If you are a BBQ enthusiast, you know that one of the greatest debates among charcoal users is if lump charcoal or briquettes are better for grilling/smoking. Those who are new to this community may have problems deciding which one to choose and may not even know the differences between the two.
Wood charcoal is made by heating wood in the absence of oxygen. During this process, volatile compounds like water, methane, and tar are vaporized into the air. As a result the wood is forced to decompose into a variety of substances, but mainly elemental carbon.
Due to the high carbon content, charcoal has more potential energy than the wood itself. The heat that the charcoal produces can burn hotter and cleaner than seasoned wood.
This charcoal is then made into two distinct forms: lump and briquette.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at both lump charcoal and briquettes as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Lump charcoal is commonly used by BBQ enthusiasts because it’s deemed to be the more natural option. It’s essentially wood that is burned or charred that goes through a carbonisation process.
Lump charcoal is manufactured from pieces of wood from saw mills, lumber scraps, or unprocessed limbs and branches. This wood is then heated in a closed environment like a kiln that features low levels of oxygen. The lack of oxygen ensures that the wood doesn’t ignite and burn away to ashes.
Here’s a video by KETC that goes over charcoal production:
One of the biggest concerns related to lump charcoal is the wood used to make it. For instance, unprocessed wood like limbs, branches, and scraps from a saw mill aren’t tainted by anything.
Where-as scraps from flooring could contain chemicals from the stain or finish. If you discover distinct flooring scraps, they are likely from unfinished wood, however it’s best to contact the company. A great resource for this is The Naked Whiz which breaks down lump charcoal brands.
Lump Charcoal Pros:
- Natural (no additives)
- Doesn’t produce a lot of ash
- Able to reach higher temperatures
- Responds well to oxygen and vent adjustment
- Lights easy
Lump Charcoal Cons:
- It’s more expensive than briquette
- Less versatile due to lack of uniformity
- Results in inconsistent temperatures which affects cook time.
- Sizes ranging from half inch to 5 inches.
- Burns faster, meaning you’ll be adding more throughout a long cook
- Every piece may not be fully carbonized
Lump charcoal is very effective when you need high heat like for searing steaks or grilling chicken wings. It can burn as hot as 1400°F which is far hotter than briquettes can get.
On the other hand, it’s not great for longer cooks where consistent low’n’slow temperatures are required. For instance, smoking a pork butt for 8 hours.
Lighting the Lumps
Self-lighting charcoal does exist but you’ll want to avoid it, as well as using lighter fluid (even the odorless ones). The main reasons is because of the chemical aftertaste and solvent odor.
You can allow ample time for it to burn off but you can’t really fully eliminate the taste/odor.
You’ll want to use all-natural lump charcoal. Meaning no additives, or chemicals.
Avoid using a chemical starter like a lighter fluid. A charcoal chimney is more cost effective and actively works as a measuring cup.
Briquettes are made from a combination of several materials including leftover wood particles/mineral char and sawdust. Once the materials are mixed, they are pressed together to create one briquette.
It is not uncommon for chemical additives to be included in this mixture. These additives help the briquette take shape. They also help make them light easier and control the burn rate.
Common additives include:
- Limestone – Light-ash color
- Starch – Binds ingredients
- Borax – Helps to release from the mold
- Sodium nitrate – Aids in ignition
While these chemical additives do exist, more people are cognizant of them. All natural options made from hardwoods with a cornstarch binder are readily available. However, they come at a price.
Briquettes also burn at around 800°F. Unlike lump charcoal, their burn rate is much slower. Due to their uniform shape, they are also more consistent and can hold temperatures well.
- Manufactured for consistency. Both in terms of burn rate and shape.
- Relatively cheap
- Can contain additives used for binding and igniting purposes.
- Take longer to ignite
- More ash byproduct due to less wood.
Self-igniting briquette bags are also in abundance. The briquettes are usually coated with chemicals such as lighter fluid that manufacturers claim help the briquettes light up easier and faster.
As noted above, you’ll want to avoid these options because of the possibility for taste and odor taint.
Lump Charcoal or Briquettes?
The type and quality of charcoal that you use will play a role in not only the price you pay, but other factors like rate of burn, ash production, and even the food you cook.
However, not everything you hear in regards to lump and briquette is true. Some people swear by one fuel source and have a bias. While others will buy whatever is natural and on-sale.
Let’s look closer at some of some of these concepts.
Charcoal is Fueled by Air
Regardless of shape, oxygen is what feeds fire. This is how Pitmasters regulate temperature, by opening and closing their vents.
Open vents allow more airflow and result in a hotter pit. Closed vents allow less air and result in a cooler fire.
This concept is completely independent of fuel type.
The way you arrange your coals also matters and will affect how hot the pit can be. As we mentioned, pit temp can be regulated by airflow. This airflow can also be stifled by charcoal byproduct like ash, powder, and other residue. These can block airflow and make your fire colder.
There are also various fire configurations that can provide direct and indirect heat via zones on your grill. This affects the heat that is delivered to the food.
Direct works by providing the food radiant and conductive heat. Indirect works by providing the food convection heat, similar to an oven.
Again, this concept is independent of fuel type.
The Grill Type
The type of grill that you use typically doesn’t matter and won’t affect your fuel options.
However, kamado grills are smaller and don’t feature a lot of space for charcoal ash. If there is excess ash it can block airflow and choke the fire.
Ceramic grill manufacturers typically recommend using lump charcoal because it produces less ash. However briquettes can work as well provided that they’re all-natural. Briquettes with additives can increase ash production.
As you can see, there are some distinct differences between lump charcoal and briquettes. However, your choice between the two really comes down to what you’re cooking. Traditionally, lump-charcoal burns hotter and faster. Briquettes are best suited for longer cooks and burn more uniformly.
With that said, most professional barbecue teams tend to stick with whatever the sponsor provides or whatever is cheapest.
It’s important to remember that charcoal is used as a fuel and wood is used for flavor. Stick to all-natural charcoal and avoid additives.