Leaving aside the favored brand – or even sometimes color – of your grill, and whether or not to use a Texas Crutch during a ribs or brisket cook, possibly the most heated debate in the whole world of grilling is that of lump charcoal vs briquettes.
Charcoal, because of its high carbon content, has more potential energy than raw wood: it can provide cooking heat that burns hotter, more steadily, and cleaner than dried wood.
To say a fire burns cleaner is merely saying it’s free of eye-watering, sneeze-inducing chemicals going up in smoke. And that’s one of the benefits of using charcoal rather than dried wood.
There are two basic types of charcoal: lump and briquette. Almost everybody has an opinion on which is best, and many will argue fiercely for their chosen side.
So, what is the difference between the two types? What are their origins, advantages and disadvantages? Why do some choose one fuel type over the other?
That’s what we’re going to look at in this guide and by the end of the discussion, you’ll have a good grasp of which best suits your grilling or smoking needs.
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What Wood Would Do?
There are two basic types of trees, hardwood and softwood. They’re defined by whether they keep their leaves year ‘round.
Softwoods include pine, fir, cedar, and spruce – these keep their leaves. They contain high amounts of saponins and turpines, chemical compounds used to make soap and foam-free fire extinguishers. Not surprisingly, they introduce a weird taste in anything cooked over them which could make some people sick.
And that’s why charcoal is always made from hardwood. These leaf shedders include:
Hardwoods contribute to the flavor of foods. Interestingly, where and how a tree grows matters more than the type of tree.
Factors affecting wood flavor:
- Bark thickness
- Wood’s drying time
- Water content
Grilled meat with a regional accent – how cool is that!
Purity and Charcoal Quality
Unfortunately, there are no international standards for the manufacture of charcoal. You’ll have to take their word for it that they’re using untreated wood.
And realistically a bag of lump charcoal could have more than one tree type, depending on what’s available from the wood source. But a blend of woods could make for a unique flavor experience.
On the bags or in the online product description, there may be some language about quality processes. These should eliminate or sharply reduce your chance of finding rock, metal, PVC or other oddities nestled in with your charcoal.
Those are the basics of charcoal. You may want to check out this short overview video by Fine Cooking, Lump vs. Briquette – just ignore the hand-over-fire test and use an IR thermometer.
Now let’s look at the two basic forms: lump and briquette.
Lump Charcoal 101
Lump is charcoal at its most basic and is essentially wood that’s been partially burned down to basics, that’s been through a carbonization process, until what’s left is just that: Carbon.
It’s burned in a low-oxygen silo to remove sap, moisture and naturally-occurring methane, hydrogen, and a bunch of other chemicals. The process is called charring; you may still see charcoal sold as char wood.
You can consider it a type of recycling since it’s mostly the by product of coppicing, and scrap wood from mills and wood businesses that are used, as opposed to using new trees.
It typically burns at 1400°F (760°C) or greater which is a temperature far hotter than can be achieved with briquettes.
[Trivia: If your surname is Collier, it means your ancestors were charcoal makers.]
- Burns hot, so it needs to be closely monitored; especially if you decide to use it for smoking which requires a low, steady, and long-lasting
- Formulated to burn for an hour, so it’s great for a quick grilling session
- Smells great
- Produces abundant smoke flavor
- Not every piece is fully carbonized
- Larger pieces still contain cellulose and lignin, two of the three main wood components
- GOOD: increased flavor
- BAD: varying flavor
- Burns fast, making it necessary to add more over a long cooking session. You’ll be buying lots of bags.
- Unevenly-sized pieces can vary from a half to 4 inches
- unpredictable cooking times
- inconsistent results from bag to bag, even if you find a brand you like
- burns at inconsistent temperatures
- Cost more than briquettes
- Easily breaks into small, unusable bits, and dust
- reduces airflow resulting in a slow burning fire
- Larger pieces still contain cellulose and lignin, two of the three main wood components
Lighting That Fire
There’s self-lighting charcoal, but generally speaking, you want to avoid this – as well as using lighting fluid – because of the chemical smell of the fuel-soaked lumps affecting the flavor of your food.
Allowing time for burn off of lighting fluid could resolve that problem, but you can never really eliminate it.
Therefore, buy only all-natural lumpwood charcoal with no added chemicals, and use a natural firelighter to get the fire going, either wood wool or organic all natural starter cubes. Or use one of our favorite tools – A charcoal chimney starter.
Or “briquet” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary which also provides the origin of the word – little brick.
They’re light, uniform and inexpensive. Traditionally, additives are mixed into sawdust then pressed into molds. Yes, briquettes are the chicken patty of the charcoal world. They typically burn at 800 to 1000°F.
A Little Brick Trivia
The first mass-produced briquettes came from a collaboration by Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and E.B. Kingsford in the 1920s. Ford used sawdust and scraps left over from wood used to make the bodies of those early roadsters.
What Are ‘Little Bricks’ Made Of?
