As part of my due diligence for upcoming articles, I have been grilling a lot lately. (Heck, it is summer and the truth is that I grill frequently anyway.) As I have posted some of my exploits on Facebook, people have asked what sort of charcoal I use on the grill and which is best.
First off, know that I have no ingrained grill fuel bias. Until recently, I used propane and was quite happy with it but secretly, I longed for charcoal.
Gas has the benefit of being quick to start, easy to use and produces consistent steady heat. What gas cannot do is create the same flavor that charcoal does, though this can be addressed somewhat with smoking chips or dust, or wood grilling planks. Additionally, I think marinades and sauces help add flavor to foods cooked on a gas grill. However, even using these tools, the flavor isn’t the same.
In the end, you can learn to successfully cook most anything on a propane fueled grill, including my favorite rotisserie or spit roasted foods.
The switch to charcoal isn’t as simple as you might think. When my gas grill gave up the ghost last summer, I bought a 22.5″ Weber charcoal grill.
The next decision was what type of charcoal to use – briquettes or lump and then, within those categories, which brand?
Briquettes are the more flexible option. They are great for long low, slow cooking (true BBQ) as well as for direct or indirect grilling. With briquettes, there is one basic choice. Do you use the widely available briquettes from companies such as Kingsford and Duraflame or natural briquettes such as Stubbs and Wicked Good?
There is a huge debate about briquettes regarding how they are made and whether the “additives” used to create the briquette are harmful. The long standing argument is that that the mass produced briquettes use “Petroleum by-products”, “toxic waste”, or “fillers”. I am no chemist and therefore won’t rationalize away the process used by large briquette manufacturers, except to say this – the natural briquettes from Stubbs, Kingsford Competition and Wicked Good contain nothing but hardwood and vegetable paste or corn starch for a binder. The other additives in cheap, mass produced charcoal are included for various factors such as release of the briquettes from the molds during production, ease of lighting and ash production.
Logically I realize that by the time the mass produced briquettes have burned to the point that they are ready to use, most if not all the chemical additives used have burned off, leaving almost pure carbon. I am just leery of the chemicals and since there are natural options available, why not use the purer option?
When I light these natural briquettes, I smell wood, not chemicals. In tests for heat generation, duration and ash production, the natural briquettes, particularly Wicked Good, out performed the mass produced brands, although based on data from NakedWhiz.com the Kingsford Competition brand is a very close second.
One final note on briquettes: never use briquettes with quick light or lighter fluid built in. It isn’t worth the extra chemicals added and doesn’t really work as advertised.
Lump charcoal is simply wood burned in a high heat kiln in an environment lacking oxygen. It is generally made from lumber scraps, tree limbs and sawmill leftovers. I have seen pieces in these bags that are clearly grooved flooring rejects, but know that none of the wood used for lump charcoal is made from treated or toxic sources.
The benefits of lump are that it is quite simply wood – no fillers or additives – and it burns hotter than any briquette. The purity of the product gives you the maximum smoke flavor in your grilling.
To me the best use for lump charcoal is hot fire direct grilling. There are some who use it for longer cooking foods, but I have found the varying sizes of wood pieces can cause heat consistency problems. The longer the cooking time, the more gaps will appear in your fire spread. This is created when the smaller pieces have burned up and only larger ones remain.
When attempting indirect grilling with lump, I find that the initial high heat takes longer to cool to the point I want and then, I find it doesn’t burn evenly for a consistent oven-like cook or bake.
You can of course take the time to break the pieces into more even sizes with your hands, a screwdriver or hammer to give you a more uniform burn rate, but this is more work than I want to do.
I prefer the lump charcoal for relatively quick cooking foods like steaks, burgers, chicken and vegetables, but I understand some slow cooking BBQ masters use lump because there is very little ash production. It may well be that piled at the bottom of a smoker the uneven burn rate of the smaller pieces is minimized.
In the world of lump charcoal, there is a great deal of brand variety and differing performance. Some of my poor experiences with lump charcoal may be due to the fact that I inadvertently bought a poorer quality brand. I have learned that the source of the wood is of great importance and the more widely available and less expensive brands are not the best. The ultimate source of reviews for lump charcoal is The Naked Whiz.
In comparing costs, the natural brand lump or briquettes aren’t as expensive as you think. Yes, they cost more than the mass produced brands, except the Kingsford Competition style, but not so much more that you feel like you are spending a fortune.
Let’s face it, gas is all that inexpensive either. Propane refills are steadily going up in price and most places have gone to tank exchange rather than refills, which I do not like.
According to everything I have read, the Wicked Good briquettes are constructed in such a way that they can be more readily reused, once you’re done grilling. This ability to save unused briquettes helps save money over a grilling season. In my experience, the mass produced briquettes and Stubbs brand are more difficult to save, but I have been able same some.
Brand Name______________Price per Pound
Kingsford Sure Fire……………$0.38/lb
Wicked Good Charcoal……….$0.53/lb
Wicked Good Charcoal……….$1.16/lb
Royal Oak Lump……………….$0.45/lb
Price chart from The Naked Whiz
Prices will vary depending on where you live and where you buy it.
Note: a term I mentioned above and you hear a lot about is ash production. Ash production is simply what you think it means, the amount of ash leftover as the coals burn away. It is really a bigger issue for slow cook barbecue folks because during very long cooking cycles, ash production can create air flow problems in some rigs that may snuff out the fire. Lump hardwoods generally produce the least amount of ash. For most of us, this only means that you have to empty your ash collection bin more or less often. But of the natural briquette brands, Wicked Good produces the least amount of ash.
In the end, you are limited to the charcoal that you can purchase readily in your area. When I am grilling regularly, I burn through lots of charcoal and being able to drive somewhere and quickly buy it makes life so much easier. Buying from the internet requires some forethought to account for shipping and delivery times.
As they are generally regarded as the best in their category, you may be curious about Wicked Good briquettes. You will most likely have to mail order Wicked Good, as they don’t have very wide distribution. I haven’t yet bought Wicked Good charcoal over the internet, but intend to soon. For experimental purposes, I have to try and see if it is truly the best. I can buy Stubbs brand at my local WholeFoods and ultimately have been very pleased with it. I also intend to buy Kingsford Competition briquettes and try them against these two brands as well.
Lump hardwood is available at so many places now that I won’t attempt to list any locations or brands here, but I advise you to read through the reviews at the Naked Whiz to understand what you are getting in the available brands. When I have bought the lump style, I preferred the Royal Oak brand from Brazil when I can find it.
*Note – I finally wrote a piece specifically about the All Natural Charcoal Briquettes. I used the various brands available to me and put down some additional thoughts on the experiences.
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