Lump charcoal vs briquettes is one of the most heated debates in the barbecue world. Everybody defends their opinions with passion and fire. For a beginner griller, that can be frustrating and overwhelming.
However, there are some basics of charcoal that you should know in order to pick the right one for your situation. In this article, I’ll walk you through those. I’ll start with an overview of charcoal, followed by the details of lump charcoal and briquettes respectively.
I’ll then show you which one is better for what occasion. After that, I’ll list a few alternatives to both types of charcoal that you might want to consider.
An Overview Of Charcoal
What Is Charcoal?
Wood is largely cellulose, which is a carbohydrate or polymerized glucose. Glucose consists of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. In other words, wood contains carbon and H20. Besides that, wood also has other organic compounds such as methane, tars, oils, resins, etc.
The first thing happens when heating up wood is drying. Even if we season or let it dry out for several months beforehand, wood always retains some level of moisture.
After the moisture evaporates, the heat works its way through the internal structure of the wood, breaking down its cell walls and releasing even more water and subsequently other compounds. These pass off as vapor into the air and what we know as smoke.
As the temperature continues to go up, more smoke is released, eventually burning the wood into ash. Now, if we limit, then cut off, the oxygen available to feed the fire, that will slow down the combustion. And if the fire stops at the right time, it will completely dry the wood and leave us with what remains instead, which is highly flammable carbon or charcoal.
The process described above is pyrolysis. Simply put, charcoal is a product of the pyrolysis of wood or burning/carbonizing it in an oxygen-controlled environment. This process removes other components of wood and saves only carbon in the end.
Charcoal has the shape of the wood it once was. It is more brittle and lighter than its predecessor, maybe about ⅓ of the weight. It also makes a ‘tink’ sound when two pieces hit one another.
There are no more water and volatile gasses, which require energy to burn, in charcoal compared to wood. As a result, charcoal generates a hotter and cleaner fire than wood. Compared to propane, charcoal produces a better Maillard Effect when searing steak. It’s due to charcoal burning at a higher temperature with more concentrated heat.
There are two types of charcoal – lump and briquettes. Lump is wood that has been transformed into charcoal. Whereas briquettes consist of ground lump charcoal plus other additives such as borax and limestone.
Did You Know? Briquettes were actually popularized by Henry Ford. It was a way for his company, Ford Motors, to rid of all the leftover woods and sawdust from the Model-T assembly line.
What they did was to crush the woods to sawdust and carbonize the combining sawdust into ground charcoal. They then compressed it with other industrial by-products into these pillow-shaped incendiary bricks or briquettes. They advertised briquettes (or briquets as an Americanized version) as a camping fuel so consumers could take it with their car for weekend getaways.
After Ford Motors started making cars with steel, they sold this subsidiary charcoal company, Ford Charcoal, and it eventually became Kingsford Charcoal. To this day, Kingsford briquettes are still the best-selling charcoal throughout North America.
Now, briquettes are cheaper to produce. They are everywhere and less expensive to purchase, especially during holiday sales. Therefore, briquettes are a more popular product than lump charcoal.
However, lump is making a comeback in recent years. That is due to the kamado grill as well as the rise of the organic and healthy living movement.
There are many brands of charcoal, both briquettes and lump, on the market. Bigger price tag and more popular name don’t always mean better quality. It’s worth testing out different brands to see which ones are the best. Reading blogs like this one also helps. 🙂
In the US, about 80% of charcoal is produced in Missouri with all the timbers coming from the Mark Twain National Forest. On a global scale, the US is only responsible for 2% of the production. The rest are from South America, Eastern Europe, and China. In China, charcoal is considered more of an industrial than grilling product.
Type Of Wood
We now know that charcoal comes from wood. But does the type of wood matter at all? Let’s find out in this section.
There are two types of wood – hardwood and softwood. You might think that the way to differentiate between the two is based on their hardness vs softness. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The difference lies in their seeds. Hardwoods have seeds with covering, meaning a fruit or a shell. Whereas softwoods have uncovered seeds. Another aspect to pay attention to is through their leaves. Softwood trees remain evergreen year-round while hardwood trees shed their leaves every year.
With that said, it is true that MOST hardwoods are indeed harder and denser than MOST softwoods. Charcoal made from hardwoods (hickory, oak, etc.) usually generates higher heat output than softwood charcoal (pine, fir, etc.). Hardwood charcoal also burns longer with less ash content and smoke.
Speaking of smoke, a perfect charcoal burn rarely gives off any, meaning that charcoal doesn’t have any flavor at all. Only wood does. But oftentimes, you do get some smoke coming out of your charcoal.
