Charcoal grilling has become a favorite American pastime, but using it as fuel has been around for since ancient times. Today, charcoal is made by burning wood scraps, sawdust and other raw materials like coconut shells, in a low oxygen environment. It’s then compressed and processing it in a variety of methods, depending on the type. There are many types of charcoal, but you probably want to know is which one gives you the best flavor. Experts agree, charcoal doesn’t really impact the flavor (unless it’s a fast light brand) but it does affect the heat and how long something cooks. Let’s look at your choices.
Lump charcoal looks like chunks of burnt wood. It’s usually made from cherry, coconut shells, mesquite and tamarind. It’s not compressed like briquettes and it tends to burn hotter and faster. It’s also less ashy. It’s difficult to layer lump charcoal evenly, so experts tend to use lump charcoal for low and slow BBQ, like pork, ribs and brisket. Some grillers tout lump charcoal as the “more natural” charcoal. But, lump charcoal can be tricky to find and it’s pricier. Another disadvantage is when you buy a bag many of the pieces have broken in to small bits and dust.
Most people use this type of charcoal because it’s readily available. Briquette’s are mixed with binding ingredients and are compressed into a shape that looks like a small pillow. Because you can layer them uniformly, it’s easier to get an even or more controlled burn. Briquettes burn a little less hot than lump charcoal and experts tend to use briquettes for foods that require less cooking time, like steak or fish. Sometimes they have a chemical smell, but typically that doesn’t affect the flavor of the food.
Restaurants usually import certain types of Japanese charcoal. Users claim it’s chemical-free and will burn longer (sometimes up to 4 hours) than traditional charcoal. There is little smell or smoke. It’s often used for BBQ and Shabu Shabu. There are generally three types, white charcoal (or binchotan), black charcoal and Ogatan. Chances are you won’t easily find this type of charcoal, but if you are looking to experiment with different types of charcoal, you might be able to find a distributer for a high price.
How Much Charcoal to Buy
A good rule of thumb is about 30 briquettes for smaller or portable grills and 50-75 briquettes for larger barrel and Kettleman grills. Consider how much food you’re cooking and the weather as well— you’ll need more for windy or wet weather. Many brands of charcoal come in bags with about 70-90 briquettes.
People often leave their charcoal bags outside, but don’t use old charcoal or charcoal that’s been exposed to wet weather— always use fresh charcoal. Also we don’t recommend fast lighting charcoal or charcoal that’s been pre-soaked with lighter fluid, because of the taste and the contaminants. Some folks even say they can taste the additives in their food.
Tip: Use a chimney starter on your charcoal grill to help light your charcoal without lighter fluid.