Cooking with Lump Wood Charcoal or Charcoal Briquettes?
Barbecue – Cook with Lump Wood Charcoal or Charcoal Briquettes?
Since the author is considered an expert in the art of barbecue, he is often asked what type of charcoal or wood do I use? Not sure that I have the expertise to be considered the barbecue guru to folks, but this is a question that I can answer from experience.
Let us recap the difference between barbecuing and grilling. To the purist, barbecue is cooking ‘low and slow’. The ideal temperature for smoking is 225 to 250 degrees F. Now there are a few guys out there (most notably Myron Mixon with Jacks Old South BBQ team) that cooks high and fast with outstanding results. In fact at the time of this writing, I believe that Myron is tied for the most barbecue championships at Memphis in May with Chris Lily from Big Bob Gibson’s. Most guys still subscribe to cooking at the lower temps for the best barbecue.
Grilling on the other hand is done at much higher temps. A typical charcoal grill can run 350-450 degrees and a ceramic cooker (Big Green Egg) can go over 1000 degrees. This is great for cooking steaks, pork chops and burgers. In fact I still us an old Weber style charcoal grill for my quick cuts of meat. My gas grill has been needing a new burner for the better part of 18 months, but I have not reduced my outdoor cooking at all.
Charcoal briquettes (we all know Kingsford right) are great for cooking hot and fast. Typically briquettes light quicker and burn reasonably well. The burning gives off enough flavor to certainly be better than cooking in the oven or in a pan. Rarely do I use briquettes any longer, just because whether I truly taste it or not, I subconsciously taste chemicals. Briquettes use binders and fillers when pressed together to hold their form. The biggest drawback to using briquettes is the amount of ash that is left at the end of the cook. In my experience, the ash left is at least 5 to 1 when compared to using wood.
So that brings me to using wood to cook. Wood for cooking really comes in two forms. Actual wood logs or chops and what is referred to as hardwood lump charcoal. Large barbecue smokers can hold logs without any problems, but that is not feasible for smaller smokers or grills.
The best option is hardwood lump charcoal. This is where chunks of wood have been pre-burned and then cooled, then bagged for sale. What you have is real wood, but easy to start and burn. Hardwood lump charcoal gives off tons of smoke (as much or more than if you were burning whole logs), and it tends to burn for long periods of time (at the right temperature) and with consistent temps. One great advantage to using lump charcoal is the small amount of ash that is generated. Because there are no fillers, binders or chemicals, there is not much left at the end.
I recently ran my smoker for 5 days straight, and only used about 40 pounds of lump charcoal. At the end, there was less than a quart sized bowl of ash leftover. Using briquettes, I would have measured in gallons. This can especially be a problem with a smaller smoker. Too much ash buildup can limit the amount of air coming in and make it difficult to maintain consistent temperatures.
The great thing today is the high availability of lump charcoal. Almost any Wal-Mart or other large store carries hardwood lump. During peak grilling season, you can find it at home improvement centers like Home Depot or Lowes. The three most common brands found in Alabama are Royal Oak, Cowboy Lump and Rancher. I have had success using all three, but Royal Oak is the easiest to come by. If you are like myself, I tend to use my smoker year round and the availability during the winter can make it pretty scarce. I tend to stock up for the winter just before Halloween when the Holiday stuff starts taking up garden center space.
Please do not think that you need a smoker to cook with lump charcoal. It has been at least 10 years since I last used briquettes. I only use lump charcoal now, even in my charcoal grill when cooking burgers, steaks and the like. No lighter fluid necessary. To get lump charcoal started, the best bet is to search for a charcoal chimney. A little newspaper and a lighter is all you will need to get a great fire going.
Cooking with actual wood requires another article to be issued soon. For smoking, wood is the preferred energy source. In my smoker, I use lump to get a good fire going and supplement with wood logs. There are all types including oak, hickory, peach, apple and mesquite to name a few. I will go over each in detail in my next article including how to make your own lump charcoal if you are so inclined.