That is because the center part of them hasn’t been burned down completely. What’s still left there is wood. Hence some pieces of charcoal feel heavy and don’t break that easily.
Why is this important to our discussion about the type of wood for charcoal? Because softwoods tend to have a higher amount of resin than hardwoods. When burned, it could impart a bitter taste to your foods and make you ill.
Not all charcoal is made through a full carbonization of its original wood. That’s usually the case in many commercial bags of charcoal. So if you end up with softwood charcoal with wood left in the middle, you might have to deal with that extra resin. That’s why pitmasters, who cook with wood such as Jeff Phillips, always recommend hardwoods rather than softwoods.
The last note is about charcoal made from woods used for construction, such as railroad ties and flooring scraps. These can be either hardwoods or softwoods but they might be treated with varnishes or preservatives.
In a nutshell, it’s best to stay away from charcoal that comes from softwoods or woods coated with chemicals. Hardwood charcoal that comes from unprocessed, natural sources such as coppicing and forest thinning is the way to go.
How Do They Make Charcoal?
Back then, people made charcoal by burning wood in simple kilns covered with mud and soil. This is still the preferred method in South America due to the native culture and traditions. In other parts of the world, such as China or Eastern Europe, manufacturers use complicated systems of retorts to produce charcoal with great efficiency and precision.
In the US, folks make charcoal mostly through the Missouri kilns since charcoal is big in the state. Though you also can find traces of charcoal making in some western states. The prime example is the Wildrose charcoal kilns located in Death Valley, California. These structures are about 25 feet high and have the shape of a beehive.
To begin the process of making charcoal, US manufacturers would first collect their wood. Some use only unprocessed and raw tree wood while most use that in addition to other wood scraps.
After that, they would burn the combining wood in the Missouri kilns for a couple of days at around 1500F. It is to purify the wood. Manufacturers then slowly shut off the oxygen to prevent the wood from burning all up. What is left is lump charcoal.
This is called the kiln or batch method. Its first downside is the emission coming from burning wood. Local authorities strictly regulate this. They require manufacturers to install expensive smoke burners to clean the air. Otherwise, they will impose a heavy fine. The second downside of this method is the long wait time, usually a week, until the lump cools down.
After the lump is ready, anything less than an inch will be ground into charcoal fines and sold to other companies to make briquettes. Manufacturers also collect charcoal dust resulting from the handling and transportation of lump charcoal. The dust has a lower purity than the lump. It may have sand, clay, and fragments of wood bark that it picked up from the ground.
Here is a quick video showing how Big Green Egg lump is made in Missouri kilns:
Not many manufacturers produce briquettes via the kiln method due to unfavorable economics. Instead, they rely on the continuous or retort method.
To make the retorting process more efficient, wood scraps would be crushed into sawdust first before going through pyrolysis. That will cut down the cooking and cooling time due to sawdust having more surface area than wood. Moreover, the gases released during pyrolysis will be used as fuel to operate parts of the system. Talk about being cost-effective!
After the sawdust becomes charcoal fines, manufacturers would then mix them with other additives and binders to produce charcoal briquettes.
You can now see why lump charcoal is more expensive than charcoal briquettes. The process of making it requires more effort and expenses, not to mention the yields are considerably lower as a result of that. However, lump is the purest form of charcoal. Nothing but wood.
On the other hand, briquettes beat lump by volume and price due to their efficient and effective production. Though they contain many adulterants that reduce their overall quality.
Regulations and Environmental Issues
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strictly regulate the charcoal making process in the US. Manufacturers can’t just come in any forest and clear cut the wood. They have to buy the leftover wood through sawmills and the like.
As stated, the EPA and DNR will issue a penalty if they see any white smoke coming off of any charcoal kilns. Besides that, US manufacturers also have to pay a decent wage to their workers and a whole host of other things.
That being said, there are no international standards in regulating charcoal making outside of the US. For example, there are no governing bodies similar to the EPA and DNR in South America. The labor is cheap. And people can just go in and clear cut the wood for free.
Deforestation is a problem down there. Fortunately, many companies, who source their wood from South America, work with organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council to ensure their charcoal comes from protected forests.
Naked Whiz, a well-known advocate of lump charcoal, addressed the environmental issue here. If this is one of your concerns, it might be worth a read.
Other Charcoal Uses
Besides being used as a grilling fuel, charcoal also has other uses, usually in fines or powder form.
Charcoal can be used to retain moisture and nutrients for your garden soil, making it more tillable. In the gardening community, they call it biochar. It’s really popular in Europe while not yet in North America.
