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Choosing Charcoal and Wood for Your Smoker or Grill

Smoking pits
ProfessorSalt.com
The brick pits at Kreuz Market Lockhart, Texas
There's nothing wrong with propane grills, but if you ask a barbecue purist, only charcoal or hardwood will do to impart a deeply smoky flavor to your food. This week on Grill Marks, we take a look at the fuels needed to cook real slow-and-low barbecue.

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?

Wood
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.

Post oak logs
ProfessorSalt.com
Post oak, the wood of choice in Texas Hill Country
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.

Lump charcoal

lumpcharcoal.jpg
ProfessorSalt.com
Premium maple lump charcoal from Quebec
Large wood scraps turned into nearly pure carbon by burning it in a reduced-air environment is called lump charcoal. If left to burn in the open, wood burns down to ashes, but  by using a charcoal kiln, hardwood scraps from the lumber mill can be turned into a fuel that burns cleaner and at a more consistent temperature than wood.

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.

Charcoal briquettes

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.

Extruded charcoal
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.

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The author is an award-winning BBQ Pitmaster who teaches Smoking 101 classes. Details on professorsalt.com 


My Voice Nation Help
27 comments
Dana Myers
Dana Myers

TJ's charcoal is not historically Cowboy; I'm surprised you heard this (I thought everyone knew it's actually relabeled Rancher).  Also, I regularly use and prefer TJ's charcoal in long WSM cooks under Stoker control; when properly managed at lower temperatures, it has a very long burn time on a single load.  Cheers!

Charcoal Smokers
Charcoal Smokers

Hi,

I would like to appreciate your article because i found that it's very useful & helpful for those guys who wanna know about the same, I would like to read more in future!

Charcoal Smokers 

Scooter44
Scooter44

Henry Ford did not invent charcoal briquettes. That honor goes to Ellsworth BA Zwoyer. Ford liked to steal ideas, but he couldn't steal Zwoyer's patent! Just Google Zwoyer, briquettes for the true story.

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

Sonofabitch Henry Ford!

You're right! There's patents for a "coal dirt" briquette as far back as 1895 by a William P. Taggart. Patent # US0D0024313. The 1897 Zwoyer patent US0D0027483 also describes a  "lump of fuel" but doesn't specify what it's made of or how.Kingsford's site says, "since the 1920s, when Henry Ford learned of a process for turning wood scraps from the production of Model T's into charcoal briquets," but doesn't claim  he invented it. Thanks for the correction!

Riley
Riley

I found the original ATK article comparing lump to briquette, and this is what it said:

What's the Hottest Charcoal? Conventional wisdom dictates that hardwood (or "lump") charcoal flames up fast and furious, while charcoal briquettes burn low and slow. For that reason, most of the outdoor-cooking guides in our library (including our own) recommend briquettes for barbecue (cooking ribs and briskets) and hardwood for quick, direct-heat grilling (cooking burgers, steaks, and chops). Two dozen grilling gurus couldn't be wrong, right? We headed to the test kitchen's back alley to find out.

We filled 6-quart chimneys with either hardwood charcoal or briquettes. Just before lighting the match, we outfitted the cooking grate with seven thermocouples -- wire probes that feed temperature data to an attached console -- and set about recording heat levels at five-minute intervals. We ran the tests a dozen times and then analyzed our data.

The results were startling. In every test, the briquettes burned as hot, or hotter, than the hardwood. In the grilling tests, the fires produce nearly identical heat for about 30 minutes-enough time for most quick grilling tasks. From there on, the hardwood coals quickly turn into piles of ash, while the briquettes slowly lost heat.

As we've always contested, slow-cooking a pork shoulder for eight hours would be a high-maintenance affair with hardwood. Our briquettes took nearly three hours to fall below the 250 degree mark; in that time we'd have to refuel the hardwood fire twice. The slow, steady descent of the briquettes is perfect for this job.

