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Charcoal Types: Which one should you choose?

What type of charcoal do you choose when you fire up the grill? Some may be asking, “Wait… there are different kinds of charcoal?” Yes - but don’t worry as there are only two common charcoal types when it comes to firing up the grill.



Briquette charcoal may be the most familiar to many consumers but there is also lump charcoal. Both are great for grilling but there are some differences worth noting. That includes what they’re made of, what they should be used for, and how to ignite them

Index

  1. What is Charcoal Made of?
  2. What are Charcoal Briquettes Made of?
  3. Types of Charcoal
  4. Which Common Type of Charcoal is Best?
  5. Lighter Fluid
  6. Looft as a Charcoal Starter
BBQ

What is Charcoal Made of?

First, what is charcoal made of? That question is probably the best place to start when it comes to lump charcoal. In general, charcoal is carbon remnants in a solid form or powder that is the remains of a substance like wood that has been burned in a low oxygen environment. The process of making charcoal has been around for over 30,000 years. That being said, there are different types of charcoal. Some are perfect for grilling which is the two I’m focusing on – lump and briquettes.

If you’ve burned wood in a fire pit outdoors or inside using a wood-burning stove or fireplace, then you may have produced charcoal. It’s the black pieces of material left over in the pile of ash. As the wood burns and falls into the ash it could be covered by more ash cutting off oxygen. The material just smolders away leaving a lump of charcoal.

Aside from cooking, lump charcoal has been used for heating, medical purposes, the smelting process for metal production, and even by artists – some of which did their work inside caves! Chinese people discovered gunpowder when they mixed some charcoal powder with saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and sulfur Egyptians took note of the fact that bad odors could be reduced with charcoal. They started the medical application of the carbon-based powder when they started to apply it to wounds.

The Phoenicians learned how to improve the taste of water by storing it in barrels that had charred insides. The charcoal helped remove bad flavors and odors. Europeans perfected the method known as “absorption” while working to improve and develop the sugar refining industry. The use of “activated charcoal” today can be found in countless products ranging from medical items, water filters, gas masks, skincare products, teeth whiteners, and even undergarments.

Everything mentioned above is essentially a product of making lump-style charcoal and going from there. And… You can grill with it!

Charcoal, in lump form, has been a source for cooking over a heat source since somebody first decided to cook their freshly killed game. But it has limitations such as burning too fast and unevenly shaped pieces. That changed with the invention of modern charcoal briquets.


What are Charcoal Briquettes Made of?

Today, charcoal briquettes have not changed much since the late 1800s and early 1900s. Modern charcoal briquettes are formed with ingredients mostly of wood charcoal powder and wood scraps such as sawdust. Other ingredients, depending on manufacture, can include binders and even sodium nitrate and wax as accelerants.

Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer of Zwoyer Fuel Company patened two charcoal “briquette” ideas in 1897. Zwoyer also designed machinery that combined charcoal, wood, and other items with a binder into equal-sized formed pieces with rounded corners. His exact description noted the end product as being “truncated pyramids with rounded corners and slightly rounded or convex tops' ' which is very similar to the briquette product we still use.


Types of Charcoal

As mentioned above, lump charcoal has been around for a long time and is what’s left of a material such as wood when you’ve burned it in a low oxygen environment. Then there’s charcoal in brick and briquette form.

Before Zwoyer, the production of a “briquette” or “brick” style of product was already taking place in many parts of the world. During the Edo Period, people in Japan used coal and a binder as a fuel source. People in Ireland used “Peat'' bricks which were essentially compressed bricks of peat that were used as fuel or as a fire started. You can still buy “Irish Firewood” today but the product is being phased out in Ireland for cleaner alternatives.

Peat field

There are several more examples of people from around the globe using compressed coal and a binding agent. The main difference between those “bricks” and modern “briquettes” for grilling is something that Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer tackled. He sought to perfect a fuel source that burned evenly and lasted longer than lump charcoal that was also uniform in shape.

Zwoyer design allowed for better airflow between the pieces which kept them burning at a uniform pace. Zwoyer’s charcoal briquettes were easy to store, were cheap, and his design worked. He put his briquette idea into production following World War One and had plants in Fall River, Massachusetts, and Buffalo, New York.

Enter Henry Ford – the founder of Ford Motors. He joined forces with the husband of one of his cousins who was Edward G. Kingsford. He’s the name behind the Kingsford Charcoal brand which was founded in 1920. Kingsford, a Realtor, helped Ford find timberland for wood used in Ford’s auto manufacturing facilities. A by-product of Ford’s sawmills was sawdust – which is an ingredient in the production of charcoal briquettes.

Ford and Kingsford had a friend, Thomas Edison, who they enlisted to design a modern facility for briquette making. Soon Ford dealerships were selling Kingsford charcoal briquettes to road-happy new Ford customers looking for a place to picnic!

With Zwoyer, Ford, and Kingsford, the charcoal briquette industry for cooking purposes only was firmly established. 


Now, when it comes to grilling, forget about peat bricks and industrial powdered coal bricks, the choices are either charcoal in lump form or charcoal briquettes. But which is best for the perfect meal?