Another usage is to help with animals’ digestion. Charcoal will calm their stomach and absorb all the toxins, which in turn makes better fertilizers. People also use charcoal to smelt metals for thousands of years. Furthermore, you can draw and make arts with it. Or whiten your teeth.
Charcoal is truly an all-purpose material.
What Is Hardwood Lump Charcoal?
Charcoal is lump and lump is charcoal. It also has other names such as charwood, hardwood lump, charcoal lumpwood or lump charcoal.
Lump essentially comes from wood. A commercial bag of lump could have more than one species of wood. Sometimes you do find single wood species bags of lump. Though those can be expensive and harder to find, depending on where you’re from in the US. That’s another reason why lump is more costly than briquettes on average.
A commercial bag of lump could also have different sizes and shapes of lump. A few large chunks to some medium-sized pieces with the rest is charcoal dust. This makes the burn time inconsistent compared to charcoal briquettes.
This inconsistency also makes it hard to use a chimney starter. Bigger pieces are difficult to fit in the chimney while the smaller ones fall through the grate. However, a bag of lump is generally lighter than a bag of briquettes because there is more air in it due to the irregular shapes. Besides, lump is light-weight by nature.
Lump is also brittle. Therefore, rough handling at the store will break apart the lump which in turn creates more charcoal dust and pebble-sized pieces. In addition to that, you sometimes find odd items such as rocks or bricks in a bag. It’s because of the failure to sort and screen at the factory.
Nevertheless, lump can burn up to 1200F or more though that varies from piece to piece. That’s due to its porosity, meaning that everything inside a piece of lump will ignite altogether once lit. If you choose lighter fluid to light lump, its porosity however makes it a sponge where lump absorbs all the fluid. You can’t get rid of it even if you let it burn out.
Debunked? Does lump actually burn hotter than briquettes?
It’s a NO according to Professor Greg Blonder from Amazingribs.com. He argues that “hotter depends on how the coals are arranged. Because of their irregular shapes, they can nestle together like puzzle pieces and impair airflow which can reduce heat.”
A bag of lump might have a lot of charcoal dust and small pieces. They can block the airflow which in turn reduces the heat output of the charcoal pile. Keep in mind the three elements a fire needs: heat – fuel – oxygen. In this case, oxygen is as crucial as charcoal.
Personally, I always find lump to burn hotter than briquettes. It’s maybe from the fact that lump tends to burn faster so faster means hotter. But I might be wrong here. I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Being all-natural, lump also burns cleaner than charcoal briquettes. It leaves less ash due to the absence of binders or additives. Another great thing about lump is that it’s reusable. Simply dust off any ash, light the leftover lump, and you’re ready to cook again.
Some lump can give off smoke flavor which can be a plus. As I mentioned earlier, not all lump charcoal is fully carbonized in reality. That leaves out a bit of wood for extra flavor. However, you can’t control these flavors. It varies from brand to brand and bag to bag from the same brand.
Moreover, you also don’t know what species of wood it is. If it’s oak or hickory, that’s fine because it’s the traditional American BBQ flavor. But if it’s the denser wood like quebracho, you might not like the taste at all.
All in all, lump is the prime steak of the charcoal world. Though it’s all-natural and has many unique qualities, it’s expensive and inconsistent. Therefore, it’s great for grilling or cooking hot and fast. You can still barbecue with lump but that requires extra babysitting and lots of lump charcoal.
- All-natural, 100% free from additives
- Burn hot (up to 1200F or more)
- Burn cleaner
- Low ash content
- Smoke flavor though it can be a hit or miss
- Great for grilling
- Inconsistent (shape, size, burn time, wood species)
- More expensive
- Harder to find in some regions
- More charcoal dust due to brittleness and some odd items
- Not recommended for low n slow but doable
- Absorb lighter fluid and can’t burn it off
What Are Charcoal Briquettes?
Whenever people mention charcoal, they instantly think of charcoal briquettes. The marketing has been done so well that the image of these small, flammable charcoal bricks has firmly fixed in people’s mind. Even though lump is coming back, briquettes are still a powerhouse in the charcoal business.
While lump screams inconsistency, briquettes whisper uniformity. They are consistent from bag to bag in terms of heat output and size. A single briquette usually burns at 50F while it varies from one piece of lump to another. You can stack 80 briquettes in a Weber chimney whereas it depends for lump charcoal.
Unlike lump, briquettes burn longer. It’s due to the fact that they burn outside in, meaning that the fire ignites the outer layer of the briquettes first before working its way to the core. That drastically increases the burn time which makes briquettes great for smoking low n slow.
Did You Know? Because briquettes burn from the outside in, it’s OK to use lighter fluid to ignite them. Only the outer layer of briquettes absorbs the fluid. As you let the outer layer burn off, the fluid is gone with it as well.
