What Type of BBQ Charcoal Should You Use?

by Jim Shahin

Charcoal Lately, you may have noticed commercials for high-end charcoal. "Lump," it's called. Not a very high-end name, but hardwood lump charcoal has become big business. It used to be most everybody used briquettes - those hard, black, uniformly pillow-shaped blocks that you empty from a Kingsford Sure Fire blue bag.But as barbecue competitions and grilling shows have grown in popularity, so, too, has the fetishization of charcoal. And it turns out the differences might mean more than you think.

What exactly is charcoal?

All charcoal is basically carbon. It's made by heating wood in an oxygen-starved process that burns off compounds like water, tar, hydrogen, and methane. What's left is coal.

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A brief history of charcoal
A Pennsylvanian named Ellsworth Zwoyer patented the design for charcoal briquettes in 1897. Henry Ford popularized them in the 1920s, when he created the nuggets from wood scraps at his factory. Depending on who's telling the story, a relative of Ford's, E.G. Kingsford, either a) recommended that Ford manufacture the charcoal; b) found a manufacturing site for Ford; or c) both. Whatever the case, when Kingsford died, the charcoal company took his name, and we've been buying its product ever since.

The best charcoal out there

Except that 'cue nerds turn up their noses at the famous Kingsford blue bag, because its briquettes include additives like limestone, borax, and starch, which act as binders that create a lot of ash and, some argue, an off taste. A renaissance in charcoal grilling has led to discriminating hobbyists, who can choose from a huge range of options, including international varieties like Japanese oak wood charcoal, known as binchotan, Hawaiian Kiawe wood (ono), and Jamaican pimento wood charcoal. They tend to gravitate, however, toward less exotic American hardwood lump charcoal, which is generally made from whole pieces of wood, not scraps. It's more available and less pricey than the international stuff and burns cleaner and leaves less ash than standard briquettes (read: easier clean-up). If provided ample oxygen, it also burns hotter.

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The Kingsford alternative

Other charcoal options abound. In 2009, Kingsford came out with a sort of hybrid, called Competition Briquets. They burn hot but fall short of both the workmanlike character of the blue-bag stuff and the panache of real lump charcoal. You'll also see hickory- and mesquite-enhanced regular charcoal on the shelves. Forget it. To truly harness the powers of smoke flavors, place wood chips, chunks, or split logs atop regular charcoal. And never, ever use Match Light, unless you like stinking up your get-together with the tear-gas-like scent of lighter fluid. Use a charcoal chimney instead.

Different charcoal for different food?

Conventional wisdom has it that you should use hotter-cooking lump charcoal for quick-cooking foods (steaks, burgers, fish) and use regular briquettes for low-and-slow meats like pulled pork, ribs, and beef brisket.

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Eh, tests. Here's what I know: My steaks come off the grill with a better char when I use lump hardwood charcoal, rather than briquettes. Speaking of which, many top competitors tend to reserve those lowly briquettes for starting otherwise primarily wood-burning fires, which will then smolder for hours. Me, too. The lesson? Don't complicate simplicity. (Wood is where you'll have the real chance to fuss around, anyway.) If you have the extra coin to spring for lumps, do it. If not, the blue bag still works.

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