As far as we’re concerned, meat always tastes better when it’s cooked over a real fire. Gas grills might be convenient, but if you have the time and patience required, charcoal is the clear choice.
Even once you’ve decided on charcoal, however, there are still choices to be made. Here, we’ll take a closer look at lump charcoal vs briquettes to make one of those decisions easier.
Charcoal is created through a chemical process known as pyrolysis, the decomposition of carbon-based materials through heat application. Although pyrolysis can only occur in the absence of oxygen, it’s the first step in the combustion process, which happens when oxygen is reintroduced to the material.
Wood is made up mostly of carbon and water, along with a few other organic compounds. When it’s exposed to heat, the moisture begins to evaporate, which creates the vapor that we refer to as smoke. If the heat is applied when the oxygen supply is limited or cut off altogether, the wood will dry out slowly, leaving only the carbon behind. You can take a closer look at the process by watching this instructional video.
Once the wood has been transformed to charcoal, it retains only about one-third of its total weight. It becomes brittle and delicate, and the pieces make a metallic sound when they’re tapped against one another. In the absence of water, the charcoal will burn more quickly and effectively than wood, which is what makes it such a popular choice for grilling.
Most of the charcoal produced in the US comes from Missouri, but the country is responsible for just 2 percent of the world’s overall production. The majority comes from South America, Europe, and China, where the fuel is still considered an industrial product rather than a recreational one.
Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes: An Overview
To make lump charcoal, the manufacturers slowly eliminate all the sap and moisture from whole chunks of wood in the process described above. In the end, they’re left with large lumps of coal that are mostly carbon, which means that they leave behind very little ash after they’ve burned out. This type of charcoal does, however, generate more smoke than briquettes, since the wood is in a purer state when it’s transmuted into carbon.
While it can be tricky to control the temperature of your fire when using lump charcoal, it’s easier if your grill is equipped with adjustable air vents. That’s because the substance responds well to oxygen once it’s been set alight. It also ignites more quickly and burns much hotter than briquettes, so if you’re new to the technique, you’ll want to take care to ensure that your food doesn’t overcook.
Proponents of lump charcoal cite the fact that it contains no fillers or additives, making it a healthier way to cook. Because we prefer the all-natural approach ourselves, we think this recommendation is right on target.
- Contains no artificial chemicals or additives
- Creates a clean, hot fire
- Quick to ignite
- Less ash makes for a swift cleanup
- Burns more quickly than briquettes
- Pieces are not uniform in size
- High price point
Briquettes are composed of scraps and sawdust rather than whole pieces of wood. While the process of burning them down to remove the sap and moisture remains largely the same, various additives (such as limestone and borax) are included to help bind the material together.
Some of these filler materials are designed to make the coal more combustible when it’s time to start cooking. If there are too many, they can impart an unpleasant residual flavor to the food. That’s why it’s best to stay away from “match-light” charcoal (the kind that doesn’t need lighter fluid or additional fuel in order to ignite). The chemicals used to aid the initial combustion will give the fire an “off” smell that will be noticeable even when the food is cooked.
Charcoal briquettes are uniform in shape and size, making it easier to control the temperature of the fire. This same quality allows them to stack neatly into a pyramid. Briquettes burn longer and more steadily than lump charcoal, but at lower temperatures. Because they’re inexpensive and easy to use, they’re the preferred choice for many novice grillers.
- Compact and uniformly sized
- Good temperature control
- Burns longer than lump charcoal
- May leave behind unappetizing odors or flavors
- High ash production
- Takes awhile before the fire is ready for cooking
What the Experts Are Saying
Unsurprisingly, the field is pretty much split down the middle on the subject of lump charcoal and briquettes.
As we mentioned above, some pitmasters are sold on the purity of lump charcoal. They’ve come to appreciate the intensity of the fire that it creates, and have learned to control it effectively. Because some larger pieces might not have fully converted, lump charcoal can also deliver bursts of smoke flavor that briquettes can’t duplicate.