Although I never recommend using lighter fluid on this website, it’s up to you to use lighter fluid or not. After all, starting charcoal with lighter fluid was a popular method in the past.
In regards to availability, briquettes are everywhere. You can find them in most hardware stores across the US. And due to their efficient production, briquettes cost less than lump charcoal.
That being said, briquettes take longer to light. They aren’t reusable once you burn off the starch binder. They leave more ash and they don’t produce any BBQ smoky flavor, except for a harsh off-taste which is a concern for many grillers.
So where does this odd flavor come from?
Well, keep in mind that briquettes are a mixture of charcoal fines, binders, and additives. We already know where the charcoal fines come from. The binders are usually starch and sometimes clay. The additives can be anthracite coal, sodium nitrate, limestone, and borax.
The starch and clay are there to bind the charcoal fines since it can’t hold a solid form due to the lack of plasticity. Other additives serve the purpose of enhancing combustion and extending burn time.
When these extra ingredients ignite, they might give off acrid smoke. That’s why conventional wisdom tells us to wait until briquettes turn grey ash before cooking. But is that really true?
Remember that briquettes burn outside in. So even if you wait until they are ready, the core isn’t burned yet. You’re still going to get that smoke.
I personally never taste that in my food. Though I do smell it in my clothes since I sometimes stand there watching the briquettes igniting.
If you’re still skeptical of the off-taste, there are many all-natural briquettes on the market. They use nothing but wood charcoal fines and vegetable starch.
Besides the traditional and all-natural briquettes, there are also flavored and instant-light ones. Flavored briquettes have some wood shavings mixed in. They produce a smoky flavor but, similar to lump, it’s difficult to control it.
Instant-light briquettes have lighter fluid infused. I generally stay away from this type of briquettes. They do light fast but I just don’t like lighter fluid.
To sum up, briquettes are the hot dogs of the charcoal industry. They’re convenient, cheap, and consistent. You know what you’re getting every time you cook. Therefore, it’s a great choice for barbecuing as well as grilling. I’d highly recommend it for cooks of any level, especially beginners.
- Uniform in size and shape
- Consistent from bag to bag
- Burn longer
- Readily available
- Great for smoking and grilling
- Have many types on the market
- Surprisingly, can’t get away with lighter fluid
- Take longer to light
- Not reusable
- Leave more ash
- Acrid smoke from extra additives
Which Is Better Lump Charcoal Or Briquettes?
Now that we have a good idea of the differences between lump charcoal vs briquettes, which one to pick? It boils down to what you’re planning to cook.
If you want a steak dinner after a long day at work, go with lump. It will start up quickly so you don’t waste any time waiting. Create an indirect heat two-zone fire. Bake the steak on one side.
Once it’s ready, throw it on the other side, which is scorching hot, to get a nice reverse sear. After a few minutes, put it on your plate along with your potatoes, some vegetables, and dinner is served. Better yet, the lump ash is minimal so there isn’t much cleaning up to do.
On the other hand, if you have a whole weekend for yourself and crave some St. Louis ribs, it’s time to bring out the briquettes. Set up a low n slow method like the Minion. Don’t forget your rub, smoking woods, and sauces.
The briquettes will burn for hours on end until them ribs are juicy. Running out of briquettes mid-cook? No problemo! The closest Home Depot will surely stock the tried and true Kingsford Blue for just a few bucks.
Sometimes, you can even combine lump charcoal and briquettes for the best of both worlds. High temperature with a consistent heat output that keeps the fire going for a long time.
For example, you’re smoking a brisket using the Snake method. If you want to cook through the barbecue stall without wrapping the meat, you can put extra lump on the second half of the briquettes train. By doing so, the internal temp of your grill will soar as the fire reaches that point. The burning lump produces intense heat to help the meat push through, while the glowing briquettes provide a steady heat base until the end of the cook.
Whatever you choose, keep in mind that you should stick to one type of charcoal for a while. Master it then move on to other brands or the other type of charcoal. Experiment and, most importantly, have fun!
Now, if you’re still unsure of which one to choose, maybe because of the briquettes’ chemical smell or the expensive price tag of the lump, there are actually some alternatives that you might want to explore.
Can You Make Your Own Charcoal?
The first and most obvious way is to make your own charcoal. You control the ingredients. You control the cost if you can get the wood for free.
A few drawbacks though. You need time and space. You also have to watch out for your neighbors. In addition to that, your local authority has to allow outdoor fires. If your backyard has some tree wood, you can get those to make charcoal. Otherwise, you have to buy wood from somebody else which can be a nuisance sometimes.
