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.
• 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.
• 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.