A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about charcoal and after using a few brands I want to put down some of my latest thoughts on the subject. Unlike the last time when I looked at both charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal, I will restrict this article to charcoal briquettes.
As I mentioned in the previous article, there is a huge debate regarding the “additives” used to make charcoal briquettes. The long standing argument is that that the mass produced briquettes use “Petroleum by-products,” “toxic waste,” or “fillers.” I cannot rationalize why the large briquette manufacturers use these ingredients, except to say this: all natural briquettes contain nothing but hardwood and vegetable paste or corn starch for a binder. The other additives in mass produced charcoal briquettes are included for various purposes including release of the briquettes from the molds during production, ease of lighting and burn rate control. I am leery of the chemicals which produce off tastes and acrid smells in the food being cooked. When I light natural briquettes, I smell wood, not chemicals. The other benefit of natural components of the charcoal is that when you add more charcoal to the grill to extend the cooking time, the food is flavored with smoke and not a chemical taste.
I have restricted myself to using the style of briquettes known as all natural. If they are all natural, they are typically made with 95% hardwood charcoal fines and 4-5% vegetable starch binder. (There is no government definition or oversight of the term). Theoretically, any company making lump charcoal could manufacture the natural briquettes. All one needs is access to remains and small bits of wood charcoal which can then be ground, combined with the starch and shaped into the familiar cube shape. In fact, since I wrote the original piece there has been an explosion, of sorts, in this segment. This doesn’t mean they are easy to find, just that there is growing competition.
Charcoal Briquette Availability
Since I am on the thought, let’s discuss why more people don’t know about or use all natural briquettes. If you go to a hardware store or big box home improvement store, you will most likely see the usual mass produced offerings.
Why? It is pretty much a classic Catch-22 situation. The consumer is not interested in briquette options as they haven’t been told enough about the benefits of the all natural version and given the extra cost involved customers won’t but it. If a product doesn’t sell nor have demand, retailers won’t carry it.
There are exceptions. Costco is selling a twin pack of 18 pound bags of Kingsford Competition charcoal at almost all of its locations. Stubbs All Natural is generally sold in Lowes and in some Home Depot locations. Duraflame is sold in some True Value Hardware stores, but I couldn’t find the All Natural Hardwood Briquets in my area. Royal Oak Ultra 100, their name for the all natural charcoal briquettes, is not sold in any store I know but is sold online. As for Wicked Good Weekend Warrior Blend 100% Natural Hardwood Briquettes, while their distribution is growing, most locations sell only their lump charcoal offering. One local hardware store told me they didn’t carry the charcoal briquettes from Wicked Good anymore because it didn’t sell. This leaves the internet as the only option for purchasing this excellent product. This lack of availability in local stores is a main reason the cost is so high. The shipping costs for the weight and bulky bags of charcoal add 75% to the total cost. Purchased at a local store even the most expensive brand becomes much more reasonable. I will list the prices later in the article.
Observations and Performance
Over the course of this summer, I have used all natural charcoal briquettes from Stubbs, WholeFoods, Wicked Good and Kingsford Competition. As I was searching for locations to purchase the all natural brands, I became aware of the Duraflame Hardwood Briquets and Royal Oak Ultra 100 products, but have not bought either this year and therefore they are not part of these tests. I also learned that Duraflame has the rights to distribute Stubbs and Cowboy brand charcoal but the details of this relationship are not available. As of this writing, the relationship with the well known Duraflame brand hasn’t affected the availability of the all natural briquettes.
Before I continue with the performance of the charcoal I used, a word about the all natural briquettes sold at WholeFoods. In the not so distant past, WholeFoods sold Stubbs brand as their briquette option, but this year switched to a WholeFoods brand. WholeFoods will not reveal the manufacturer for whatever reason, but given the lack of manufacturers of this product I can only assume that Stubbs is making the WholeFoods brand or possibly Duraflame. I only mention this Stubbs/WholeFoods relationship because in my early season grilling, I finished up with the Stubbs brand I purchased last fall and began using the WholeFoods brand. I saw no difference in performance between the two. They are even sold in the same size bags. So when I say Stubbs below, it will serve as the Stubbs/WholeFoods experience.
When using the various brands, I always started the charcoal with a chimney starter and used 3 newspaper sheets to light them.
Tests were categorized by:
- time till ready to use,
- initial heat,
- heat steadiness
- ash production
Ready To Use
I will not give specific times here because a lot of factors play into the lighting from session to session including variables such as ambient air temperature, wind and moisture levels. I made notes and assessed the average time to readiness. Readiness being defined as a very hot fire. Not all grilling applications need such high heat, but again it was the only test I felt could be consistently measured during actual usage.
All brands tested emit a pleasant wood smell as they come to temperature, not the choking chemical smells of the cheap mass produced brands.
I found Wicked Good ready to use in 15-20 minutes, faster than the others. Kingsford Competition and Stubbs took slightly more time, usually another 5-10 minutes. I don’t consider this to be a great gap in performance. While the coals are lighting, I am doing prep work in the kitchen and the time is not noticeable.
I found both the Wicked Good and Stubbs brands achieved some amazing initial temperatures. I often use the KettlePizza product to cook pizzas in a very high heat environment. This device allowed me to see very easily how hot a pile of charcoal can get in a short period of time. With this special rig, I was able to get initial readings of 700° F with Wicked Good and Stubbs, but only 600° F with Kingsford Competition. With the KettlePizza, the initial heat is augmented by the addition of wood to achieve temperatures of 800 – 900° F.
