For anyone into smoking, grilling, and all things barbecue, the idea that there are multiple types of charcoal is nothing short of thrilling.
Charcoal is a totally authentic way to cook and grill meats, veggies, etc. Nothing beats the incredible smoky taste that comes from cooking with charcoal. It’s a whole experience that screams summer and good times.
So, what more can we learn about charcoal? Here’s what you need to know about the different types of charcoal available on the market.
Beyond the types of charcoal out there, this post will discuss the pros and cons of each type so you can make a confident decision when trying one out. If you’ve been using traditional charcoal for a while, this might be your sign to try something new.
Table of Contents
5 Types of Charcoal
As far as grilling, smoking, and barbecuing is concerned, charcoal briquettes are the OG fuel choice. They are synonymous with a smoky backyard and golden-crusted steaks.
Here are the five varieties or types of charcoal out there on the market, as well as their impact on flavor, their pros, cons, and their ideal uses. Let’s go!
Hardwood Lump Charcoal
Description: This charcoal type is made from chunks of natural hardwood, typically oak, hickory, maple, or cherry. It is produced by burning wood in the absence of oxygen, leaving behind pure charcoal chunks without any additives or binders.
Flavor Impact: Hardwood lump charcoal imparts a natural, smoky flavor to the food, allowing the authentic taste of the relevant hardwood to shine through. It adds a subtle, smoky sweetness to meats and vegetables.
- It lights quickly.
- It reaches high temperatures fast.
- It burns cleaner than briquettes.
- It contains no fillers or chemicals, making it a more natural option.
- Lump charcoal tends to be more expensive than briquettes.
- The chunk sizes may vary, affecting cooking consistency.
- It also burns faster, requiring more frequent refueling during long cooking sessions.
When to Use:
- Hardwood lump charcoal is ideal for grilling and searing at high temperatures.
- Its purity makes it suitable for cooking delicate foods where you want a really bold flavor.
Description: Briquettes are one of the most common types of charcoal. They are created from a mixture (most often) of pulverized charcoal, coal, starch as a binder, and other additives. They are compressed into uniform pillow-shaped briquettes. Check out the different materials that can be used to make briquettes.
Flavor Impacts: Briquettes can produce a consistent and reliable heat but don’t offer the same level of natural smoky flavor as hardwood lump charcoal.
- They are cost-effective.
- They are widely available.
- Due to their uniform shape and composition, they burn more slowly and steadily, providing a longer cooking time.
- Some briquettes contain additives like sawdust or chemicals, which may affect the food’s taste and quality.
- The presence of fillers can leave more ash residue.
When to Use:
- Briquettes are ideal for most grilling and smoking needs, especially for long cooking times and indirect cooking.
- They work well when you need a steady and prolonged heat source.
Description: Binchotan is a traditional Japanese charcoal made from oak, chestnut, or other dense woods. It undergoes a specialized process, burning at a very high temperature and then cooling quickly in a moist mixture of ash, earth, and sand.
Binchotan charcoal looks like wood that it was made with – it has a natural wood or branch look to it. It’s also super hard; if you tap it, it sounds like metal!
Flavor Impacts: Binchotan charcoal burns cleanly, with minimal smoke and odor. It imparts a mild, slightly sweet flavor to the food, allowing the natural ingredients to stand out rather than a smoky flavor.
- Binchotan charcoal burns incredibly hot
- It maintains high temperatures for an extended period.
- It’s also loved for its low ash production.
- It is relatively expensive in the US
- You might struggle to find it as it’s not as readily available as other types of charcoal.
When to Use:
Binchotan charcoal is best for grilling high-quality, delicate ingredients like:
- Premium steaks
- Seafood items
- Any ingredient where a subtle and clean heat source is desired.
Coconut Shell Charcoal
Description: Coconut shell charcoal is made from the shells of coconuts. These shells are a which are a by-product of coconut production. If that’s what you’re after, it is a sustainable and eco-friendly option!
Flavor Impacts: Coconut shell charcoal offers a mild, slightly sweet, and nutty flavor to the food, enhancing the natural tastes of the ingredients.
- It is environmentally friendly, as it makes use of a waste product.
- Coconut charcoal also burns hotter and longer than many other types of charcoal.
- Coconut charcoal can be more expensive than traditional briquettes.
- Their availability may vary depending on where you’re based.
When to Use:
- Great for grilling a wide variety of foods, especially those that benefit from a sweeter, nuttier flavor profile.