So what about our old assumptions? Hardwood is, in fact, the hotter-burning charcoal, at least when comparing charcoal pound for pound. But most outdoor cooks measure out charcoal by volume (filling a chimney), and a 6-quart chimneyful of briquettes weighs more than twice as much as the same volume of hardwood.

And briquettes are cheaper: Filling a chimney with lump charcoal costs about $2 compared with just $1.37 for briquettes.

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

Thanks for finding the article and typing it (?) all up. I tried googling it and came up empty.

I've got a problem with this test. First - this chimney starter scenario only tests a full-bore, high-airflow scenario designed to reach maximum fire temperature, and the test is a too oversimplified for my taste, despite the quasi-scientific method used.

For example, if the lump tested was filled with tiny pieces and dust that packed together tightly, then the airflow within the chimney is going to be blocked relative to the evenly sized briquette. No mention of this aspect of the natural lump charcoal was made.

They didn't discuss the air gaps within the piles of fuel, but I'm certain it's a factor in the burn rate. Dumping a batch of fuel into a chimney without accounting for the variables like the size of fuel pieces and the volume of air fed throughout the test are inconclusive. To me, repeating a flawed test 12 times doesn't prove anything.

Blacksmiths have used charcoal in their forges for how many centuries? Their forges reach in excess of 1100 degrees because they blow air through the coal bed. Blacksmiths know that airflow within a fire is the difference between a fire hot enough to sear steaks with, and a fire hot enough to forge steel with, and that's not reflected in ATK's tests at all.

Riley
Riley

Does lump charcoal really burn hotter than something like briquettes?

I remember America's Test Kitchen examined this once, where they compared the temperature given off by both and found no difference.

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

I'm curious to see how they tested: open grill vs. closed smoker. Two totally different circumstances for the same fuel.

I think it does burn hotter. When I use lump in my smoker (closed vessel that I don't open much), it runs hotter given the same airflow settings on the vents.

That's hardly a scientific basis. My guess is the root cause isn't the material itself that makes the difference. A single piece of lump vs. a single briquette of the same mass is probably going to have a similar thermal energy potential. I wonder if that's what America's Test Kitchen meant?

But when you dump a pile of lump charcoal and a pile of briquettes out of their respective bags, what you'll notice is how the lump heaps up with a lot more air gaps between pieces because of their inherently inconsistent shape and size.

My guess is that the air flow within the pile of lump is greater, which is why it burns hotter. If someone wants to give me a bunch of grant money to study it, I'll be happy to test the theory.

Mr Salty
Mr Salty

 I have a Primo Komodo ceramic egg type made in USA. I use only lump charcoal, either Cowboy or Big Green Egg, whichever I can find. Mesquite is okay once in a while but has too much of that mesquite flavor for most real BBQ. 

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

I used to be a big fan of lump until I ran into the poorly carbonized mesquite lump problem. Just like you say, the uncarbonized mesquite wood tends to produce acrid smoke. Not a problem when you're grilling uncovered. In a smoker, that's bad.

Being an owner of a Komodo Kamado, I know the ceramics are low-airflow cookers. Ceramics don't draw much air, nor does it exhaust spent smoke as quickly as other types of cooker. That's usually a plus because it also keeps moisture inside the vessel longer. Perhaps a kamado's inherent smoke retention exacerbates the acrid mesquite problem? Just guessing here.

On the other hand, one of California's top BBQ teams of all time (Brent and Kim Walton of QN4U) uses Best of the West brand of mesquite lump and they've won a lot over the decades. The proof is in the blind judging.

Hottrodcummins
Hottrodcummins

Gas is for stoves, wood is for BBQing

DanGarion
DanGarion

No one is talking about gas here.

Hottrodcummins
Hottrodcummins

If you read the first part of the story it does talk about gas

DanGarion
DanGarion

Ugly Drum Smokers for the win...  But anyway, I wish we had some better lump suppliers here in SoCal.  I've only tried a couple, but just about everything here is mesquite or crap (Best of the West, Cowboy).

