. Try inhaling the smoke deeply. I’ll bet you can’t do it with Kingsford. The smoke/fumes coming off of Kingsford is quite foul. I have never smelled anything like it with other brands of briquettes. Something to think about.

    Something else to consider is briquettes made from coconut shells. Coshell is a brand that you can find in Lowe’s, I believe. Really really good coconut shell charcoal has a sweet smoke and is very pleasant. Coshell isn’t quite that good, but you can detect that wonderful coconut shell smell. And charcoal made from coconut shells is being made from the fruit of the coconut tree. They don’t have to cut the trees down to make charcoal Some folks might find this aspect attractive.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor