Grilling with Lump Charcoal: Do I Really Have to Do That?

There are certain labor-intensive recipe phrases that can make the most diligent cook roll her eyes. "Do I really have to do that?" we wonder. Leave your Do I Really Have To Do That? questions in the comments and they shall be answered, saving us all a lot of needless trouble.
 
The subject of grilling can ignite a hot, potentially cray cray debate. It’s enough to turn any casual weekend burger-flipper to the easy on-off of the gas grill. But for the brave souls who like to cook over fires Ma and Pa Ingalls-style, let’s talk charcoal.

Charcoal has been made the same way for centuries. Burn wood in a super-hot, oxygen-free environment, and you wind up with concentrated “char,” stripped of water and gases and weighing about 25 percent of the original material. When compared to wood, char burns steadier, hotter, and produces less smoke.

There the charcoal paths diverge. On the one hand are briquettes, formed by mixing char with binding materials and additives, shaping them, and in some cases coating them with lighter fluid. On the other hand is hardwood lump charcoal, which looks like a bag or irregularly-shaped chunks, preferred by some cooks for its relative purity.

Both have their advantages. Briquettes, because of their uniform size, maintain a consistent temperature over a long period of time and are cheaper. Lump charcoal lights quicker, is said to burn hotter (though this is debated), and its bags are lighter and easier to hoist into your trunk at the grocery store (hey, every advantage counts). So what’s a backyard barbecuer to do in the dizzying array that is the charcoal aisle? Bon Appetit, which recently released the authoritative tome, "The Grilling Book," seemed like a blue ribbon source.

“If you’re going to make the effort to go charcoal, take that extra step and get lump natural charcoal, not briquettes,” advised Andrew Knowlton, restaurant editor at Bon Appetit. “You can still make great food with briquettes, but those processed composites don’t generate heat like charcoal does.”
 
The essence of any great grilled food comes down to smoke, Knowlton explained: “Where there’s smoke, there’s flavor.” Hardwood lump charcoal, whose large, irregular-shaped pieces are often not fully carbonized, can produce more smoke, resulting in more of that charred, smoky taste you want in a grill-marked burger.
 
But this is an uncontrolled variable, argues Craig Goldwyn, aptly called Meathead on the exhaustive site Amazing Ribs. You’re better off getting the best of both charcoal worlds by adding small amounts distinctive hardwood, like mesquite, cherry, or hickory, on top of steady-burning briquettes, he suggests.
 
But fires (and tempers) flare when people start talking barbecue, and don't you just want to know the best way to grill a simple steak on a summer Saturdays? Hardwood lump is perceived as the more natural option (look at all those uncoated brown bags with olde tyme fonts!). Goldwyn told NPR’s blog The Salt he sees the rise of hardwood 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." Lots of cooks claim they can taste the additives in briquettes in their food. If you’re a purist with a keen palate, go for hardwood lump.
 
You can still grill your way to greatness with briquettes, as long as you steer clear of one thing, warns Knowlton. “What you should avoid is anything that has lighter fluid in it. Period. That aroma has to go somewhere, and it’s going to go in your food.” Free-range ribeye with faint hint of butane? Yeah, no thanks.
 
If you're worried starting a lump charcoal fire is as challenging as rubbing two sticks together at Girl Scouts camp, fret not. “The chimney is the greatest invention,” says Knowlton, and makes quickly lighting natural charcoal child’s play. “Even my four year-old daughter can do it!”
 
Final verdict: Here's the general rule of thumb: For low-and-slow barbecue-style cooking (ribs, brisket), briquettes are the better choice. For burgers, chops, and steaks, both briquettes and lump will get the job done. Use whichever you like. But if you’re a purist with a sensitive palate who has shelled out for quality, antibiotic-free or free-range meat and poultry, go the extra step and protect your investment with natural lump hardwood. Whatever you do, steer clear of instant-light briquettes.

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