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Lesson 8: Lump vs. Briquette Charcoal

Sarah Breckenridge; Video by Bruce Becker and Dariusz Kanarek; Editing by Cari Delahanty. Shot on location at the Dana Holcombe House, Newtown, CT.
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Lesson 8: Lump vs. Briquette Charcoal

Whether you’re already an accomplished griller or just a novice, grilling cookbook author Fred Thompson will turn you into a grill master in ten short episodes.

Grilling with charcoal used to mean one thing–briquettes. But lately lump charcoal has become the darling of everyone who’s serious about grilling. It has a lot of advantages–it burns hotter and cleaner–but it requires a little more know-how to cook over lump charcoal than briquettes. This episode explains the difference between the two types of charcoal, and gives you tips for working with both.

Charcoal Grilling Recipes
New England Clambake Maple-Brined, Wood-Smoked Grilled Turkey Hoisin Barbecued Ribs  
New England Clambake   Maple-Brined, Wood-Smoked Grilled Turkey   Hoisin Barbecued Ribs    

Briquettes consist of pulverized charcoal, bound together with cornstarch and other fillers, depending on the brand. Their standard size, shape, and composition makes them burn very steadily and reliably: A batch of 45 briquettes will give you consistent heat for 1 hour.

When you shop for charcoal briquettes, look for solid hardwood charcoal briquettes, which have less in the way of fillers, and burn cleaner and hotter. Definitely avoid any of the briquettes impregnated with lighter fluid, unless you like the taste of that stuff in your food. And of course, if you use a chimney charcoal starter (see episode 3 for how-to details), you can skip the lighter fluid entirely.

Lump Charcoal
Serious grillers these days have gone to using hardwood lump charcoal–it is just what it sounds like: pieces of hardwood, with no additives, that have been charred into lumps of charcoal. It burns hotter and cleaner than briquettes, but the heat is variable and not as consistent, so it requires a little more experience managing your fire to get good results in cooking.

Lump charcoal burns hotter than briquettes. A briquette fire can get up to 800 to 100 degrees, while lump can get up to 1400° F. Depending on what you’re cooking, this can either be an advantage or something you need to work around.

If you’re cooking something like steaks or tuna steaks–things that you want to have a great sear on the outside and a rare or medium-rare center–that high heat is perfect. In this case, make sure that when you hold your hand about a foot above the fire, you can hold it there for 1 to 2 seconds before you have to pull it away.

But if you’re doing pork chops, or chicken, something you want cooked all the way through, you’ll want to let the fire die down until you can hold your hand there for 3 to 4 seconds. To help bring the fire down a little cooler, close the top and bottom vents on your grill slightly, which feeds less air into the fire.

Time palm can
be held
over grill

Grill heat Temperature range
less than 1 second very hot over 600°F
1 to 2 seconds hot 400° to 500°F
3 to 4 seconds medium 350° to 375°F
5 to 7 seconds medium-low 325° to 350°F

When Fred works with lump charcoal, he tends to use a combination cooking method, even for items I’d normally cook over direct heat only (such as steaks): Set up a two-zone fire, and after an initial sear in the hot zone, move it over to a cooler area of the grill to finish the cooking.

When you open up a bag of lump charcoal, you’ll find a huge variety in the sizes of chunks–some brands are more consistent than others, but they’re all less consistent than briquettes. Because of this variation in size, the burn time of lump charcoal varies a lot. It’s not necessarily a shorter or longer burn time than briquettes, it just depends.

So the best way to tend your lump charcoal fire for a longer period of time is to find a brand you like and stick with it (for exhaustive reviews of many different brands of lump charcoal, check out the web site www.nakedwhiz.com/lump.htm). Always use a grill thermometer to monitor your temperature, and always have a second batch of coals getting ready to replenish the first.

One way to get some of the benefits of lump charcoal without the drawbacks is to build a mixed fire: some briquettes, and some lump. This will help you get a hotter fire for searing, but it will maintain more consistent heat for longer-cooking items.

More Charcoal Grilling Recipes
Mexican Grilled Chuck Steaks
Master Barbecued Chicken Recipe
Apple-Bacon Barbecued Ribs

Related Articles
How to Judge the Temperature of Your Charcoal Grill
Hardwood Charcoal vs. Briquettes
The ABCs of Grilling Gear
Becoming an Expert Griller

Other lessons in this series
Classic Ultimate Burgers New York Strip Steaks with Blue Cheese Butter How to Start a Charcoal Fire
Lesson 1: The Perfect Burger
  Lesson 2: Great Steaks on the Grill   Lesson 3: How to Start a Charcoal Fire
The Two-Zone Fire Buttermilk Brined Chicken Breasts How to Add Smoke to a Gas Grill
Lesson 4: The Two-Zone Fire   Lesson 5: How to Grill Bone-In Chicken Parts   Lesson 6: How to Add Smoke to a Gas Grill
Grilled Fish Tacos Lump vs. Briquette Charcoal Fred's Ultimate Smoked Pork Shoulder
Lesson 7: How to Grill Fish   Lesson 8: Lump vs. Briquette Charcoal   Lesson 9: Slow-Smoked Pork Shoulder
Fred's Finest Baby Back Ribs    
Lesson 10: Real Barbecued Ribs        


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  • thinhphan91 | 04/11/2020

    I tend to use both fuels. Whenever I need to do some high heat grilling, I would go for lump charcoal. When I need to smoke some ribs 3 2 1, I just go with briquettes. Each fuel has its pros and cons. Not one is better than the other.

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