I’m leaning on my cousin, Tim, to help me with this discussion. There are a lot of details, pros & cons, and considerations to factor in. Tim, in particular, has spent significant time experimenting with all natural charcoal, which I have not. Anyway, on with the debate…
There are many choices of charcoal to choose from. I’m going to focus on the two areas that are the primary differentiators amongst all of the brands and styles:
Type of charcoal – lump vs. briquette
Make of charcoal – all natural vs. those that are not
Briquette charcoal (Briq’s) is the standard charcoal that everyone has grown up knowing. Good ‘ol Kingsford. Briq’s are made from partially burned wood (wood char), mixed with a binding agent, and compressed into a square briquette that’s uniform in shape. Its form leads to a longer and more controlled burn – perfect for smoking and easy for grilling.
Lump charcoal is not uniform in shape, and is comprised of chunks (or lumps) of partially burned wood ready to be lit for your pit. There is no binding agent as it is not compressed but, rather, left in it’s true form. That form leads to hotter and faster burns. I personally am not a fan of lump charcoal. In my opinion, it burns entirely too hot to maintain a low temperature necessary for a slow cook in a smoker. Also, the non-uniform shape causes uneven burns, with significant fluctuations (or spikes) in temperature, making it more difficult for both smoking and direct grilling. Finally, with its non-uniform shape, you lose a lot of coals via falling through the grates of your chimney during lighting as well as falling through your charcoal grates in your cookers/grills.
I have seen this charcoal successful in cookers that require very little fuel, such as a Green Egg, but not anywhere else. The only real positive of lump charcoal is the speed with which it lights, matched with its intense heat that it brings. Many competitors keep one bag of lump charcoal on them at all times for emergencies when they need a fast high heat fix to their fires. That is the only use I can see for this type of coal (again, unless you’re using an Egg). Many will disagree, but I have had zero positive results with it.
All Natural vs. Not. First of all, all charcoal is made with real wood, which is all natural, so don’t get concerned about buying a charcoal that does not say “all natural” and wonder whether or not you’re cooking with real wood. What is not “all natural” is the binding agent used when making compressed briq’s in some charcoal brands. Because there is no binding agent in lump charcoal, this is a non-issue, so all lump charcoal is “all natural”. The standard binding agent used for briq’s is chemically based, which many consider to be unhealthy for you in the long run and others think adds a negative flavor profile to the meat. This is not a health blog so I’m not going to get into the science (which I don’t know to begin with) about whether or not the chemical binding agent is unhealthy. All I will say is that in moderation it can’t be terrible for you, as the same can and should be said for all BBQ.
As for the negative effect on meat flavor – I have been BBQ’ing for a long time and I have never tasted a negative flavor profile using a briq that has a chemical binding agent. If you’ve ever tasted a negative flavor I’m betting it was lighter fluid. There are many great BBQ competition teams out there that have won awards cooking with charcoal containing chemical binding agents (we are one of them).
There are charcoal briq’s made with all natural binding agents (all natural starches I believe are what’s used). These briq’s have the same shape as those chemically bound, but they burn a bit hotter and quicker. Those are both negatives when slow smoking, and as such, if you are using an all natural briq in a smoker, you should use less coal and open more airflow (more on that below). Kingsford Competition briq’s are an example of one, though they don’t list the types of woods used – just wood char.
All natural briq’s definitely have an edge when grilling for two reasons. First, when I am grilling it’s usually with direct heat and I want a hot fire. You can get a hotter fire with less coals using all natural briq’s than using those with a chemical binding agent. In my experience the competition/natural briq’s burn at least 100 degrees hotter. Because direct grilling is generally a quick process, the shorter burn life of the all natural briq is usually not an issue. Second, I grill way more often than I slow smoke. As such, the “in moderation” rule starts to apply for me here. I feel more comfortable from a health perspective grilling on a regular basis knowing I’m using the all natural briq’s.
The largest advantage of an all natural briq is it usually discloses the exact wood that’s used to make it. The others do not and, basically, we have no idea what wood’s in there. That is definitely important when you’re smoking. As someone once said to me, would you rather the base of your fire be comprised of coal made from Oak, or Douglas Fir? Easy answer. I personally like using an all natural briq that’s made from just Oak and Hickory (Chef’s Delight). It adds a nice flavor profile when combined with fruit woods in all of the meats that I cook. A Kingsford won’t add a negative profile (in my opinion) but it’s definitely not adding anything either.
The largest disadvantage of all natural is two fold (from my experience):
- It takes a lot more air to light. This is important when using the minion method in a smoker where you start with a small bunch of lit coal and they slowly light the unlit briq’s. You need to have your vents and dampers open more in your cookers to ensure the all natural briq’s light than you do for a Kingsford coal. More airflow means a hotter burn, so you need to offset the added heat with less fuel in your cooker.
- Shorter burn. Sitting in a Weber, side by side, a Kingsford briq will significantly outlast an all natural briq – I would guess by a good 60 – 90 minutes. So, shorter burn life, mixed with more airflow for a hotter burn (see #1) above, equals a much shorter burn period in your smoker.
(If I added a 3rd disadvantage it would be that they aren’t as readily available in every store like the Kingsford briq’s are, and when you find them, they’re usually more expensive)
So, to summarize, here’s what I use based on my cooking situation, and my favorite brands:
- Slow smoking:
- First Choice: Chef’s Delight all natural briquettes because it gives me the flavor profile I love. This charcoal does require a little more fire management than a Kingsford briq. You also don’t get the extended burn time a Kingsford briq offers.
- Overnight: Kingsford briquettes: If I’m doing a long cook that’s going to last overnight, I go with Kingsford instead of an all natural. Kingsford lights much easier than an all natural, and burns much longer, so I can choke down the damper and walk away knowing the Kingsford will cook for 8 or so hours untouched.
- Grilling, indirect heat: Chef’s Delight.
- Direct Grilling (or a combination of direct and indirect): Chef’s Delight.
But there is no right or wrong choice here. You need to experiment with different types and makes and decide what is best for you, your grill, your smoker, your tastes.
Agree? Disagree? Think I’m way off base? Give me your thoughts…I’d love to hear some other opinions.