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Hardwood Charcoal vs. Charcoal Briquettes

Fine Cooking Issue 46
Photo: Scott Phillips
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Whenever Fine Cooking runs a story on outdoor grilling, it seems that our expert authors always recommend cooking over natural hardwood charcoal (sometimes called charwood) instead of the more easily found charcoal briquettes. Is this just barbecue snobbery? Hardly. There are some very real differences between hardwood charcoal and briquettes that do have an effect on grilling.

Hardwood charcoal

• Made from only natural hardwood, such as maple, oak, mesquite or even hickory.
• Once the wood is reduced to charcoal, it’s left in its original rough shape. In fact, the best way to determine the quality of the charcoal is to look at it—if you can recognize the shapes of real wood, you’ve got the real thing.
• Lights more quickly.
• Burns hotter (around 1,000°F), so you should make a smaller or more spread-out fire than you would with briquettes.
• Creates less ash.
• Imparts a purer, wood-fire flavor to foods.
• Any hardwood charcoal not completely burned during grilling may be put out and re-lit on another occasion for more grilling.

Charcoal briquettes

• Made from the sawdust of scrap wood (including resinous soft woods and composite woods).
• Combined with chemical binders and filler (including coal dust) and manually compressed into their characteristic pillow shapes.
• Slower to light, often requiring lighter fluid.
• Burns cooler (closer to 700° to 800°F).
• Burns more quickly, meaning a shorter window for grilling, or requiring that you add more during grilling.
• Smoke produced may be neutral at best and can contribute harsh and off-tasting flavors to grilled foods.
• Contributes more pollutants to the air as it burns.


Leave a Comment


  • PopoMam | 09/25/2018

    I like your article. Let's me share to my FB.


  • greenbbq | 01/16/2018

    Dear Molly, I am not sure when this was written but is it a serious comparison ?
    Briketts these days come in many forms and of those the best performing are from coconut shell.
    They will most certainly burn hotter , longer, cleaner than the vast majority of wood based products.
    If you consider organic vegetable starches as chemical binders then you are correct.
    Why do you not equally state briketts can be reused ? This is basic pyrotechnics , shut off the oxygen and the lump or briketts will extinguish and can be reused.
    If handled correctly briketts will light just as quick as lump and will burn longer. With regards to lighter fluids the same methods apply to both, not uniquely briketts. Our briketts light perfectly well in a chimney with bio firelighters. I expect lump would do the same !
    You don't mention that briketts are formed from renewable sources whereas you claim lump is perfectly natural ( but dead !!)
    What pollutants to the air do you refer to. Briketts produced through Pyrolysis do no such thing whereas the production processes followed by traditional charcoal producers leaves a lot to be desired from an environmental perspective.
    Are you familiar with the devastation wood charcoal from tropical rainforests is causing , and the child Labour and poor working conditions not to mention the very dirty production processes that go hand in hand. I would think a magazine of your status would want to be promoting good not bad.
    To caveat the above I am a producer of coconut shell briketts and can confidently predict the performance would top any lump charcoal. We produce based on the principles of fair for all, which has at its core environmental protection. We not only displace products that contribute to deforestation we also produce green energy which displaces the need for fossil fuel use.
    If you were interested to update your article or offer a balanced follow up I'd be happy to help.

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