In some respects, grilling is the simplest form of cooking: you put food on top of a fire and wait until it’s done. And if you’re a once-a-summer kind of cooker-outer, or just pinch hit on your friends’ grills to let the host take a break, that’s all you really need to know.
Once you get serious about (or obsessed with) grilling, though, things get more complicated. If you’re using gas, then most of your decisions are made for you–once you’ve got the grill and a tank of propane, it’s all about the food you put on there. But if you’re going the charcoal route, you have more options. Which means more decisions. Not only do you have to pick the type of grill, but you also have to choose the type of charcoal. Do you go for briquettes? Hardwood lump? Binchotan? Extruded coconut? And after you pick what charcoal family you want to burn, what difference do the brands make?!
Let’s start with the basics.
No matter what shape it’s pressed into or how it’s been processed, all charcoal starts out with some kind of wood, heated up in an oxygen-poor environment. Without oxygen, the wood can’t actually catch on fire–instead, everything in the wood besides the carbon melts away into liquid or gas. You’re left with a high-carbon chunk of stuff: charcoal. From there, though, the charcoal landscape splits into two main segments: hardwood lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes.
Technically, charcoal briquettes aren’t actual charcoal, but a combination of charcoal and other ingredients molded into easy-to-light lumps. Kingsford Charcoal, for example, by far the most popular brand in the US, is made up of bits of charcoal, coal, starch (as a binder), sawdust, and sodium nitrate (to make it burn better). For the same reason that SPAM is cheaper than a whole ham, briquettes are cheaper to make than all-wood charcoal.
And charcoal briquettes are nothing to sneer at–competition grillers have won national contests with them. There are, however, three things that separate them from hardwood lump charcoal. First, briquettes are more consistent in their burn, since they’re all of uniform size. Second, briquettes have no distinct flavor of their own. Third, and maybe most importantly, all the binders and additives in the briquettes make for a much ashier burn. What this means for cooking is that the briquettes tend to top out at a lower heat than hardwood lump, as the ash acts to slightly suffocate and insulate the coals. The volume of ash that briquettes produces also means that you can’t use them effectively in ceramic grills like the Big Green Egg. If you’re using a Weber kettle, or a similar brand with a ton of extra room for ash, briquettes work just fine.
That said, avoid the briquettes that come pre-coated with lighter fluid. Iit’s not rocket science to get a load of coals lit, and you don’t need those kinds of fumes messing with your food.
Hardwood lump charcoal is just charcoal made from chunks of hardwood, and there’s a ton of variation within the category (here are our favorite brands). With no fillers to burn down, hardwood lump produces a lot less ash than charcoal briquettes, and by weight, it burns for about 20 minutes longer. Measured by the chimney-full, though, which is a more convenient measure (unless you’re busting out your scale each time you grill), hardwood lump burns faster than briquettes, since the irregular shape of the lump charcoal makes for less efficient packing in the chimney.
The nitty gritty of burn time and ash aside, though, hardwood lump’s big difference is the real wood smoke. Pure charcoal, made almost entirely of carbon, won’t smoke at all when lit–what makes smoke, and that smoky flavor, are the bits of real wood that remain in the mix. So while it might mean that your charcoal burns a little less efficiently, having a few pieces of not-totally-charcoalized wood in a bag of hardwood lump means that your meat is more likely to pick up a little smoke action, even without adding wood chips to the grill.
We spoke with Doug Hanthorn, the man behind The Naked Whiz’s Lump Charcoal Database, a collection of a decade’s worth of lump charcoal reviews, to find out what sets a great hardwood lump apart from the rest. He began reviewing charcoal soon after getting his first Big Green Egg (which, as mentioned before, has to burn lump charcoal, since briquettes are too ashy) in 2001, and has since reviewed over 90 different brands. In other words, he is a man who knows about hardwood lump charcoal.
He rates the charcoal on ash production, burn time, maximum temperature, ease of lighting, ratio per bag of actual charcoal to junk pieces and dust, and the smell and smokiness of the burn. After doing as much precision testing as he has, he was a little loath to generalize (you can check out the database here), but did come up with a few broad strokes: “I will say that American hardwood charcoal, not mesquite, but the oak, hickory, maple-blend type, all tends to be fairly good, overall.” (Mesquite, he says, is a little more hit-or-miss.)
As you can see on his site, the smokiness of the lump charcoal varies pretty widely, but if you err on the side of unsmokiness, you can always add in more wood chips to the mix. Hanthorn likes to add applewood for lamb and apple or hickory for ribs (and we have more suggestions for adding wood based on the recipe), but tends to go no-wood for chicken, since it picks up plenty of smoke from the charcoal itself.
Wood (and wood combined with fillers and pressed into briquettes) isn’t the only option out there. Charred coconut shells, pressed into cubes or rods, can also work for grilling. “If it’s good coconut charcoal,” Hanthorn says, “it has a wonderful, almost sweet smell to the smoke, and it’s very low in ash and burns very evenly.” This has made it a favorite for overnight low-and-slow cooks, since it’s more dependable and forgiving (like briquettes) than lump. But, Hanthorn warns, the lower-quality stuff can produce huge amounts of ash, and still cost more than your typical briquettes, so ask around. (Hanthorn likes Charcos brand).
To summarize: If you’ve got a Weber-style grill, and don’t feel like you want a lot of smoke going on, charcoal briquettes are totally fine. If you want to have a little more fun with it, and get a little more smoke going on your food, go for the hardwood lump, and stick to the American hardwoods if you want consistency. If you’ve got a ceramic grill, you already know you’ve got to stick to the lump charcoal, but feel free to check out Doug Hanthorn’s site, the Naked Whiz, to see what some of your more specialized options are. And happy grilling.