Which Charcoal Should I Use for Flavoring My Barbecue?

By John Hoff / July 12, 2014

I love cooking, and let me tell you…

Nothing beats throwing on that red and black bbq apron my wife bought me one Christmas and sipping on a cold beer while I’m flipping salt and pepper steaks in a beef enriched cloud of smoke.

But then one really hot summer day it occurred to me that I really didn’t understand why I was getting such a rich smoky flavor in my meat even though I wasn’t using any wood.

I knew that savory smoke was powered by the charcoal which lay beneath my 2 ribeyes, but other than noticing that when drippings from my meat made contact with them (to create the smoke), I really was clueless as to why the charcoal was creating such a blissful flavor on my meat.

So I did what any other guy out there who likes to barbecue and almost became an astrophysicist would do, I decided to investigate and test.

WARNING: My answer to the question I asked in the title of this article might surprise you.

Types of Charcoal In Stores

I suppose we should first start off with what different kinds of charcoal you might find in your local grocery or hardware store, like Home Depot.

The 2 types you will most likely see are:

briquettes-and-lump-charcoal

I’ll try to spare you some of the boring details in regards to how charcoal is made because lets face it, all we really need to know is what’s going to make our food fire off all those flavor sensations when you bite into it. Be warned though, I might have to throw a few “carbon” words at you.

If you’re the curious type and would like to see a pretty cool video, check this one out about making charcoal.

Is there a difference in flavoring between using briquette vs. lump charcoal?

In reality the answer is yes, but technically speaking the answer should be no.

Let me explain.

For the most part, charcoal is charcoal and it’s all made by applying a process… that is, taking something with carbon in it, like wood, and cooking it in a low oxygen environment until you get charcoal. This process is known as carbonization (told you I’d sneak that word in).

So basically you’re turning wood into carbon.

And carbon is carbon, right?

But there’s a problem.

The reason why there’s “lump” charcoal (rather than briquettes) is that lump is made from wood branches, twigs, small blocks, etc. whereas briquettes are made from sawdust and very small wood chips (see video above) which then get formed into briquettes.

wood-to-make-charcoal

So technically speaking, if all the wood is carbonized properly, then charcoal should be charcoal, right?

But if you look at the image above you’ll quickly see how this process can be messed up because while you can evenly carbonize sawdust, it’s nearly impossible to evenly (thus properly) carbonize lump wood. When you carbonize the wood to produce charcoal, what you’re doing is burning off compounds like water, hydrogen, methane, tar, and I’m sure a bunch of other stuff I don’t know about.

What does this mean?

It means, my fellow barbecuer, that lump charcoal will produce a slightly more flavorful smoke because larger pieces of wood might not be fully carbonized (thus leaving some of that wood flavor in there).

But that also means it will burn away faster than briquettes because the more carbonized the material, the slower it will burn.

The Verdict

Lump charcoal will produce a slightly more flavorful smoke than briquettes.

But… watch this video before making a decision.

As you can see, charcoal for the most part doesn’t really produce a flavor on its own, it’s merely a heat source. The flavor comes from drippings from your food which include things like:

  • your dry rub
  • fat
  • oils
  • sugars
  • proteins

or wood thrown on the coals.

What I Do

For me, an avid barbecuer and always curious about the science behind things, I never rely on charcoal to flavor my food. When buying charcoal, all it is for me is a heat source–and preferably one I don’t have to keep mess’n with.

I rely on my food’s seductive flavoring to come from factors like:

  • rubs
  • injections
  • type of wood
  • quality of food (Wagyu, prime, choice, etc.)
  • temperature
  • sauces
Kingsford Original I stick with Kingsford Original because it burns longer than lump and unlike lump, there are fewer variables out of my control (various lump sizes produce more or less smoke, more or less heat, more or less unhealthy compounds not burned away, every bag is different, etc.).

Should you buy charcoal with wood chips already in it?

wood-embedded-charcoal

I’ll admit it, I used to use charcoal with the wood embedded in it, but after I did this research a number of years ago I switched to just plain charcoal briquettes.

Why?

Because cooking is all about control, right?

You need to control things like your temperature, how much salt, how much pepper, how much time, and of course…

…how much smoke.

Buying charcoal with wood chips embedded in it takes control over your smoke out of your hands and into the hands of chance.

And as an entrepreneur and also a guy who like I said in the beginning of this article, almost became an astrophysicist, control is only lost when we’re talking about my 4 kids!

One last point I’d like to make, don’t buy Match Light charcoal and try not to use any liquid charcoal starting fluids, those things will just add undesirable chemical flavors to your food and ruin everything.

Okay so now it’s your turn. I know you’ve been tossing and turning every night waking up in a cold sweat worried about which charcoal you should cook with, so what’s your opinion?

About the author

John Hoff

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