Grilling with charcoal is a true test for any seasoned griller. From lighting and adjusting coals to regulating airflow and controlling flare-ups, it can be an exciting challenge with some seriously great tasting rewards. But even before you ignite your charcoal to get grilling, there's one very important question to ask: What type of charcoal should I use?
BENEFIT: Lights quickly and produces aromatic smoke that reflects the variety of wood used to make it.
Today, the process of making lump charcoal typically begins by stacking wood logs in underground pits and covering them with sheet metal and dirt. The logs are lit at one end of the pile and the wood smoulders for a few days.
During this time, the oxygen-starved fire burns off the water, sap and other volatile substances in the wood. What's left is almost pure carbon, also known as char or lump charcoal.
Grilling over a lump charcoal fire is a dynamic experience. Lump charcoal gets hot pretty quickly, usually in 10 or 15 minutes. Its intense heat can sear food in seconds, browning the surface and scenting it with pure wood smoke aromas. In many cases, the smokiness emanates from one kind of wood only, such as mesquite or oak.
The downside? Once a lump charcoal fire gets to its hottest point, it begins to lose heat rather quickly. In many cases, the temperatures will fall from high heat to medium heat in less than 30 minutes.
So if you want to maintain a certain temperature range for cooking, the fire needs replenishing. Fortunately, lump charcoal lights and heats so quickly that you can get a burst of heat within 5–10 minutes of adding additional unlit coals.
BENEFIT: Achieves a longer, more consistent burn than lump charcoal, with less woodsy smoke.
Standard charcoal briquettes are the most commonly available briquettes on the market. They are compressed bundles of ground charcoal and materials such as clay, limestone, and cornstarch binders. While they don’t produce quite as much heat as lump charcoal or hardwood charcoal, these briquettes do very well at holding a steady temperature. In fact, they often burn longer than hardwood briquettes. Add some wood chips or chunks to the smouldering briquettes and you’re all set to smoke a first class low and slow meal.
Their major benefit is their evenness of size and shape. With briquettes, it is relatively easy to create a smooth bed of coals, whereas the irregular shapes and sizes of lump charcoal can leave "holes" in the fire.
Most recipes have specific instructions using charcoal briquettes, so if you're using lump charcoal, you'll need to estimate the appropriate amount. Lucky for Weber users, our grills have dampers that give us complete temperature control, so this discrepancy is less of an issue.
In the end, choosing your charcoal fuel source is really a matter of preference. There is no right or wrong answer—the fuel source truly depends on you as a griller.
One tip we can offer up is to use lump charcoal when grilling less than 1 hour since most of the foods will call for a medium to high direct heat. For anything over an hour use charcoal briquettes because they produce a longer and more even heat source, which is better when grilling for extended periods of time.