What is the right kind of charcoal used for barbecuing? There is no right or wrong charcoal! Charcoal is charcoal! Right? Wrong! Charcoal barbecuing brings flavor to the meat, it gives the beef, pork or chicken a flavor that cannot be achieved from a gas burning barbeque grill. Gas grill does not come close to delivering the heat that hot burning coals produce. However, not all charcoal is created equal. The quality of the raw marinated meats and the ready to cook proteins from the American BBQ Company of California also play a major role in this unique cooking process. Charcoal burns hotter and more evenly than wood. It produces more heat and less smoke, which is exactly why you would want to grill that piece of delicious California Beef in it.
What is charcoal made of? Well, charcoal is made of wood cooking in low oxygen containers, such as kilns. This process can take days and stops when it is about 25% of the weight it went in, or just before the wood turns into ashes.
According to AmazingRibs.com, this is how charcoal is made:
“Charcoal is mostly pure carbon, called char, made by cooking wood in a low oxygen environment, a process that can take days and burns off volatile compounds such as water, methane, hydrogen, and tar. In commercial processing, the burning takes place in large concrete or steel silos with very little oxygen, and stops before it all turns to ash. The process leaves black lumps and powder, about 25% of the original weight.
When ignited, the carbon in charcoal combines with oxygen and forms carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water, other gases, and significant quantities of energy. It packs more potential energy per ounce than raw wood. Char burns steady, hot, and produces less smoke and fewer dangerous vapors.
The process of making charcoal is ancient, with archaeological evidence of charcoal production going back about 30,000 years. Making charcoal is still practiced at home in third world economies such as Haiti.
Because charcoal burns hotter, cleaner, and more evenly than wood, it was used by smelters for melting iron ore in blast furnaces, and blacksmiths who formed and shaped steel.
Commercial production was first done in pits covered with dirt by specially trained craftsmen called colliers. Yes, your friend named Collier probably had an ancestor who made charcoal for a living.”
Here are a few options to choose from when you are cooking that American Style Kobe Beef or those juicy Grass Fed beef patties for your wonderful loving family this weekend.
Option #1: Natural Hardwood Charcoal
Natural hardwood charcoal is made of 100% real chunks of hardwood. It burns hotter than regular charcoals and produces an incredible wood flavor in your Premium Natural Angus Beef or those Marinated Meats you have waiting on the side of the grill.
Here are some findings from our experts at Fine Cooking (Issue 46)
• Made from only natural hardwood, such as maple, oak, mesquite or even hickory.
• Once the wood is reduced to charcoal, it’s left in its original rough shape. In fact, the best way to determine the quality of the charcoal is to look at it—if you can recognize the shapes of real wood, you’ve got the real thing.
• Lights more quickly.
• Burns hotter (around 1,000°F), so you should make a smaller or more spread-out fire than you would with briquettes.
• Creates less ash.
• Imparts a purer, wood-fire flavor to foods.
• Any hardwood charcoal not completely burned during grilling may be put out and re-lit on another occasion for more grilling.
“Hardwood lump is the next best thing to cooking with hardwood and it is fashionable for the same reasons that “organic” food is fashionable. It has this aura of being more natural. There are more than 75 brands and some are even varietal: Cherry, mesquite, coconut shell, and tamarind.
Hardwood lump charcoal is made from hardwood scrap from saw mills and from flooring, furniture, and building materials manufacturers. Branches, twigs, blocks, trim, and other scraps are carbonized. The result is lumps that are irregular in size, often looking like limbs and lumber. Often they are carbonized to different degrees because there are so many different size lumps.
Lump leaves little ash since there are no binders as in briquets. This is important in some kamado smokers such as the Big Green Egg which don’t have a lot of room for ash to collect during long cooks without blocking airflow. The big disadvantage is that lump is harder to find, more expensive than briquets, burns out more quickly, varies in BTUs (heat output) per pound (and thus, per cook), varies in wood type from bag to bag, varies in flavor from bag to bag, and often bags of lump contain a lot of useless carbon dust from improper filtering in the factory and rough handling in the stores. On the other hand, the bags are lighter and easier to handle because the lumps are irregular shaped, so there is more air in the bag.
