Which to Choose?
Not all charcoal is created equal, and there are a few things to consider before you fire up the grill or smoker this summer. Here we will examine the two most common forms used for grilling and smoking meat and other foods: lump and briquette charcoal, so that you can decide how to cook up your best bbq recipes.
The first type, lump charcoal, is what your ancestors used to grill up the antelope they just ran down. You may be smoking meat bought at your local corner market or grilling steaks for guys, but what's been around for a few thousand years can't be all wrong. In fact, this may be some of the best stuff on the market, especially when it's made from hardwood. To produce lump charcoal, pieces of wood are slowly heated in the absence of oxygen until all that remains is carbon (the fuel) and some residual ash.
Able to reach temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hardwood lump charcoal can sear the meat when cooked on an open-air grill, thus caramelizing the crust for great flavor while locking in the juices. Conversely, you can regulate the airflow on your smoker to drop the temperature down to around 250 degrees Fahrenheit to slowly cook and intensely flavor your food. Lump charcoal burned slowly in a smoker with minimal airflow will last a long time indeed. It also produces less ash than briquettes. Consider lighting this type fuel not with lighter fluid, which would impart strong, unwanted odors, but by lightly soaking one end of a paper towel with vegetable oil, lighting that end and using that to ignite the coals.
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Briquettes are the second type we will consider and perhaps the most common nowadays. A briquette is made by compressing charcoal created from sawdust and other wood byproducts along with a binder like starch and possibly other additives like sodium nitrate which may be included as an ignition aid. So while lump charcoal actually is charcoal, briquettes merely contain charcoal along with other ingredients that are then pressed into a form. That's not to say that briquettes don't have positive attributes. They certainly do. Modern day production methods mean this kind of fuel can be made quickly and cheaply, and the cost savings are passed on to consumers meaning more backyard bbq for you. Their consistent size also means a uniform heat source when spread out evenly.
Credit: AmazonYou can expect more ash from briquettes and the addition of other ingredients can mean unwanted odors. Consider reducing contaminants by avoiding briquettes already saturated by the manufacturer with ignition aids and instead apply the lighter fluid yourself. When you buy ready-to-go, "instant" briquettes, what makes it light up when you put a match to it is seeped deep into the coals and the odor those extra ingredients cause will continue long after the flames have died out and you've put your food on the grill. Apply your own lighter fluid about 10-15 minutes before lighting the coals, giving it just enough time to soak the outer portions of the briquettes, but not go all the way to the center. When the flames die away, they will be only partially charred and not yet ready. Leave them alone until they turn entirely white and then put your food on. In this way you avoid many of the unwanted flavors and odors associated with quick-light briquettes.
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Hopefully you are now ready to decide for yourself what charcoal, lump or briquette, to use for your best bbq recipes, using either a grill or a smoker, all in time for your next backyard party. Whether you're grilling steaks or smoking meat, knowing the strengths and limitations of your fuel source will help you get the most out of your bbq ideas.