Has this ever happened to you? It’s the weekend (or a holiday) and you decide to grill with your family and friends. You’ve got everything you need but the charcoal bag is a little too low. So you send someone to the store to get more. They go and return with some off-brand name. Fine, you say. Let’s get started. And after an hour (or more) of frustratingly dealing with the coals that were brought to you (and plenty of complaining from everyone else), you can finally get the show in the road. What gives?
If your experience has been anything like mine, then not only do you know what I’m talking about, but probably have your own war stories to tell! And what’s more, those experiences have probably taught you to stick with a specific brand of charcoal. Well that’s what my experiences have taught me.
Here’s what it boils down to – charcoal is the foundation of our outside cooking. That being said, as long as it lights up and stays hot long enough to cook our food, that’s all that matters. Right? Well…there’s a little more to it than that.
When it comes to serious grilling folks, this can be one helluva topic. It all boils down to whether a person prefers lump charcoal or briquettes. Trust me, if you delve into this debate you’ll come out not knowing which end is up. That’s what happened to me, and I’ve been grilling for years! So let’s take a quick look, shall we?
Briquettes are what’s most commonly thought of when the topic of charcoal is mentioned. This is what you’ll typically find in the grilling aisle of your local grocery/home improvement/dollar store. Normally, you will also need lighter fluid to ignite it. Briquettes can burn for a very long time (I just cover the grill and let them burn out overnight) and can satisfy all of your grilling needs. This is what gives your food that rich, smoky taste.
The beef with briquettes these days is that there are chemical additives (there are) to the product, and some complain of being able to taste the lighter fluid on their food afterwards [Comment: Personally, I have never had that complaint in all my years of grilling.] . It’s advantage is that it’s commonly available, and is easy to manage for cooks at all skill levels.
Lump charcoal on the other hand is the ancient fuel for the fire. With lump, you can usually expect to pay a little more, although nowadays, it is easy to find. Generally speaking, it’ll be right next to briquettes in the grilling aisle. Lump has several advantages, namely it tends to light faster (and doesn’t take lighter fluid — use newspaper), burns much hotter, and has far less ash left over. With lump, you’re going to get a wood flavored taste. Yes, it is delicious. I consider a lump charcoal grillmaster a serious dude, and not a Memorial day-4th of July type of cook.
On the negative side, lump does cost more; it’s a lifestyle preference for cuisine, and that always costs more. Also, lump burns really hot, but also burns out much faster than briquettes. Also lump charcoal are actually lumps of wood; some pieces will be fine, some will be like twigs. That takes some getting used to. Not to mention, wood sparks…and so does this stuff. If you’ve ever caught a spark on your arm from the campfire, then you know what I’m talking about.
I believe strongly in charcoal – there is no doubt. That’s true outdoor cooking everyday of the week. The interesting thing about being a charcoal person is that other grillmasters expect you to take a stand: are you a briquettes, or a lump man? Well, I’m here to tell ya that I’m a briquettes cook.
I have nothing against lump charcoal, but it’s not for me. My thing is that I enjoy the consistent performance of briquettes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been cooking and someone brought out one more thing for me to slap on the grill. With briquettes, it’s no problem. Also, I am working to perfect my craft in grilling, not charcoal. No offense, but for those of you starting out, stick with briquettes. Only after you’ve built some experience should you try lump charcoal.
And which brand is best? Honestly, I find that to be a matter of opinion too, but the best charcoal brands in each category are Kingsford for briquettes and Royal Oak for lump. Yes, they are the biggest brands, but the general consensus opinion is that each brand does the job.
But when all is said and done, experiment! Try different brands, so you know what you like. Because that’s what is most important. I will leave you with this; the point to all the fuss over charcoal is settling on a brand that you are comfortable with, and know how it performs. That is the key. As always, have fun grilling!