You need to think carefully about what fuel is best for your charcoal grill because the fuel you choose can make a big difference to the quality of your BBQ results and the enjoyment of your family and guests.
The three fuel options are charcoal lumps, briquettes, and wood. In this article, we’ll point out the advantages and disadvantages of each and provide you with tips on getting good results whichever fuel you choose.
Charcoal has a long history. It’s been manufactured worldwide for thousands of years and is still the only fuel that many barbecue enthusiasts would choose for their best charcoal grill.
You probably know that charcoal is manufactured by combusting charcoal very slowly in a limited supply of oxygen, but you may not know too much about what goes on whilst it is being formed. All the moisture and chemical compounds in the wood are driven off, and at the end of the manufacturing process, you’re left with a very pure form of carbon.
When good quality carbon lumps are burned they produce a more consistent heat than the wood from which they’re made but emit no vapors or fumes. When wood burns you can smell it burning and maybe identify the type of wood being burned. When charcoal is burned there’s little or no smell, so when it’s used on a charcoal grill there are no fuel vapors to get into the food you’re cooking.
Charcoal briquettes are a “synthetic” form of lump charcoal. They’re made from wood which has been carbonized and then broken down into small particles. These particles are then mixed with other substances such as petroleum products (to make the briquettes easily ignitable) and binding products (to get the particles to stick together) and compressed into briquettes.
If you want to buy briquettes for your charcoal grill today you have lots of choices. You don’t have to choose the ones containing petroleum products. Other brands use other substances like vegetable oil to help the briquettes to light. When buying your briquettes check the label on the packet to find out what’s been used in their manufacture.
Although it’s possible to find BBQ-friendly briquettes (i.e. ones that don’t smell when they’re ignited) you should still let your briquettes burn for a while before starting to prepare your food. Any volatile substances that have been added to the briquettes will burn off during the first twenty minutes or so, leaving only the burning charcoal and other inert materials behind.
It’s a good idea to use a charcoal grill chimney starter to light your briquettes. This device will not only enable you to raise the temperature of your burning coals very quickly but also ensure that you get rid of all the nasty-smelling volatile compounds before you put the burning briquettes onto your grill.
If you are barbecuing for long periods you can also use your chimney starter to prepare fresh batches of burning charcoal to replenish your grill without risking the contamination of your food by adding putting additional briquettes on top of those already in your BBQ.
Some people only ever use wood for their charcoal barbecue grills. It’s much less convenient but needs to be watched and managed carefully whilst you barbecuing. However, it does give off those natural compounds (i.e. the ones lost when you make charcoal) which will (providing you use the right wood) impart delightful tastes to the food you’re cooking.
These natural compounds differ from one wood to another and hence produce varying flavors in the food being barbecued. Food cooked with hardwood such as beech will have a very different taste from food cooked using oak.
Is there a best fuel for a Charcoal Grill?
There are pros and cons to each type of fuel. Briquettes are extremely popular and widely available. We’ve pointed out a big disadvantage of briquettes (but one easily overcome with a chimney starter). The significant advantages are that they’re easy and clean to handle and transport, and when they’re burning will maintain a consistent high temperature for a long time.
It’s generally agreed that briquettes produce a more consistent heat than charcoal lumps, although some recent research suggests that with high-quality charcoal lumps the differences aren’t great.
Wood will very quickly reach much higher temperatures than either briquettes or lump charcoal but it takes some skill to maintain this temperature. You need to replenish your grill frequently if you’re barbecuing for a longer period. This may involve disturbing your food during cooking. For this reason, if want to barbecue with wood a front-loading barbecue may be better for you than a top-loading one.
There is a very important point you mustn’t forget if you BBQ with wood. Keep the top off your grill. If you don’t your food will get an overdose of smoke and won’t taste good.
Barbecuing for best results on Your Charcoal Grill
Without a doubt wood will provide you with the best barbecue food, Period!
But the majority of people with BBQs use either charcoal lumps or briquettes. However, you don’t have to lose the wonderful flavors that natural wood can impart to your food. You can compensate for those flavors by mixing wood chips with your charcoal or briquettes.
The techniques for using wood chips are very easy and straightforward. Soak your wood chips with water and scatter them on the burning coals at the start of and during cooking. The chips will smolder and burn, and as they do so give off those magic compounds which will produce exciting and exotic tastes in the food you’re barbecuing.