Good charcoal to a barbecuer is as fundamental as having the right flour to a baker or using fresh herbs to a chef. Charcoal should be considered as an ingredient because it adds flavour to your food and it makes barbecuing easier by providing a regular and easily controlled temperature.
I am always being asked which is better for a BBQ – lump-wood charcoal or briquettes. I grew up in South Africa where lump wood was the only option so it was only when I came to the UK that I discovered an alternative. Since living in the UK I have owned Weber BBQ’s, Napoleons, Big Green Eggs, Primo, several Kamado Joes as well as a number of own brands bought from garden centres etc (which have not survived). I have tried a lot of brands of briquettes and lump charcoal and the best option is, very simply, lump wood charcoal.
What is the difference between briquettes and lump charcoal ?
Charcoal briquettes are produced from sawdust or other wood by-products and mixing in additives such as nitrates, clays and binders and other additives. Briquettes is a recipe in itself and it is difficult to know from brand to brand what additives they are adding. They leave a lot of ash, take more time to get alight (which is why lighting chimneys were invented) and burn quicker. They also add no woody flavour, they are a heat source rather than an added ingredient. I have seen warnings on bags of briquettes saying “do not add ash to composts” – so its OK to cook on but not to add the ash to a compost. Worrying…
Lump Charcoal is made by burning wood in the absence of oxygen, lump charcoal can be bigger than my hand and it looks and feels like burned pieces of wood. Lump is the most natural form of charcoal and it burns slower and hotter, produces a lot less ash, easier to control its temperature and burns with a woody flavour so automatically adding a smoking flavour to your food.
Where can you buy Lump Charcoal ?
You can source local lump charcoal but I have yet to find a local supplier that can produce large charcoal pieces. Large pieces are important because small lump charcoal can clog up the BBQs air vents and temperature control can become temperamental. The biggest supplier in this country is Big K but Big Green Egg and Weber also supply lump charcoal – with very different price tags. Weber’s lump charcoal is new to the UK and has a great flavour but is expensive. Booker and Macro are also big stockists.
What is Restaurant Grade Lump Charcoal?
Anything with the word ‘restaurant’ will always cost a bit more – usually it indicates larger pieces of charcoal. A restaurant needs to cook for a longer time with consistent temperatures so indicates better quality.
I have used a lot of Big K ‘ Top Quality Restaurant Charcoal’ and find the flavour is consistent and comes with big lumps and very little dust. Price is reasonable with a big distribution network in the UK as well as doing home delivery.
I also use Direct Charcoal restaurant grade but they only supply by the pallet – so if you can store a pallet the price per kilo is unbeatable.
There is a fantastic website in the US that tests all the different lump charcoal brands but we simply don’t get the variety and choice in the UK .. not yet : http://www.nakedwhiz.com/lump.htm
Why do people use Gas BBQs ?
Most people, I talk to, turned to a Gas BBQ because of the painful experiences of charcoal and its inherent “unreliability” – taking too long to light; charcoal only lasting a short time; difficulty in lighting. Shame because it doesn’t have to be that hard as using lump charcoal is the answer to all these problems.
Which charcoal to use with Ceramic BBQs?
Because of the nature of ceramic barbecuing – only use lump charcoal. It will mean you can BBQ easily for hours and hours with ease and add a natural woody flavour. Once you have finished with your ceramic, you close the lid and vents and put the lump charcoal out. On your next cooking session all you have to do is stir the charcoal to remove the ash and re-light. Lump Charcoal turns out to be more economical to use, in the long run, than briquettes.
….and Metal BBQs or Smokers ?
If you are cooking just sausages once a year then briquettes will do. But any serious outdoor cook will need to use lump charcoal and, once used, will never go back to briquettes.
What do you think?
There is always a conversation going on somewhere in outdoor cooking forums about briquettes and lump charcoal and everyone has an opinion – which is good because it should be discussed and debated. However, we should all be sharing views on the quality and price of lump charcoal and especially asking why Garden Centres remove their lump charcoal during the winter months making it difficult to find.