Fueling the Fire
Summer is here and many of us are heading out to the backyard and dusting off our charcoal grills. Before you read any further, this isn’t an article about the difference between cooking with gas vs. cooking with charcoal. But, if you’re interested, check out my post about the pros and cons between using the two.
I’m also not going to discuss the differences between grilling and barbecuing, two words that are often used interchangeably. In my opinion, true barbecuing is cooking “low and slow”—barbecuing from a low-heat smoke for a long period of time. But that’s also an article for another time.
What I really want to talk about is charcoal. More specifically, charcoal briquettes vs. lump charcoal.
Back in the day, my father always used charcoal briquettes, and for years and years I did the same. But about four years ago, my buddy—we call him BBQ Bob—convinced me to make the switch over to lump charcoal.
Until I actually did the research to write this, I thought that lump charcoal was more gourmet because it was “all-natural.” The reason people don’t like briquette charcoal is because each piece supposedly contains a bunch of added toxins. But I learned that as long as you stay away from the self-igniting kind, you can avoid these harmful additives to enjoy the benefits of briquette charcoal.
So, since doing a little research, I’m back to my old fondness of briquette charcoal. But I’ll give you the information so you can decide for yourself.
What’s the Difference?
You’ve probably heard of Kingsford, a company who dominates the manufactured charcoal briquette market. Briquettes are produced by cutting scraps of wood into identical shapes and sizes.
These pieces are then tossed into a charcoal retort (which is a steel barrel oven) for roasting. The resulting char produced from the retort is then mixed in with other materials to create the charcoal. Briquettes are then shaped, packaged, and commercially sold.
Lump charcoal pieces are produced in the same way. However, they are sold purely as natural hardwood products without any extra ingredients added. Instead of being uniformly cut and molded, lump charcoal pieces tend to vary in shape and size. Many of the pieces of lump charcoal I pull from my bag are uneven and difficult to grill in a consistent manner.
My word of caution: never use any sort of instant, self-igniting charcoal to start. The chemicals and additives contained in them will permeate the food, literally leaving you with a bad taste in your mouth.
I would also advise against using lighter fluids which can cause flare-ups on the surface of the grill. Although flare-ups are fun to look at, you should try and avoid them.
The best way to light either briquette or lump charcoal is to use a chimney fire starter that can be purchased at most hardware stores. Just add some newspaper to a charcoal chimney and you’re good to go—no nasty additives necessary!
A lot of people, myself included, are hesitant to buy briquette charcoal because of the extra ingredients that manufactures add to the individual pieces. Before I did my research, I stayed away from briquette charcoal because I thought it contained toxic waste products and unhealthy additives.
In truth, manufactures are simply adding products that hold the charcoal together and enhance its combustibility on the grill. According to a press release from Kingsford, here is the list of extra ingredients added to their briquette charcoal:
Wood char: a wood by-product that is used as a heat source.
Mineral char: a form of coal also used as a heat source
Mineral carbon: an almost pure-carbon coal that helps heat up the briquette
Limestone : a sedimentary rock that makes the resultant briquette ash look nicer when its released
Starch: holds the briquette together on the grill
Borax: in small quantities, it’s a nontoxic mineral used to separate briquettes from their commercially made molds.
Sodium nitrate: used as a starter for briquettes
Sawdust: also a starter
According to the press release, none of these added ingredients will cause you any harm, but I would advise you do your own homework to determine if these "additives" are right for you.
Heat and Burning Time
Because of the condensed and uniform size of briquettes, they often burn longer and with more consistency compared to the uneven lump charcoal pieces. However, briquettes don’t burn quite as hot as lump charcoal, which is why some people prefer the latter.
In my opinion, how hot charcoal burns doesn’t really matter, especially if you’re truly barbecuing and cooking on low heat for the long time required when barbecuing ribs or pork shoulder. But if you really want to make something especially hot on the grill, why not just add more briquettes or pile them up higher?
Most of my grilling these days uses a two zone technique where I start on a very hot zone to get a sear and then finish on the cooler side of the grill with the cover on.
Lump charcoal is pricier than briquette charcoal—nearly twice the cost—but people tend to splurge on lump pieces because they are more efficient at producing heat. Again, how hot you want the grill depends on what you’re cooking.
So, there you have it. Personally, I'm going to relook at charcoal briquettes and see if there is any "funky" taste associated with them but if you really want to get your temps up on the grill, you may as well spend a few more bucks to get the lump variety.
That being said, you still want to check the ingredients list on any charcoal briquesttes that you purchase to make sure there are no nasty additives.
Need More Wood Flavor
I recently read in the New York Times that it’s worth it to buy oak, cherry, or hickory flavored Hardwood chunks separately to get a nice wood smoked flavor. You can combine these chunks to either briquette or lump charcoal to add a more authentic smoky flavor to both.
onlinesources: Grills & Outdoor Cooking
There are lots of sources for purchasing top of the line Grills, Barbecues & Outdoor Cooking Equipment. I suggest you check out your local department stores and kitchen supply shops.