If you are new to backyard grilling it may first off come as a surprise that you can get more than one option when looking into charcoal fuel for your BBQ.
Most people haven’t thought too intensely about what is fuelling the flames and heat of a grill and will only vaguely recognize small round pillow-like blocks. This is actually a charcoal briquette. While they remain the most widely used fuel source in domestic BBQs in recent years there has been an upsurge in the popularity of cooking with 100% hardwood fuel in the form of lump charcoal.
In this article, we will give you a crash course in both briquettes and lump charcoal. We will look at how each is made and what they contain. We will compare the pros and cons of both while considering if a mix of the two is the way to get that ideal balance. We have also reached out to some well-known and respected BBQ and grill companies to get their takes on which is the superior option.
Mixing lump charcoal and briquettes together can achieve an initial super-hot heat to create an excellent sear before benefiting from a more sustained heat to cook food through. The dual-fuel approach can make temperature regulation a bit more challenging, and a good layering technique is key.
- What is Lump Charcoal – How does it Burn?
- What are Briquettes – How do they Burn?
- What is the Difference between Lump Charcoal and Briquettes?
- Which Last Longer, Briquettes or Lump Charcoal?
- How do you Choose Between Lump Charcoal and Briquettes?
- What is the Most Effective way of Burning Lump Charcoal and Briquettes Together?
What is Lump Charcoal – How does it Burn?
The term “lump charcoal” is pretty descriptive of this fuel source. Lumps of black hardened material that we toss in the grill and burn to get those flames going. I must admit, I’ve never really stopped to think about what these blocks are actually made of and why they make such great fuel.
Lump charcoal starts out life as wood, normally a hardwood is chosen because of the high energy yield when burning. It then undergoes a specific process of being cooked in a hot temperature furnace but with a low oxygen environment. The lack of oxygen prevents the wood from bursting into flames and serves to draw out all the material that would inhibit burning like moisture and sap.
The result is a dense, dried fuel source that is purely the wood that has had all the other compounds and chemicals extracted until it is nearly entirely charcoal, there are no additives or binders needed.
When lump charcoal is lit in an environment with oxygen, e.g a grill, fire pit or forge this allows it to actually light and produce a flame. Lump charcoal can burn very high due to the dense compact nature of the fuel and can reach staggering heats of up to 2000°F
What are Briquettes – How do they Burn?
Briquettes, sometimes listed as charcoal briquettes are another, slightly more widely used form of fuel for your flame grill.
Briquettes also go through the same process as lump charcoal of being baked at high temperatures in very low oxygen. However, briquettes comprise of more than just hardwood itself. Briquettes are formed shapes that comprise of a mix of smaller hardwood pieces, sawdust, and different organic or synthetic compounds designed to enhance burning and heat generation. Some briquettes are specifically infused with additives designed to enhance the smoking aspect.
Briquettes have a uniform appearance as they are formed from the mixture and divided prior to heat treatment. The additives within are designed with the intention of providing a hot, sustained heat. The uniformity of their designs means they are easier to arrange evenly in the base of your grill preventing cold spots or air pockets.
What is the Difference between Lump Charcoal and Briquettes?
Lump charcoal is never uniform in size due to the variety of different wood cuttings used, a bag will contain a variety of shapes and sizes. This can lead to cold spots in your fire if fuel is distributed unevenly or stacks when burning. Briquettes on the other hand are a uniform pillow shape and are what most people would recognize as barbeque “coals”. This allows for them to be positioned fairly uniformly across the base of the grill allowing for an even heat.
Lump charcoal works out more expensive per bag than briquettes and this is due to the higher manufacturing costs. Additionally, the raw material is solely hardwood which is costlier than the binders used in briquettes. Briquettes will be cheaper and can vary in price depending on the mix used to form them. The cheapest variety of briquettes will consist more of chemical and organic compounds other than wood. This can cause cheap briquettes to give off a chemical smell and produce excessive ash.
- Maximum Heat
Lump charcoal will burn hotter than briquettes. This is due to lump charcoal being 100% hardwood which is a great energy source. Briquettes have been fortified with chemicals and additives to aid lighting but a sacrifice of this is there is less core hardwood present and instead other matter which is not as energy dense. Briquettes still get plenty hot enough for at-home grilling though.
Which Last Longer, Briquettes or Lump Charcoal?
We already know that lump charcoal burns hotter, surely that’s a good thing for grilling? Burns hotter suggests we can use less fuel. Not quite. As lump charcoal is such an efficient burner, it reaches staggeringly high heats quickly, which means it burns through itself at a rapid pace.
This can be a challenge for grilling as temperature control can be tricky, start cooking too soon and the extreme heat will burn the outside. Wait too long and the heat will dissipate before your food is thoroughly cooked.
This is where the briquette’s compound makeup allows manufacturers to tweak their mix to enhance burn time or tweak smoke generation. As a result, briquettes can last substantially longer than lump charcoal. There is a trade-off though. They do not burn as hot meaning it can be trickier to get that nice sear on meat. They also can give off a synthetic smell and more ash when burning, some grill enthusiasts can find this unpleasant and would be a reason to steer clear.
The more predictable nature of briquettes alongside the ease of layering them means they are the preferred choice for most domestic BBQ chefs.
How do you Choose Between Lump Charcoal and Briquettes?
We reached out to the advice line of grill manufacturer Weber who directed us to some of their own particular hints and tips. They advised that picking between lump charcoal and briquettes really comes down to personal preference as there are pros and cons of both. As general guidance they suggested:
“A general tip would be …. if the food you are grilling needs medium to high heat and will be cooked within an hour, then lump charcoal is a good option. The foods you might want to grill that require a longer, medium to low sustained cook time of over an hour is better served with briquettes”
We also asked for a representative from Napoleon, a large producer of both charcoal and gas grills for their take on the lump charcoal versus briquette question. They advised:
“Grilling with a good quality lump charcoal can produce a fantastic flavor that can’t be matched by most briquettes….. if you are using briquettes it is important to buy the best quality version you can afford …….this will have less synthetic additives which can cause an unpleasant chemical smell when burning.”
What is the Most Effective way of Burning Lump Charcoal and Briquettes Together?
So, we have lump charcoal burning super hot but for a short time and we have briquettes which burn longer but don’t get as hot. It’s not a massive stretch of the imagination to consider if there is any way to create a fire which uses a combination of both fuels.
The good news is there is plenty of aficionados that have employed this approach and shared their learning. The consensus is that the trick to getting the best out of both fuels is to employ a layering technique rather than a random mixture.
Placing a layer of briquettes under a layer of lump charcoal promotes the initial super hot heat for searing your food, during which time the briquettes are lit from the burning lump charcoal. As the lump charcoal burns itself out, leaving only minimal ash, the briquettes provide that ongoing less intense heat to allow your food to cook fully through.
This can be tricky to master but potentially does offer up the best of both worlds.