Kitchenboy notes that the additives, besides being shaping aids, also make unmolding the briquettes easier, make them easier to light and help control the burn rate. Traditional additives (chemicals) include sodium nitrate (a.k.a, Chile saltpeter), limestone, and borax.
Happily, the quest for all things natural has reached the charcoal world. Now you can grab a bag of natural charcoal briquettes made from whole wood and little else, maybe cornstarch. But also pay for the privilege of being so natural. These typically run a little over $2/pound.
If you’re a do-it-yourself kind of person, really like making things from scratch, you’ll be happy to know that you can make your own briquettes.
Mix biomass (e.g., corn husks, straw, wood chips(!), peanut shells) of choice with sawdust, place in the mold, fire, and poof! Briquettes.
- Built to burn longer and at a low temperature which makes them ideal for smoking
- Uniform shape makes them easier to arrange when using the snake or domino method
- Additives, including potential allergens
- Takes longer to light
- Leaves more ash because there’s less wood to burn
Finding Common Ground
Both lump and briquettes:
- Are born from trees
- Are fired
- Can be self-igniting
- Can be chemical-free
Let’s look at a few characteristics that set them apart and dispel a myth or two along the way.
Lump Charcoal Vs Briquettes: Supposed Differences During Use
There are differences in the way the two types of coal burn, and hence the way we should use them. But not everything you hear is necessarily true. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Does Lump Really Burn Hotter?
Not according to AmazingRibs.com science advisor Dr. Greg Blonder. He says:
Hotter depends on how the coals are arranged. Because of their irregular shapes, they can nestle together like puzzle pieces and impair airflow which can reduce heat.
Fueled by Air
The prevailing wisdom is that lump is best for hot and fast grilling, while briquettes are best for low n slow.
However, air, or oxygen, feeds fire. A lump charcoal fire that has dust and bits blocking airflow can burn low and slow just like a briquette fire. Also, you can intentionally choke down the airflow in your barbecue by control of the vents.
I personally use locally sourced, single variety lump hardwood charcoal in all my low n slow cooks, so don’t think you cannot use lump for low n slow cooking.
Time and Speed
Briquettes are designed to burn for hours, making them ideal for the snake and other smoking methods. They are a natural for low and slow cooking.
Briquettes are the grilling equivalent of a crockpot. Ingredients in, set, go to work, and come home to a satisfying meal.
Lump is designed to burn hot and fast for a short period, usually an hour. That’s great for direct grilling and searing. But that doesn’t rule out using them for indirect heat applications. The difference is effort: you’ll need to add more lump charcoal while the briquettes slowly cruise along without effort on your part.
Does Grill Type Matter?
Briquettes are more popular than lumps; for their ease, cost, and convenience.
But because kamado smokers don’t have much space for collecting ash, they can easily get overwhelmed by briquette fallout, with the higher amount of ash produced blocking the airflow through the charcoal grate in the firebox. This can lead to unwanted drops in temperature or even the fire going out!
Overall, either can work for most grill or smoker needs within the parameters we’ve talked about and knowledge of how to use the fuel type correctly in your particular smoker or grill.
Variations On A Theme
Manufacturers seem to delight in dizzying consumers with more labels that sometimes mean the same thing. Descriptions you’re likely to see when shopping for charcoal:
- Natural, chemical-free briquettes
- Organic hardwood lump
- 100% natural hardwood (isn’t that redundant?)
- Flavoured charcoal
I even saw some natural hardwood products promoted as charcoal free. I don’t want to know what that means…
You know that anything labeled “natural” is going to cost more. Lump charcoal, being pure wood, is natural. Prices on Amazon for hardwood charcoal ranges between $1 to $2/pound.
Lump and Briquette in the Same Cook?
Whether one is better than the other lies in the eye of the griller. Depending on who you talk to, there is or is not a definite or slight aftertaste from the briquette additives. Must be a taste-bud thing.
However, why not team them up, let their strengths combine and outweigh their weaknesses?
For example, placing a few lumps amid briquettes can produce a hotter fire and a quicker burn, perfect for searing and then holding a high temperature for a long grill time.
Kingsford sells a natural lump briquette that provides hot and consistent temperatures over a long cooking period. Others can’t be far behind.
On Location and Environment
You know a dedicated griller doesn’t let something like a windy, rainy, or snowy day get in the way of getting their bbq on. These less-than-optimal weather conditions can be worked through by using more lump coal to get and keep a hot grill going.
Up where the air is rarefied, high altitude grillers face the challenge of keeping a fire going because the air is short on oxygen, moisture, and pressure.
Meats are 75% water so you’ll also be challenged with keeping them from drying out. You’ll need to increase cooking time, but not temperature, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In these high altitude and low oxygen environments, you may find briquettes work better since the very thin air pretty much makes cooking a low and slow process, even if that’s not what you’re aiming for.
Summing it all up
Talk about a subjective subject!
So much depends on where you grill, what and how that there can’t be any hard and fast rules on absolutely using this charcoal over the other.
What’s your experience? Do you solely use one type, or have you found a happy medium between the two at different times, for different purposes? I’d love to hear from you, so please leave your thoughts in the comments.