In the world of backyard grilling, no group is as swift and merciless as the charcoal lobby. Whisper the word “propane” enough times and your own personal Barbecue Action Committee will show up at your back door, dragging Weber domes on wheels and clutching crinkly brown-paper sacks of sooty wood. Gas, to these guys, is pure heresy, punishable by death — or maybe just bland food and ruthless emasculatory mocking, which might be worse.
If you’re not a polished pitmaster, chances are you’ll have a little difficulty keeping up conversation with hardcore charcoal devotees. That’s why we’ve put together this grill-fuel cheat sheet, covering all the basic questions that arise when perusing the seasonal entertaining section. Before choosing what to buy, know what it is, what it does and why.
Briquettes vs. Lump: The first thing most casual grillers and outdoor cooking laypeople think of when they think of charcoal are briquettes, those little flammable carbon nuggets valued for their affordability, abundance and (most importantly) uniformity of size. Like a Jason Statham movie or a friend who wears his cellphone in a belt holster, there’s virtue in their predictability: “Bricks” tend to ignite quickly (use a chimney starter) and provide a steady, even heat, whether you’re cooking at a campsite or on a kayak. Options abound, but the brick brand with the most dominant, Heinz-like market share is Kingsford, its bags emblazoned with that familiar color scheme and grinning Maury Povich-esque mascot.
Convenient as they may be, bricks aren’t embraced by everyone. It takes binders and chemicals to press and hold them into those prop-perfect shapes, which detractors believe affect flavor. They’re also perceived as an entry-level concession by some connoisseurs. “I don’t like briquettes, because they seem so weak and wimpy to me,” says Erin O’Shea, pitmistress of Percy Street Barbecue in Philadelphia. She’s a proponent of Lazzari, one example of the lump category fancied by more discerning sect of tong wielders. “I prefer it over anything else because it burns hotter to start.”
Lump consists of whole pieces of charred hardwood, as opposed to briquettes, which start with sawdust or ground coal. And it does burn hotter, but there are limitations to consider. There’s less consistency in heat distribution with lump, since the size and shape of the coals is more varied. This can get tricky if you’re looking for an even temperature all over (say, a grate full of burgers), but it’s ideal for cooks using “two-level” indirect heat, with coals pushed to one side of the grill, to complete large pieces of meat. “Evenly distributing the heat doesn’t really matter when doing this,” says David Katz, company chef of Creekstone Farms. It’s also the best option for “caveman”-style grilling — throwing steaks directly onto coals, no grate needed. “Lump stuff is better for that. It stays less ashy as it burns,” Katz adds.
How to Buy: Lazzari, Humphrey and Rockwood are among the better-known lump charcoal makers; Royal Oak is a larger brand that produces a lump option. (This website has reviewed more than 90 varieties.) Just know you’ll likely be spending more than you would on mainstream briquettes, and you’ll likely burn through a lump stash faster. Those looking for something in between these two charcoal schools can consider “all-natural” briquette varieties, such as Kingsford’s “Competition” series. Buying in bulk is a good money-saving strategy for frequent grillers, as the product’s non-perishable.
Wood Smoke: Building a grill fire consisting of nothing but wood embers is a major time commitment, especially if you’re starting with big logs. You could also burn your house down. The easiest way introduce serious smoke flavor to your grilling while keeping prep time appropriate and fires manageable is by working a wood element into a charcoal base. (There are some charcoal varieties that come with the wood mixed right in, like all-in-one shampoo and conditioner.)
If you choose to use hardwood chunks, make sure you know what you’re buying. Fruitwood (apple, cherry, peach, mulberry) and nutwood (almond, walnut, pecan) all work well, as do popular smoking picks like mesquite, hickory and oak. Ignore soft, resinous woods, like pine, as they burn poorly. Be wary of pre-packaged wood chips, as they they’re often too shredded and slight to make a difference. (Lazzari, the charcoal maker, offers some reliable fruitwood options.) And be particular about what you pick up in general. “Avoid wood with a lot of bark attached, or wood that is discolored,” advises competitive barbecuer Tom Bera. “These can impart negative flavors and bitterness to food.” Also, unless you’re cooking for hundreds of people on some sort of world-class rig, don’t go crazy. “Avoid over-smoking by using too much wood,” says Bera. “A little can go a long way.”
How to Buy: Check in with local farmers and firewood sources, and/or anyone with a fruit tree on their property, to see if they’ve got food-friendly hardwood for sale. (“Don’t go using any wood you find laying in your yard,” says Bera.) If you’d prefer something storebought, there are plenty of pre-fab products that lend a wood-smoked wrinkle to grilled food without all the finagling. In Kansas City Barbeque Society competitions, Bera is fond of using Mojobricks, compressed blocks of all-natural hardwood that create no-fuss wood smoke quickly.
Lighter Fluid: Don’t even go there.
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