Let's start with the basics: the two most popular kinds of charcoal, which we are reviewing today, are lump charcoal and briquette charcoal. The first one we'll discuss is popular with the "purists" in the smoking community: lump charcoal.
The most notable thing about lump charcoal, which is why it's also sometimes called "hardwood charcoal" or "natural charcoal" is that it has no additives. It's made by a process of burning the charcoal in the absence of oxygen, so wood doesn't set into flames and burn to ashes. Instead, it heats up, dries, and becomes the charcoal that you see below. This process normally takes place within a giant concrete box. After the new charcoal is cooled and before it's bagged, it get's lifted with a heavy machinery, essentially an excavator, which will sometimes pick up the odd rock or block of broken concrete. So, if you see a rock in your charcoal bag, just know that it's normal and you can just toss it aside and get cookin'.
Another notable feature of natural hardwood lump charcoal (yes, sometimes people just smash all the names into one) is that the lumps won't be uniform. Some will be big, some small, and if you get our Big Boy Charcoal, they'll be EXTRA big.
Charcoal briquettes are made by mixing crushed charcoal and an adhesive compound, such as starch, limestone, or sodium nitrate. The ingredients are pressed together into a consistent shape. A premium charcoal briquette will use only starch as a binding agent and include no further additives.
Bonus Grilling Tip:
While we’re talking about charcoal, we should remind you to be careful with what you do with the coals at the end of your cook. It’s not quite as easy as just turning off the gas supply. Keep in mind that the charcoal embers will stay hot and glowing for quite some time after you’ve finished eating. If, for example, you were to dump some still-lit charcoal briquettes into a bin full of cardboard, you might have a problem on your hands. One way to safely handle charcoal is to cut off the air supply by closing all the vents in you're smoker.
So, how do charcoal and briquettes compare in the taste test?
Our customers seem to be split on whether they prefer lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes. Any briquettes that we sell use only completely natural products, such as starch to bind the briquettes together. We do not sell briquettes that contain chemicals or petroleum products. With that being said, the presence of a "bad" or "cheap" binding agent will change the taste of your food, sometimes adding an unfavourable "chemical" note to your meat.
Although the briquettes offer a more predictable and consistent heat output, while also lighting easier, lump charcoal will always be pure with no additives. The drawback of this, however, is that inconsistent shape in your charcoal also means inconsistent heat output. This means your food will have a much better natural smoky taste with lump charcoal, as long as you know what you're doing.
Now, what should you use?
This comes down to your own preference in tastes, cooking styles, and experience. If you enjoy an extremely long cook, but you don't have much experience with maintaining the heat and smoke levels, briquettes will do you justice (maybe even a pellet grill... just a thought...). But, if you are a seasoned backyard chef, you may find that the flavour you get with hardwood charcoal is the way to go.
There you have it, now you know which kind of charcoal to use in your next (or maybe even your first) cook. If you liked this article, subscribe to our Hotline Newsletter where you'll be the first to know about our grill tips, barbecue recipes, discounts and deals, and more! Also, upon sign up, you'll have the chance to win a prize every month. As of now, we're giving a brand new ThermoPop to one lucky subscriber every month. Could you be the next to win?
If you've gotten this far, you must really like charcoal. Keep reading to see just a few of the brands that we carry.
Our Popular Charcoal Brands
We carry a lot of charcoal brands. Some come and go from our selection, others are staples that we never run out of. These are our staples and most popular brands.
One of the best for a full natural flavour because it's an artisan blend from Argentinean trees. Big Boy is made up of 100% real trees, where as other brands may use scrap furniture or processed wood. Not Big Boy though, he's all natural and can last for up to 18 hours or reach searing hot temperatures for those quick cooks.
Buffalo Charcoal - Hickory, Oak, and Mesquite
This one's special. From zero to hero, Buffalo Charcoal has quickly become one of our most, if not the most, popular brands for their performance and taste alone. They may not have a big name brand behind them like others, but they sure do provide some great results. Their charcoal comes in three classic flavours, hickory, oak, and mesquite.
The Big Green Egg charcoal is a blend of 100% organic oak and hickory hardwoods from the good ol' US of A. With a mild smokiness this charcoal is versatile and can be used for a variety of foods without overpowering it.
A high burn temperature and a long burn time makes it an Egg-cellent choice for everything from burgers to brisket and everything in between.