Description: Sawdust briquettes are created by compressing sawdust and wood scraps without any additional binders or additives. They are often used as a sustainable alternative to traditional briquettes.
Flavor Impacts: Sawdust briquettes produce a mild, balanced, smoky flavor that complements various dishes.
- They are eco-friendly, utilizing wood waste.
- They offer a consistent burn with lower ash production.
- Sawdust briquettes might not be as readily available as other charcoal types
- They can be more expensive.
When to Use:
- Sawdust briquettes are suitable for everyday grilling needs, especially when seeking a greener and cleaner option.
Charcoal Types Comparison Chart
Each charcoal type brings unique flavor, benefits, and drawbacks to the grilling experience. When selecting the right charcoal for your cooking needs, consider the specific tastes you want to impart, cooking techniques, budget, and environmental concerns.
Understanding these differences will elevate your grilling process and allow you to perfectly tailor your kitchen creations.
For easy access, here is a summary of the pros, cons, and other elements.
|Type of Charcoal||Description||Flavor Impacts||Pros||Cons|
|Hardwood Lump Charcoal||Made from real hardwood chunks without additives.||Natural, smoky flavor, subtle sweetness.||Lights quickly, reaches high temps fast.||More expensive, variable chunk sizes, burns faster, requiring frequent refueling.|
|Briquettes||Made from pulverized charcoal, coal, & binders.||Consistent heat, may lack strong smokiness.||Cost-effective, widely available.||Additives may affect taste, leaves more ash residue.|
|Binchotan Charcoal||Traditional Japanese charcoal from dense woods.||Clean burn, mild, slightly sweet flavor.||Burns hot, maintains high temps long.||Relatively expensive, availability may vary.|
|Coconut Shell Charcoal||Made from coconut shells, sustainable & eco-friendly.||Mild, slightly sweet, nutty flavor.||Environmentally friendly, long burn time.||Can be more expensive, availability may vary.|
|Sawdust Briquettes||Created from compressed sawdust & wood scraps.||Mild, balanced smoky flavor.||Eco-friendly, consistent burn.||May not be readily available, can be more expensive|
What is Charcoal?
Charcoal is a fuel source used for all different purposes, dating back to ancient civilizations.
It is typically used for cooking, heating, and industrial processes. On a smaller scale, it is also used in art, medicine, purification, wellness, and the beauty industry.
In terms of grilling, barbecuing, smoking, etc, charcoal is an efficient fuel source that works through combustion and heat transfer to cook food.
Here’s how this works:
- Combustion: When charcoal is lit, it undergoes combustion. Here, the carbon in the charcoal reacts with oxygen from the air to produce heat. This process is not complete combustion, as it happens without oxygen. The result is the formation of carbon dioxide and other volatile gases.
- Heat transfer: As the charcoal burns, it radiates heat outward, heating the surrounding air in the cooking chamber. The heat then transfers to the surface of the food through radiation and convection.
- Direct heat grilling: In direct heat grilling, the food is placed directly above the burning charcoal. The intense heat from the charcoal sears the food’s surface, creating grill marks and a crust.
- Indirect heat grilling/smoking: For indirect heat grilling or smoking, the charcoal is placed on one side of the cooking chamber, and the food is placed on the other side. The heat circulates around the food, cooking it slowly and evenly, while the smoke from the charcoal imparts a smoky flavor to the dish.
- Temperature control: The temperature of the cooking surface can be controlled by adjusting the airflow to the charcoal. More airflow increases the heat while reducing airflow lowers the temperature.
Charcoal can soar to really high temperatures, which is what makes it ideal for searing meats and getting the perfect crust on steaks. It also provides some cooking versatility as it offers indirect and direct heat.
Yes, believe it or not, making homemade charcoal is possible. It’s made using a simple process known as pyrolysis (sounds intense).
Pyrolysis involves heating organic matter and materials like wood, coconut shells, etc., without oxygen. The process causes them to break down and release water, tar, and gases.
This process (because it is in the absence of oxygen) prevents combustion. The result is a kind of pure carbon, which is the charcoal.
Wrapping it up
So, there it is. There are different types of charcoal out there for you to try. If you love trying new ways to cook, grill, smoke, etc., we hope you’ll play around with the various types of charcoal available.
What are the types of charcoal?
There are 5 main types of BBQ charcoal: hardwood lump charcoal, briquettes, binchotan, coconut shell, and sawdust briquettes.
What is charcoal made from?
Charcoal used for grilling can be made from a vary of wood products such as natural hardwoods, coconut shells, and even sawdust.