Rampant Corruption
Rampant Corruption

Dan,

I have been using Royal Oak lump from Wal Mart.  It is $6.37 per 10lb bag.  Some of the pieces get kind of small, but it does the trick and it does not spark or have an acrid taste like mesquite.  In my opinion, Cowboy is nasty, and mesquite should only be used as a smoke wood when you want some really strong smoke flavor.

I have also heard of people ordering quantities of lump like Wicked Good.  I have not done this because you have to order a lot and the price is still about $20 for a 20lb bag.  Not good math when you realize that RO makes some of the premium lump and puts it in designer bags for more than twice the price.

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

I'm building two UDS's this week for next week's contest. Which reminds me, I have to write a post about the OC BBQ Festival!

Rampant Corruption
Rampant Corruption

I would love to get some info about the OC BBQ Festival!  I have not heard of it before.  I thought I was one of the few in OC who took the time to smoke my own meat.  I will be on the lookout for your post. 

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

OC BBQ Festival post is going up this afternoon!

EDIT: My detailed post will go live Monday. In the meantime, quenforkids.com

DanGarion
DanGarion

Where did you get your drums from?  I got my welds done last night from a friend of a friend, my charcoal box is huge, I decided to make it 18" high, and it's 18" diameter.

DanGarion
DanGarion

This is for OCddot.

The specific type of build is called UDS or Ugly Drum Smoker, I pretty much followed this guideline [http://www.grillingcompanion.c... but I've read hundreds of forum posts and blog posts on the subject. Here is the mother of all forum topics on it.http://www.bbq-brethren.com/forum/sho...

Here are a couple more I used for help and assistance.http://riverwalkerssurvivalgea...

http://www.bbqbug.com/forums/g...

http://bbqpitbuilders.blogspot...

http://www.cbbqa.org/wiki/inde...

ocddot
ocddot

Is there a website that shows how to make your own smoker?

DanGarion
DanGarion

I'm not planning on filling it to 18".  I used the same grate.  If you need expanded metal let me know, I have a lot left from the 4x8 sheet I bought.

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

18" high charcoal basket is way tall and more capacity than you'll ever need. Might not leave you enough height between it and your lowest food grate = possibly, burned food. I have one with a 12" height, and it's way too big. I'm going with 8" high basket this time. I'm using a 18.5" Weber charcoal grate as the base.

I got drums from a friend with a neighbor who knows a guy, who.... Very convoluted and not likely to get repeated. But at least the drums are in excellent condition and not beat to hell.

Rampant Corruption
Rampant Corruption

Good basic information on charcoal and smoke woods.  The Woodshed is a great place.  I bought 20lbs of apple wood from them that turned out to be more like 30lbs.  I need to get back over there.  They also have citrus woods that are nice for smoking.

The Naked Wiz site is great.  All you ever wanted to know about lump charcoal.  The best part is that he does not get all excited about the premium lump.  If you can find cheap stuff that is good, go for it.  Personally, I buy inexpensive lump at Wally World.  It works great on my BGE.  I can get a load of lump to last for an entire 12 - 18 hour cook like I did a few weeks ago with some nice pork butt.

Anyway, it is great to see that there are BBQ enthusiasts here in the O.C.  I just wish we had a really good place to go for equipment.  Thanks for the article.  I will be looking for more in the future.

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

Thanks Rampant. We'll talk about a couple of equipment vendors in a future piece.

Ceramic cookers like a Big Green Egg are very fuel-efficient. They tend not to burn as much fuel to maintain temperature as a metal cooker, so it doesn't suprise me that you can easily get 12 hours on a load of lump. If you have a leaky metal smoker with years of hard living like I do, then it burns more fuel for sure.

dru
dru

great info, i just bought a weber smoky mountain and can't wait to take what i've learned and blog about it http://dirtysmoke.blogspot.com...

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

You'll love the WSM. It's a great smoker for the backyard as well as for competition. Build quality is solid, and you'll get years of use out of it.

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