Choosing Between Charcoal Briquettes and Lump Charcoal
In the foodie world – in which many campers reside, at least, some of the time – the battle rages between charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal as the fuel source of choice for grilling and barbecuing. Every backyard cook has his or her preference.
However, choosing one or the other isn’t the best way to look at this controversy. Both kinds of charcoal have their place. You just need to know which to use when.
What Is Charcoal?
Charcoal briquettes are manufactured by cutting scraps of hardwood into consistent shapes and sizes. They are then baked in a special oven until charred. The char is mixed with mineral char, mineral carbon, limestone, starch, borax, sodium nitrate, and sawdust. The mixture is then molded, packaged, and sold. None of these “additives” are reported to be harmful, nor to impart flavor to food as they burn away. (The knock against briquettes giving food cooked over them “off” flavor is really about “easy-start” briquettes that have lighting agents added to them through and through.)
Lump charcoal is small pieces of hardwood baked in exactly the same way, but without any additional ingredients or shaping. The individual size and shape of pieces of lump charcoal vary pretty significantly, even in the same bag.
Briquettes Vs. Lumps
Because they are “made,” charcoal briquettes are more consistent, piece to piece. They burn more evenly and at a lower rate and at a lower temperature. You definitely want to use briquettes for any purpose where you’ll be cooking for a longer period of time – say, more than 45 minutes. If you’re Dutch Oven cooking, using briquettes is down to a science for both temperature and cooking duration. Briquettes are a good, standard, all-around choice.
Lump charcoal burns hotter and faster than briquettes. There are times that’s exactly what you want – like when searing a steak, or grilling in frigid winter temps when it can be difficult to get the grill up to the temp you need for searing. However, because it burns hotter, lump charcoal also burns faster. Lump is already significantly more expensive pound for pound, so with it burning faster, you’ll really notice the price difference if you grill a lot. However, if you use a super efficient porcelain grill, you can stretch the lump further. If “no additives” is important to you, lump is the only way to go.
No matter which you choose, stay away from lighter fluids. Use either a starter chimney or direct light with a blowtorch like the Bernzomatic Campfire Torch. That way there’s nothing there to flavor your food in a way you don’t want.