Choosing Charcoal and Wood for Your Smoker or Grill
You might own a propane-fueled smoker, or an electric smoker, and there's nothing wrong with those in a backyard context. But you'll still need to burn wood to achieve a smoky flavor, and typically, electric and gas smokers tend to be on the small side with not enough capacity to cook for a large group of people. If you're considering a smoker purchase, why not get one that burns charcoal and wood, the way nature intended meat to be smoked?
If you visit the legendary BBQ joints of the Carolinas and Texas, you'll find restaurants that cook in 100-year old brick pits fueled with split logs of whatever hardwood is locally abundant.
"Stickburners" require that you feed them a fresh log every hour or so to keep the temperature stable, a disadvantage for those who want a more hands-off approach.
The upside of using wood as the only fuel source is that you should get deeply smoky flavor in your meat; the downside of burning pure wood is inconsistency. Being a natural product, wood varies a great deal in moisture content, which means that a recently cut, "green" log will produce more smoke than heat. If it's a really green log, it might not burn at all, and in fact, might produce foul-tasting creosote in your smoker. Once that same log has been aged eight months, will produce more heat and burn faster.
In Orange County, the best resource for cooking woods is The Woodshed in Orange, which carries many flavors of wood. Oak, pecan, cherry and apple are great all-purpose smoking woods with a flavor suitable for most meats. For fish, a lighter-flavored smoke like alder might be more appropriate. For fans of heavy smoke flavor, hickory or mountain mahogany is hard to beat.
|Premium maple lump charcoal from Quebec|
Check out this video of an old-fashioned charcoal producer in Missouri to see how it's been done since before the Industrial Revolution.
Lump charcoal can be made from just about any hardwood suitable for cooking. Oak, maple and hickory lump charcoals are common in other parts of the country where those trees grow abundantly, but in Southern California, mesquite lump imported from Mexico is the most readily available and the cheapest type. Mesquite lump sparks and pops a great deal. Mesquite wood also has a very heavy, almost bitter flavor, so beware of large chunks that haven't fully carbonized.
Lump has the advantage of burning very hot. If you're grilling at high temperatures, such as searing a steak, this is a great choice. The disadvantage? Due to its naturally inconsistent sizing, burn times can also be inconsistent, which is a problem if you're cooking a pork shoulder for 12 hours. Sometimes lump will last the whole session. Other times, you'll need to refill your fuel.
Quality varies a great deal when buying lump charcoal, and if you're a fan, it pays to try several brands. The chunks can vary a great deal in size, from tiny chips all the way to logs the size of your thigh. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as premium lump charcoal, with more evenly sized pieces, and which has manufacturing debris screened out, such as metal wire, nails, stones, and who-knows-what-else.
The familiar blue bag of Kingsford briquettes was invented by Henry Ford. The notoriously cheap inventor wanted a way to use up the scrap wood from his Model A factory and invented a process to turn lump charcoal into a more industrial product. Grind up lump charcoal into a dust called "char," add chemical binders and water, press it into a mold under high heat and pressure, and voila! Briquettes!
Briquettes have the advantage of uniform shape and size. This translates to more consistent burn times compared to lump charcoal.
If you light briquettes in a chimney starter, you'll notice that thick grey smoke rises lazily for the first few minutes. That type of smoke is the sign of poor combustion, and it smells harshly of the volatile chemicals that aren't being burned off. Once the flames catch and the chimney is drawing air, the combustion runs cleaner, the smell goes away, the smoke is a stream of pale white. You want to wait until your briquettes are burning cleanly like this before you cook your food.
Pre-treated charcoal briquettes
Match Light. The bane of the grill. This type of briquette is treated with paraffin or other similar chemical that helps start the grill easier. This product is completely unnecessary if you own a chimney starter, and is not advised at all for use in a smoker, which keeps those nasty chemicals in touch with your longer than an open grill
Natural charcoal briquettes
If you dislike the chemicals used in briquettes, but want their more consistent burn performance, consider "natural" charcoal briquettes, such as Cowboy brand, and Kingsford's Competiton charcoal. Though Trader Joe's won't reveal their supplier, their house-brand natural charcoal is reputed to be made by Cowboy.
These natural briquettes are produced by mixing char with vegetable binders like cassava starch before forming them. In this writer's experience, the charcoal burns hotter than normal briquettes, and also burns out quicker. For grilling, that's ok. For long smoking sessions, that's not so great.
You may not know it, but when you're grilling bulgogi tableside at Tsuruahshi, the Fountain Valley yakiniku restaurant, you are cooking over extruded charcoal. Popular in Asia, extruded charcoal is made by forcing sawdust (coconut husks are a common fuel source in the tropics) at extremely high pressures through a die that forms them into a hollow cylinder that looks like nunchuk handles and sounds metallic when knocked together. The densely compacted sawdust is held together by the natural glue (lignin) in the wood cells that activated during extrusion. These are then carbonized into pure charcoal that burns hot and long due to its highly compacted density.
So there's a basic rundown on the types of charcoal available to us in our area. If you geek out on this sort thing, head over the Naked Whiz, a site that tests dozens of brands of charcoal with quasi-scientific results to compare which brands are best.
The author is an award-winning BBQ Pitmaster who teaches Smoking 101 classes. Details on professorsalt.com