Which Common Type of Charcoal is Best?

Both are best… For what you choose to cook with it. But it’s worth looking at some pros and cons to better inform you.

Charcoal briquettes are

  • evenly shaped
  • denser than lump charcoal
  • and burn longer while providing an even burn rate and level of heat.

They are perfect for longer grilling times needed for bigger pieces of meat or whatever you decide to toss on the grates. This common type of charcoal is often cheaper than lump and, because of the design, more can fit in a bag.

Lump Charcoal burns faster – but there is an upside! It burns hot, is not packed with fillers and a binding agent, and provides more of a “cooked over wood” flavor. It is a favorite for grilling gurus that want a more “natural” way of cooking.


Lump charcoal is perfect for

  • shorter cooking times
  • smaller portions
  • and smaller amounts

Think – grilling a few steaks, burgers, dogs, seafood, etc for a small group of friends. If you’re planning on more guests and you’re grilling a brisket or slow cooking a Boston butt then briquettes are the way to go. I avoid briquettes that have a “self-lighting” additive as I find there is a slight aftertaste of lighter fluid – which is not something I’m looking for in a steak!

You can also combine lump and briquettes and you can add wood chips to both. Some specialty briquettes even come with added wood flavors such as hickory and mesquite. And, both can be started with traditional methods ranging from charcoal chimneys to using a Looft Lighter.


Lighting Lump and Briquette Charcoal

There are many ways to light your preferred type of charcoal when preparing your grill for a nice meal. Methods range from starters using chimneys, electric coils, lighter fluid, and an electronic lighter. All of these will work with both lump and briquettes.

One note; Some brands of charcoal are produced with a small amount of lighter fluid blended into the briquette mix. We will touch more on that topic momentarily.

 

There are a few issues – the main one being the time it takes to get your charcoal going. Charcoal chimneys work by the simple fact that heat rises. The chimney is filled with charcoal while the bottom portion is lightly packed with a fuel source such as newspaper.

Some people add in small sticks as the paper may burn off before the charcoal gets started. You can also grill lighter cubes. More on that below. Back to the charcoal chimney, once the paper is lit, the heat rises and increases. The warm airflow ignites the bottom pieces of charcoal and then more pieces higher up the chimney. The same process happens with an electric coil charcoal lighter.

The coil is covered with charcoal, plugged in, and the bottom pieces light and more pieces catch on. The coil is unplugged and removed. A downside to both is that the process is slow. Another downside, with the chimney method, is that you’ll have a rather large pile of ash from the burnt newspaper to deal with laying on your grill grate.

Another downside, possibly the biggest, is the amount of time this takes. You can expect to wait 20 minutes or more for your coals to be ready for cooking. That brings us to lighter fluid.


Lighter Fluid

Lighter fluid, charcoal briquettes with lighter fluid added, and charcoal lighting cubes are also options for starting your charcoal. First, let’s start with charcoal lighting cubes – think of a small ice cube… Made of lighter fluid. These cubes are often used with camping and grilling. They are small cubes of highly flammable material that burn red hot for several minutes. Just enough time for starting charcoal or a small campfire. They work great with charcoal chimneys

 

Lighter cubes

Now, back to lighter fluid. The time it takes to light charcoal may drop slightly when using lighter fluid or charcoal with fluid built-in. Charcoal, either lump or briquettes, are stacked like a pyramid. Then the stack is dosed with lighter fluid, allowed to soak in, and lit. Be sure to step back in case you were overly generous with the fluid or somebody gave an extra squirt when you weren’t looking. Lighter fluid is indeed dangerous in the wrong hands.

The fluid touches more of the charcoal so many more pieces start to light at one time. The same goes with charcoal briquettes that have fluid already in them. Once one is lit, the other pieces ignite quickly so most, or all, of the pieces, are burning. The time from start to charcoal ready to cook over could be slightly quicker than using a chimney or heating coil if done right.

However, many people wish to avoid the aftertaste and aroma associated with using lighter fluid. And, some may have concerns if using lighter fluid is a health risk. Lighter fluid is packed with toxins and many people fear those may not burn completely away. The good news is that there is a way to avoid lighter fluid taste in your food with a better alternative.


Looft as a Charcoal Starter

If you want to avoid a lighter fluid taste, the possibility of digesting leftover toxins, and the long wait for charcoal being ready to grill over then you need to try an electronic lighter, the Looft Lighter. The lighters come in two versions; battery-operated and plug-in. Just get your charcoal ready, point your Looft Lighter, and press the button.

You can use a Looft Lighter with either lump or briquette charcoal and never touch lighter fluid again. Also, there’s no need to search for paper scraps and sticks for a charcoal chimney again. Looft Lighters work in two ways. You can concentrate on a single area of your charcoal stack and pull away once you see sparks and some redness.

That indicates you have your charcoal started and the rest will follow shortly. Or, follow those instructions, but instead of stopping, slowly pull the Looft Lighter away while still pointing in the same spot. The intense flow of superheated air will have your charcoal ready for grilling in minutes. In half the time, or less, than if using the chimney, heated electric coil, or lighter fluid methods.

No more long wait – you’re grilling in minutes!