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In the world of grilling, smoking, barbecuing and any other sort of outdoor cooking, there is a lot of debate between people who use charcoal and people using gas as fuel. Charcoal grillers bitterly defend their choice, saying that charcoal gives the best taste of food, while gas grillers say it is quicker and easier to use gas. However, there is also a debate going on between charcoal masters as to whether or not lump charcoal is better than briquettes. In this article, we shall take a look at both lump charcoal and briquettes and compare them. Both can produce delicious tasting food, but there are advantages and disadvantages to both of them.
Table of Contents
- Lump Charcoal
- Pros of Lump Charcoal
- Cons of Lump Charcoal
- Pros of Briquettes
- Cons of Briquettes
- Final Thoughts
What is Lump Charcoal?
Lump charcoal is about 89% carbon and it looks a lot like burnt wood. To make lump charcoal, you burn wood in a kiln without any oxygen, but before you think that this is easy, it isn’t such a simple process. First, the wood is taken mainly from tree limbs, short logs, and occasionally scrap from sawmills. It takes 1 ½ ton of wood to make just ¼ ton of charcoal. However, it is one of the most natural fuels you can choose as no additives or fillers are added while burning. To be even more environmentally friendly look for charcoal which has been made from sustainable sources of wood. Most US manufacturers do use sustainably sourced wood and to find out if the charcoal you are using has been produced in this way, look for ‘Rainforest Alliance, FSC Certified’ on the package or check up on the internet.
What Wood is Used to Make Lump Charcoal?
Generally, lump charcoal is made from hardwoods. The reason for this is that charcoal made from hardwood burns longer than charcoal from softer wood. Hickory and mesquite are examples of hardwoods. They are great for smoking brisket as they burn long and slow. If you use lump charcoal made from softwood like pine, your pit will burn fast and hot. This is good for searing a steak on the grill, but not for smoking. Most charcoal comes from a mixture of woods, but you can source a single wood if you want to have a taste and smell. This isn’t quite as important if you are just searing steaks or grilling burgers quickly, but if you are smoking a brisket for many hours, you might like a distinctive smoky taste (and scent when slicing a brisket).
The Size of Charcoal
Once the lump charcoal has been carbonized, it’s sorted by size so that each bag of charcoal contains charcoal of a similar size. If they aren’t equal, you will get inconsistent temperature, burning and you may even get hot and cold spots on your grill. Larger pieces of lump charcoal are the best option as they burn long and slow, while smaller pieces tend to fall apart, and you will be left with a lot of ash. When you go and look for your charcoal, make sure you choose a superior brand as a budget brand that may have mixed sizes of charcoal pieces, not to mention foreign objects like nails and unburnt wood.
Lump charcoal reacts well to oxygen which makes it easier for you to control the temperature of the grill or smoker. This is also aided by air vents which you can adjust yourself. With some types of hardwoods, you can reach temperatures of 1200F, but don’t worry if you just want to smoke with charcoal as you can adjust the airflow with the vents and so reduce the temperature. It takes some skill to operate a charcoal grill or smoker, so if you are new to it, don’t worry if you don’t get the temperature right the first time. Just a little practice and you’ll be up there with the best. Or simply get a thermometer, or even a Bluetooth thermometer to help you.
Again, choose superior charcoal as with a lower quality you might get sparking. While it may look pretty, food can easily get burnt and sparking can be a fire hazard. Usually, this happens with lightweight wood as it burns too quickly.
Advantages Over Briquettes
Charcoal does have advantages over briquettes in that it is easier to light, burns hotter, and leaves less ash. Charcoal, however, generates more smoke than briquettes which is not so good for the environment. It can also be a problem if you live in an apartment with a balcony, a condo, or a retirement home. In fact, these places often ban charcoal grills and smokers because of both the fire risk and the smoke emitted.
What are Briquettes?
If you are looking for a reasonably priced fuel to heat your grill or smoker, you should consider briquettes. They are much cheaper than charcoal as they are made from an assortment of different substances, including sawdust, leftover wood like wood chips, peat, and paper. However, they also contain additives so are not particularly environmentally friendly. In addition, they can give out a chemical smell. To avoid this smell being transferred to your food, light the briquettes and leave them until there is a layer of white ash over them. This should get rid of the smell and allow you to put your food on the grill or in the smoker.
What Additives are Used to Make Briquettes?
You might ask why use additives at all. After all, you don’t have to add anything to make charcoal. However, briquettes are made from bits and pieces which may not stick together well. Hence the use of additives to bind the pieces together. Additives can include brown coal, mineral carbon, limestone, sodium nitrate, and borax.
However, having said this, in recent years there have been some briquettes produced which are made from natural hardwood. It’s a good idea to look out for these as you won’t get that chemical smell and they don’t contain the same cancer-causing carcinogens that briquettes with additives possess.
Size of Briquettes
Because they are made from a variety of substances, it is easy to get a more uniform shape with them in contrast to charcoal. They are often square-shaped with rounded edges, which makes them easy to stack. In fact, they look a little like tiny pillows. This shape is extremely popular as they are useful in building zoned fires around your food for indirect heat. You may want to cook your steak or burgers over direct heat, and you can do this in one part of the grill where you put the briquettes. On the other side, you can cook vegetables and side dishes.
Briquettes don’t burn as hot as lump wood charcoal, but you can still get up to 800F – 1000F which is hot enough to sear a steak. In addition, you can allow it to burn low if you want to smoke. All you have to do is simply adjust the air vents.
Advantages of Briquettes over Charcoal
Although briquettes might not sound as attractive as lump wood charcoal because of the additives, there are advantages. For example, they can hold a steadier temperature for longer than charcoal. You don’t have to sit over your smoker or grill continually and can have a sit-down and a glass of something cold.
Pros of Lump Charcoal
- Lump wood charcoal lights quickly and easily
- It can reach a temperature of 1400F, but can also burn low and slow
- It produces only a little ash, making clean-up a breeze
- It is easy to control the temperature by using the air vents
- Charcoal is 100% natural, with no additives, so is environmentally friendly
- It gives out an authentic smoky flavor which can be enhanced with the addition of your favorite wood chips
- It is easy to cook things like pizza, steak, or kebabs with charcoal
Cons of Lump Charcoal
- It burns quickly so you can get through a large amount of charcoal
- It is a reasonably expensive mode of fuel
- If you choose a cheap brand, you may end up with mixed sizes of charcoal which will make barbecuing inconsistent
Pros of Briquettes
- They burn for a long time
- It is easy to maintain a consistent temperature
- It is cheap
Cons of Briquettes
- It takes a long time to light
- It gives off a chemical smell
- Briquettes produce a lot of ash
We hope you have found reading about the comparisons between lump wood charcoal and briquettes interesting and informative (like the Thermoworks Thermopop review is). It is difficult to choose between them, so it really is a personal choice. We think that lump charcoal is possibly a better fuel for grilling than briquettes are. This is because it lights quicker, cooks faster, reaches a higher temperature, and is easier to control. Briquettes, on the other hand, are more suitable for smoking as they work well on a lower temperature and it is easy to just set it and forget it. After all, you don’t want to be watching over your smoker for hours on end.
To help you ease up all processes we explored the following grilling accessories:
Have fun exploring!