Lump tends to produce more smoke flavor because large pieces may not be fully carbonized, but I prefer to get smoke by adding the wood of my choice. For definitive ratings and reviews of lump charcoal, visit Doug Hanthorn’s website, a.k.a. the Naked Whiz.
Barbecue lore says lump burns hotter than briquets, but the AmazingRibs.com science advisor Prof. Greg Blonder says “Hotter depends on how the coals are arranged. Because of their irregular shapes, they can nestle together like puzzle pieces and impair airflow which can reduce heat.” Lump can produce more charcoal powder and crumbs which can fill the gaps between chunks and stifle airflow and make the fire burn cold. Remember air is fuel as much as is the charcoal, so I recommend that you discard the dust at the bottom of the bag.
The folks at Cooks Illustrated also found this to be a myth (click the link for their research). They took two typical six quart chimneys and filled one with lump and one with briquets. They fitted two identical grills with seven digital thermometer probes each, and learned that by volume, not weight, and volume is how most of us measure charcoal, especially if we use a chimney, the two burned about the same for about 30 minutes, but after that the briquets held heat longer and the lump turned to ash faster. They repeated the test 11 times. Of course this only matters if you are seeking high heat. You can reduce the temp by reducing the amount of charcoal or the amount of oxygen.
Another myth is that lump has more flavor. Not if it is properly made. If all the wood is completely carbonized, converted to char, the flavor will be no different from other charcoal. But often lump is not properly carbonized. Often some of the larger chunks still have cellulose, lignin, and other wood components left in them, and when they burn they give off a flavor. This can be a pleasant addition to your food, but it isn’t controllable. You don’t know from one meal to the next what you’re getting. Top pitmasters prefer to control this by burning pure charcoal and then adding wood of their choice to produce the quantity and quality of smoke they prefer.
Finally, it is not uncommon to find rocks, metal pieces, and other foreign objects from the lumber operations where the wood is gathered. The picture here shows some PVC pipe and nylon rope found in a bag of lump by Thad Barnes of Austin, TX. Mmmmm, you gotta love the idea of plastic soot on your meat.”
Option #2: Pressed Charcoal
A pressed charcoal is a compressed nugget of coal made of wood chips, sawdust, peat and who knows what else. These babies are long lasting, perfect for a backyard party you’re hosting, but I don’t recommend cooking those USDA Organic sirloin steaks you just purchased in it.
“Compressed charcoal (also referred as charcoal sticks) is shaped into a block or form of a stick. Intensity of the shade is determined by hardiness. The amount of gum or wax binders used during the production process affects the hardiness. Soft hardiness leaves intensely black markings while Hard hardiness leave light markings.”
“Compressed charcoal is made of charred wood dust and other materials in powder form. The charcoal powder is held together with a binder of gum or wax.”
Option #3: Instant Charcoal
I will never consider this option if there are no other options. Few people will want to use instant charcoal when they’re in a hurry to get dinner ready for their family or when they’re out at the beach cooking over a bonfire pit. Instant charcoals are coals that have been steeped in lighter fluid for quick and easy lighting. Think about the chemical that is in this coal before purchasing it at your local grocery stores. This item also has a Proposition 65 warning tag! Stay away!
“A classic battle which one is better. Well to me it’s a no brainier. I choose Regular Charcoal over Instant Light any day, and to me it’s because no matter what I always seem to be able to taste the starter fluid they are drenched in. I know what you’re thinking you have to use lighter fluid to start regular charcoal also, this is true but I just feel like it’s easier to burn off since it’s only on the top layer where it seems that Instant Charcoal is saturated in the starter fluid and doesn’t seem to burn off. Now I’m not saying you won’t ever taste the lighter fluid in Regular Charcoal, I’m just saying that it is more likely to burn off without leaving an aftertaste. Although Instant Light Charcoal does have an advantage you don’t need the lighter fluid, and I know at one point or another I have been seen kicking rocks because I didn’t have any lighter fluid for Regular Charcoal. And in moderate wind conditions it is easier to get the instant light rolling faster. But overall, when it comes to my BBQ and my grill, I choose Regular BBQ Charcoal only.”
Back to our topic: “What is the right kind of charcoal used for barbecuing?” I CHOOSE Natural Hardwood Charcoal! Period!