If you end up choosing this route, please be cautious. Brad from Big Family Homestead has a great video on making charcoal DIY. He briefly talks about biochar as well. Enjoy!
Binchotan Or White Charcoal
The next alternative is Japanese Binchotan or white charcoal. Binchotan comes from Ubame Kashi oak which is harder than the regular one. It’s also challenging to gather this type of wood since they only grow in rugged areas.
Binchotan is made the same way as any regular lump charcoal. However, the Japanese add an extra step, which is called Seiren or refining, where they slowly increase the airflow instead of snuffing it out. As a result, that makes the charcoal denser and retains more carbon than regular charcoal.
The last step of this whole process is to cover Binchotan with white powder of sand and ash to cool it down. That’s why it has the name white charcoal. At the end, what we have is a charcoal that is slow to ignite but burns clean, long, and at a consistent temp.
Binchotan is costly, sometimes more than high quality lump. It’s not easy to purchase but some local dealers might stock it.
Another alternative is coconut charcoal. This is a great substitute for charcoal briquettes. Popular in many Asian countries, this type of charcoal is made from old coconut husks. Manufacturers blend the coconut charcoal fines with natural tapioca binders. Then they extrude the mixture into these hexagon-shaped briquettes.
Here is a video of how this charcoal is made.
Coconut charcoal is free of chemical additives. It burns clean with a sweet smell. It also produces a low amount of ash, except for the low-quality ones.
The drawback of this charcoal is that its supply is inconsistent in North America. Most decent coconut charcoal, like Komodo Kamado, is shipped from Asia so the shipping can be expensive. Though the price of coconut charcoal is cheaper than most lump. The best way to save is to buy in group and split the cost.
Pok Pok Thaan Charcoal
The last alternative is also from Asia, particularly Thailand. The Pok Pok Thaan (Thaan means charcoal in Thai) charcoal is owned by Andy Ricker, who is the chef at Pok Pok restaurants based in Portland, Oregon.
This charcoal is made from rambutan fruit wood with no chemical additives. Besides that, it’s also dense which makes it longer to light. However, it boasts long burning at consistent heat with low ash and smoke.
Unlike coconut charcoal, Pok Pok Thaan is readily available here in North America, either on their website or Amazon. It is quite affordable as well.
Or Just Use Wood?
Every now and then, you just want to get back to basics. Before charcoal, wood was the only thing that our ancestors used to cook. These days, there are still renowned pitmasters, like Aaron Franklin, who only cook with wood. But can an amateur backyard cook do the same?
It depends. There are indeed some challenges cooking with wood for us regular guys and gals. First of all, your neighborhood or building complex might not allow you to store and burn wood. Doing so can pose as a fire hazard and nobody wants that.
Secondly, your grill/smoker might not be able to burn wood efficiently or have enough space to do it. You also need to have some experience cooking with wood. Freshly cut or green wood will take forever to burn properly. Whereas wood that is too dried will burn down too quickly.
Another challenge is that wood might not be available where you live. It’s also expensive and a hassle to ship across the country.
So to sum it up, cooking with wood requires great effort, experience, and expense for an amateur BBQer. I’d recommend leaving that to the professionals. You’re better off using charcoal or even smoking pellets in a pellet grill.
That being said, if you insist on trying, that’d still be entirely possible. Thing is, you need to find the wood first. You can start by asking your neighbors, friends, and family. Craigslist and Facebook groups are the next in line. Last but not least, just stop and ask whenever you see any random piles of wood. Don’t forget to make sure that they’re hardwoods.
Before I wrap this up, this is a video of Aaron Franklin himself talking about barbecue wood.
Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes – Let’s End This Debate!
I hope that you find the article useful. I certainly enjoyed the process of researching and writing it. Down below is a quick comparison table of the main differences between lump charcoal vs briquettes.
|Wood Source||Tree wood & other wood scraps.||Sawdust & crushed wood scraps.|
|Burn Temp||1200F and up, depending on size.||50F for a single briquette.|
|Temp Control||Easier to adjust.||Easier to maintain.|
|Ease Of Lighting||Quick||Slow|
|Ease Of Stacking||Hard||Easy|
|Size & Shape||Inconsistent||Uniform|
|Smoke Flavor||Good but uncontrollable.||Acrid & unpleasant.|
|Cooking Method||Mostly grilling. Sometimes smoking but needs experience.||Grilling & Smoking.|
|Availability||Harder to find in some regions.||Readily available everywhere.|
|Get Away With Lighter Fluid?||No||Yes|
So which type of charcoal you normally use in your everyday cooking? Leave me a comment and also don’t forget to share this article.