On the other hand, briquettes make it easier to control both the flavor and the temperature of the fire. Their uniform size means that each briquette is designed to deliver a precise amount of heat. Lump charcoal, on the other hand, is unpredictable in this regard, which is why many beginners are stymied by it. Fans of briquettes are also quick to point out that lump charcoal creates a higher volume of smoke, which can be problematic if you’re grilling in close proximity to your neighbors.
When To Use Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes
Lump charcoal is the ideal choice when it comes to high-heat cooking applications, such as searing. If you need to cook a couple of thinly sliced pork chops quickly over high heat, then lump charcoal is the way to go. Likewise, if you’re preparing a lean, tender steak like filet mignon, a quick sear over a lump charcoal fire will bring out the meat’s best qualities.
Charcoal briquettes, meanwhile, are the preferred fuel source when you want to take it low and slow. When you’re planning on using your charcoal grill to make smoked brisket or pulled pork, it’s time to pull out the briquettes. We would also recommend using briquettes if you plan on cooking several batches over an extended period of time–for example, when tailgating or hosting a barbecue.
Factors that May Influence Your Coal Fire
Because the strength of a fire is dependent on its oxygen supply, it’s important to pay attention to how the coals are configured. The compact shape of briquettes makes them easier to stack, which can help to regulate airflow. However, they also leave behind more ash and residue, and that can block the air vents over long periods of time.
Also, keep in mind that direct and indirect cooking methods will require the fire to be configured differently. Whether you’re using lump charcoal or briquettes, make sure that the coals are positioned to allow for the type of heat that you’ll need.
Type of Grill
Before making your selection, consider what type of grill you’ll be using. For most charcoal grills, you can choose either briquettes or lump charcoal without worrying about adverse affects. Kamado grills, however, have smaller fuel chambers, which means that you’ll have to pay close attention to prevent ash buildup. In this case, lump charcoal is usually a better choice.
When it comes to lump charcoal, Jealous Devil earns high marks. It lights quickly, creates a nice hot fire, and leaves behind a minimal amount of ash. Fogo, another popular choice, is pricey, but the wood chunks are both huge and efficient.
Kingsford is a reputable manufacturer of charcoal briquettes, and their product doesn’t seem to alter the flavor of the food. In fact, the company was originally a subsidiary of Ford Motors, which popularized the briquette as a way to use up leftover wood scraps from the automobile factory. The brand is available in most big-box stores and supermarkets, so it’s easy to replenish your supply when you run low.
If you don’t want to use lump charcoal or briquettes, are there any other options?
There are, in fact, other types of charcoal available, and some of them burn even more cleanly than lump charcoal. Many of them are produced in Asia, which manufactures more coal in general. One example is coconut charcoal, which is prized for being environmentally sound as no trees are destroyed in its creation. Other versions are made of fruit woods that produce less smoke and ash than traditional hardwoods. You might have a hard time finding these alternatives, but you should be able to track them down on the internet.
What About Wood?
Since charcoal is essentially wood that’s been altered to burn more efficiently, can you just use wood for grilling? Sure, but you’ll have to make some adjustments of your own.
First, you’ll need to make sure that you live in an area that allows you to store and burn wood. If you live in an apartment or condo, this isn’t always permissible. Get this practical consideration out of the way first.
Next, take a look at your grill. The cooking chamber has to have enough space to accommodate the wood. Additionally, it should be equipped with adjustable vents to maximize airflow. Otherwise, the wood won’t be able to burn effectively enough to cook the food.
You’ll also need to have access to good hardwood that’s been dried properly. If you try to burn soft wood in the grill, you’ll end up with a lot of smoke, but no dinner. Because it can be a hassle to obtain quality wood for these purposes, this method is often considered more trouble than it’s worth.
While we’ve come to appreciate the fine qualities of lump charcoal, we recognize that it’s not always the best fit. For that reason, we like to keep a supply of both versions on hand. In the end, the decision comes down to the type of cooking you’ll be doing, in addition to your comfort level. Once you’ve learned how to control the temperature of the fire, we think you’ll enjoy using lump charcoal for the majority of your quick-cooking applications.