These heat results generally held true when doing indirect or direct grilling.
Heat stability is a factor when working with foods that take longer than 30 minutes to cook, regardless of the grilling method you use. Again, I found Wicked Good and Stubbs provided terrific heat steadiness/retention. Kingsford Competition doesn’t seem to hold temperatures like the other two. A case in point was in making rotisserie chicken on the Weber. In warm weather, it can take anywhere from 1:15 to 1:30 hours to cook a 3-4 pound chicken to the proper internal temperature. With both Wicked Good and Stubbs I could cook the bird completely through without needing to add additional briquettes. Kingsford Competition would always require the addition of more charcoal to complete the same task, generally at the 50-60 minute mark.
While using the KettlePizza, I found that I could maintain higher temperatures for a longer period of time with the Wicked Good than the Competition brand. On two separate occasions I made multiple pizzas for dinner parties we hosted and when using the Wicked Good brand I was able to hold the 800°+ temperatures throughout the process. In fact, 40 minutes after the last pizza came out – or just over an hour into the process – the Wicked Good brand still measured a temperature of 700°. When I had the opportunity to make pizzas again, this time using Kingsford Competition, the temperature drop was noticeable. From a practical perspective, all this meant was that the pizza took a few more minutes to cook.
In my attempts to control the temperature of the grill while doing rotisserie or indirect long-cycle cooking, I found Kingsford Competition much more responsive to the vent activity than Wicked Good or Stubbs. This quick response actually caused me to have to adjust the venting carefully & more often to make sure I didn’t cool the grill temperature too much. The other two brands responded more slowly to vent adjustments. I rarely attempt traditionally smoked food, at least at this point in my BBQ life, so vent control is less of a factor for me.
The other area where venting comes into play is when snuffing out the fire. When I am done grilling, I close the vents and put the lid on the grill in an attempt to save as much charcoal as possible for the next session. Here, oddly enough, Wicked Good stood way out from the others. Most times, I found that I could salvage enough leftover Wicked Good charcoal to fill about a quarter to one third of the chimney starter next time out.
Stubbs was next in salvageable material while Kingsford left only tiny amounts. It should be noted that these numbers were achieved after doing high heat direct cooking, not slow long-cycle. It was hard to find more than one or two of the Kingsford Competition briquettes large enough to reuse, most being the size of a quarter or smaller. Even when I tried to gather these bits to reuse, they easily broke apart or slid through the grates.
Why is this important? Given the higher price of all natural charcoal, being able to reuse some helps cut the cost.
Ash production, as I mentioned in the previous article, is really only relevant for the smoker or ceramic grill user. The ash can build up and snuff a fire. For most of us, it simply means emptying the ash collection bin more frequently.
However, I can say for certain that Wicked Good and Stubbs produce about half the ash of Kingsford Competition. By comparison, regular “blue bag” Kingsford and similar varieties produce over twice the amount of ash as the Competition brand. Trust me, it is a lot of ash.
Another benefit of using all natural charcoal briquettes is that you can confidently toss the ash into the compost pile and not worry about chemical residue.
The last factor to look at is the cost. Given the lack of availability of all natural briquettes in most bricks and mortar locations, the costs are very high due to shipping. I will list out the costs as I have been able to calculate them.
I will start with my favored Wicked Good brand whose Weekend Warrior Blend 100% Natural Hardwood, for me, can only be purchased from the internet. To maximize the value, I purchased 6-11 pound bags which, with shipping to Maryland/DC, cost $63. So 66 lbs of charcoal is $63 or 95¢ per pound.
*All the prices below are approximate for my area and round to the next whole dollar*
- Kingsford Competition brand I buy at Costco in sets of 2 – 18 lb. bags cost $16. As a result, it is 45¢ per pound.
- Royal Oak Ultra 100 is $41 for 2 – 16 lb. bags or 78¢ per pound. If you bought 64 pounds of it, the cost goes up to $1.25 per pound.
- WholeFoods All Natural is $7 for a 9 lb. bag or 78¢ per pound.
- Duraflame Hardwood Briquets sold in 15 lb. bags online for $10 a bag. Buy 4 of them with shipping the cost is $67 or $1.11 per pound.
By contrast, the mass produced, chemical based charcoal typically sells for between 25¢ – 38¢ per pound. So if you equate that price to our original 66 pound purchase from Wicked Good it is $16.50 – $25.
The cost of the all natural products goes way down if you don’t have shipping, but you must also add local sales tax to the per bag cost.
Obviously my favorite brand of charcoal briquette is pretty expensive, but not as expensive as others. They are more expensive than the WholeFoods brand and more than double the Kingsford Competition.
The question for me is whether I feel Wicked Good is twice as good as Kingsford Competition in performance and I honestly can’t say that. Wicked Good is superior in almost every way, but not so much that I will continue to buy it year in and year out.
While the WholeFoods brand is more reasonable in price and very close to Wicked Good in performance, they don’t always carry it in the stores. It is a retail defined “seasonal item”, yet we grill most of the year.
In the end, Kingsford Competition briquettes will be my grilling fuel of choice. It comes down to availability and therefore cost. As long as I can buy it from Costco for the great price, it is the best value to performance charcoal in this segment.
One final note on the plague of “seasonal item” retail stocking, even the Costco stores in our area stop selling charcoal in the fall. It is incumbent on me to stock up my supplies of charcoal before the “season” ends. If I don’t, I have to resort to buying the all natural charcoal briquettes over the internet.