Which Charcoal Should I Use?

Lump Charcoal vs. Briquettes

What is Charcoal? Charcoal is made of dried charred wood that was previously burned without oxygen present.  By doing that, all the moisture and flavor elements are removed from the wood.  You are left with a carbon rich fuel for your fire. 

Why is it needed?

It’s simple.  Fire.  Without it you’re just looking at meat on grates.  I’ve heard meat tartar was great but that isn’t quite my speed.  I’d rather cook it at least a little bit. There are 2 types of charcoal that are readily available in most of the country.  Lump Charcoal and Charcoal Briquettes.  We are going to talk a little about the pros and cons of each one.

Lump Charcoal

Cowboy Lump Charcoal

Lump charcoal is the original charcoal.  It is pure wood, free of binders or accelerants.  Lump charcoal starts off as tree branches and trunk pieces.  Then they are heated and dried in a kiln or sometimes underground.  A good lump should look like burnt tree bark pieces.

Pros: Lump heats quickly.  When it does heat up it gets hotter than briquettes.  It also burns cleaner which means that if you are cooking a large volume of food and must refuel you can do so in the middle of cooking without needing to remove food.  

Cons: The last pro could also be a con.  As stated before, lump does not last as long so you may need to refuel at some point.  It also can burn a little uneven, meaning some pieces may be larger than others and the larger ones produce more heat.  One other caution is when the coals are heating, they sometimes may pop and crackle when heating. Lump does not provide very much smoke flavor as most of it is burned out during manufacturing.

Royal Oak Classic Briquetts

Charcoal Briquettes

The most common type of charcoal where I come from.  Briquettes are usually made with a combination of sawdust, scrap wood, and other binders that are petroleum based.

Pros: That nostalgic charcoal flavor that takes you back can only be achieved thru briquettes.  Each briquette is the same size to there is no uneven burning.  They also burn longer.  Some Briquette brands are rated to burn for 60 minutes.   

Cons:  When lighting briquettes the chemical fumes are quite harsh, and you must wait until they completely burn off before you start cooking.  As opposed to lump you should not refuel your briquette fire mid cook.  You need to clear the grill then refuel or your food will taste and smell like a gas station.

In conclusion, one is not necessarily better than the other.  You must consider what you are cooking to determine the type you want to go with.  For hot and fast grilling, I’d go with the lump.  For longer grilling sessions with high volume of food I would go with briquettes.  Lump charcoal is a great starter base for low and slow smoking.  It really gets your flavor logs going quickly. 

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