Charcoal is one of the earliest technological achievements in human history. Making it involves burning wood to eliminate everything but pure carbon. Carbon burns hotter and more cleanly than wood, which makes charcoal arguably the best fuel for grilling food. There are different types of charcoal, each with its own pros and cons. Let’s take a look of three of the most popular options.
Lump charcoal consists of charred hardwood, This is the original type of charcoal. Lump charcoal can be made from different types of hardwood and the characteristics of the charcoal can vary depending on the type of wood used to make it.
Lump charcoal’s big benefit is heat. Lump charcoal releases considerably more heat than briquettes and its smoke comes from hardwoods that have not been adulterated in any way. Lump charcoal’s drawbacks include the fact that the pieces burn quickly and are more expensive when compared to briquettes.
The fact that lump charcoal produces such high temperatures makes it the best fuel source for grilling steaks. You can use it to sear the exterior quickly without overcooking the interior. On the other hand, lump charcoal is less effective for slow smoking where you will need stable, lower temperatures.
Charcoal briquettes consist of more than just charcoal. Along with charcoal, they can include ingredients like sawdust and sodium nitrate. Sodium nitrate makes them burn better. They may also contain starch as a binding agent. Some varieties of charcoal contain an accelerant to make them easy to light.
Charcoal burns more evenly and at a lower temperature than lump charcoal. The fact that all the pieces are the same size and shape enables them to provide consistent heat. They also produce more ash, which helps to insulate the coals and dampen their heat. This makes briquettes great for slow smoking and other applications that do not require searing heat. If you do need high temperatures for searing steaks, increasing the number of briquettes can deliver this. Another big benefit is the cost. Charcoal briquettes are much less expensive than lump charcoal.
The volume of ash is one of the downsides of briquettes. The use of binders and other ingredients significantly increases the amount of ash left after grilling. Note that briquettes that come coated with accelerant can give an unpleasant kerosene taste to food. If possible, you may want to opt for regular briquettes that require only a little more effort to light.
Binchotan is the type of charcoal traditionally used for Japanese yakitori grilling. It is actually a type of lump charcoal, but one with very different characteristics to the common forms used in the US and elsewhere.
Made from a specific type of oak called the ubame oak, binchotan burns clean and produces no unpleasant odors. While it is commonly believed that binchotan burns hotter than other types of charcoal, it actually burns at a lower temperature. Where it exceeds other types of charcoal is in the burning time. Binchotan can burn for up to five hours and can be extinguished and started again up to three times.
The downsides of binchotan include the cost, which can be high. The going rate for 10 oz of binchotan purchased online is about $30+ with shipping. The other main drawback is the difficulty of lighting it. Since binchotan is supposed to have a clean taste, you do not want to contaminate it by adding accelerants like lighter fluid. Instead, you can use methods like placing it into a chimney starter and placing that starter onto a gas burner. It can take as long as 30 minutes to start binchotan using this method.