Charcoal and Wood Chips for Grilling
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One of the most critical questions facing any griller is what fuel source to use for their cook. If you’re looking for ease and convenience, there’s no shame in using a gas grill (see our review of the best gas grills here). But if you have the time and energy, and if you really prefer that smoky flavor, there is no substitute for the best charcoal.Charcoal
There are two types of charcoal available: lump and briquette. We tend to be lump enthusiasts because, broadly, it’s a cleaner and more natural charcoal product, but both have their place. Here’s a breakdown of what goes into each one and when you’d want to use them.
Lump charcoal is made of hardwood charred in a kiln. The charcoal comes in irregular shapes and sizes that look like what they are: chunks of charred wood. They can come in various types of hardwood, including oak, hickory, mesquite, maple, or beech—or they can simply be labeled as generic hardwood. Lump charcoal burns cleanly and starts out very hot. The temperature drops off pretty quickly after the initial burn, and the burn time in general is somewhat short, which means for long cooking or smoking times, you’ll need to add more charcoal as you go. Since lump charcoal burns so cleanly, you can add it directly to your grill without creating an unpleasant taste. Lump charcoal is ideal for quicker grilling—things like turkey burgers, sausages, fish, chicken, and most vegetables.
Briquettes are made from a combination of wood scraps, saw dust, fillers and binders, and various chemical additives. These are the evenly shaped black pillows you’ve seen at the hardware store. Unlike lump charcoal, these burn at a consistent temperature for a long time, which is nice when you’re going for a long cook time. The problem is, when the briquettes first burn, they give off a nasty tasting smoke because of the various chemical additives. If you decide to use briquettes, just remember that if you need to add more charcoal to your grill throughout your smoking, you should start the briquettes separately so your food doesn’t get exposed to the any chemical taste in the initial smoke released. Briquettes work well for quicker grilling but are excellent for those longer grill and smoke sessions: for things like whole chickens, pork shoulders, ribs and any kind of smoking.
What is the best charcoal?
We prefer to use lump hardwood charcoal. It gets started fast, doesn’t give off a bad tasting smoke, and burns at a high temperature. It’s a personal preference, of course, but we find it easier to deal with the somewhat irregular quality (in terms of shape, size, and temperature) and the shorter burn time than have lots of added chemicals in the fire and smoke.
In terms of the type of lump charcoal, there’s no need to get caught up in what kind of hardwood it comes from: Generic hardwood lump charcoal like Cowboy or Royal Oak works great. If you’re willing to spend a little more, you can get quebracho charcoal from brands like Jealous Devil, made from denser wood that will burn longer.