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.
But then you have to think about what kind of charcoal you want to use. First, you have to decide what you need from your charcoal: Are you looking to sear over high heat and get that charred flavor? Or, are you looking for a longer, slower cook? Then you have to ask yourself whether or not you want to create a more intense smoky flavor in the food that you’re grilling. If you do want that extra smoky flavor, what equipment do you have to help you get it?
Don’t worry if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Here’s an outline of the various ways you can fuel your charcoal grill.
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.
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.
Once you burn off some of the unpleasant additives, briquettes are definitely the easier way to go due to the fact that they burn at a consistent temperature for a longer period of time. When we do use briquettes, we tend to use Kingsford. Kingsford also has natural hardwood briquettes, which try to balance the pros of both lump and briquettes. They won’t burn for quite as long as those chemical-y briquettes, but they still perform and make less of a mess if you’re lighting them in a chimney starter (which you should to avoid using lighter fluid).
If you’re looking to emulate the great pitmasters and bring out that smoky flavor in a long, slow cook using an offset smoker, a kamado grill, or even just a regular old Weber kettle, the best lump charcoal or briquettes are not going to be enough. You’ll need to add wood to your fire. Wood is typically used in addition to charcoal, not in place of it, simply because it is both expensive and labor-intensive to maintain an all-wood fire for as long as you’d need. There are two wood main options to choose from: hardwood chunks and wood chips.
As the name suggests these are larger pieces of wood that you can pitch right on top of your lit charcoal. You can find bags from well-known grill brands like Weber and Big Green Egg at hardware stores, but high-quality wood is also available online from companies like Smoak and Cutting Edge. If you’re just starting to use wood in your cooking, start off with two or three pieces per chimney of charcoal. Adding more than that can create more smoke than you may want on your food, so start small and go up as you see fit.
Smaller and more versatile than chunks, wood chips can also add nice smoky flavor. The big advantage of chips over chunks is that you can use them in any kind of cooker—simply add a layer of wood chips over the top of your hot charcoal, or, if you have a gas or electric grill, add the chips to a smoker box, put it on the hot grate and wait until you see smoke to add your food. However, while you can use wood chips with all sorts of grilling equipment, if you have an offset smoker or ceramic grill that can easily accommodate larger pieces of wood, chunks will provide better results.
When it comes to using wood chips, there’s a great debate about whether or not to soak them in water first. In the opinion of chefs and barbecue professionals we trust, the soaking doesn’t make much of a difference. Soaking the chips gives the appearance of generating more smoke, but what you’re actually seeing is more steam. This steam can have its own benefits, depending on what you’re smoking. It generates more moisture, which can help offset the drying effect of the smoke and temperature. This can be useful for keeping sausage casings from drying out too much, for example. Generally speaking, we don’t recommend soaking wood chips. If you’re concerned about the meat drying out, use a water pan on the grill grate and spray the meat every once in a while with apple cider vinegar or water.