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The Differences Between Hardwood and Lump Charcoal

They're both good. But if you want to optimize your cookout, you've got to know the differences.

At its most basic, grilling is a simple endeavor: light a fire, cook some food over said fire, and eat. But as any guy who really cares about his cookout knows, there's plenty of room for experimentation to fine-tune the process.

If you're grilling steak, do you want a high-end, extra delicious cut or an underrated, budget-friendly one? How many minutes per side? Are you cooking on propane or charcoal? If you choose charcoal, how do you arrange the coals?

The questions go on and on – and we're gonna add one more to the list. What kind of charcoal are you going to use?


Hardwood Charcoal

Also known as "lump charcoal," this is what you get when wood is burned down to an impurity-free coal. No binders, no fillers – just pure, simple, high-quality charcoal.

Diehard grill masters love this stuff, both because of its simplicity and because it has a host of practical advantages. It lights more quickly, so you can get your food on the grill faster. It burns hotter, so you can get a deeper sear on your two-inch ribeye. And it produces less ash, so you don't have as much gunk settling at the bottom of your grill.

This stuff also responds well to changes in airflow, so you can quickly cool things down by adjusting your vents (assuming your grill has some). That's helpful for barbecue, when you want to dial in a low temperature and let the coals smolder for an entire day of smoking.

All that said, it is a little pricier and less convenient. Since hardwood pieces are sized inconsistently, you have to pay more attention to building and lighting the fire, lest all the smaller pieces burn out before you're ready to start cooking.

Pros
  • Burns hotter.

  • Lights more quickly.

  • Produces less ash.

Cons
  • Burns more quickly, giving you a shorter cooking window.

  • Slightly more expensive.


Charcoal Briquettes

In their simplest form, these are just coal dust that's compressed into a briquette shape. Usually, though, they're loaded with a bunch of other stuff: limestone for coloring, sawdust as a filler, borax as a release agent, starch to help bind everything together, and a few other things. They're cheap, ubiquitous, and reliable.

You can find "quick light" or "match light" versions as well, which are essentially just briquettes infused with lighter fluid, making the lighting process way easier and way quicker. The downside is that they can be quite dangerous – you'd better have plenty of open space and nothing flammable nearby the grill if you use them. And you've got to be patient and allow the coals to burn off all of their quick-lighting material. Otherwise, you'll get a poor char and unpleasant taste on your dinner.

And speaking of the coals lending an unpleasant taste, some nitpickers will say that food cooked over briquettes tastes worse than food cooked over hardwood since the charcoal's filler ingredients contribute subtle flavors throughout the grilling process. Though we've never found that to be true ourselves.

Pros
  • Cheap and easy to find.

  • Burns slowly and consistently.

Cons
  • Might contribute a very minor off flavor to your food.


Either will let you grill well, and briquettes work just fine if that's all you've got available. But we recommend hardwood if you want to take your grilling seriously. The blazing hot coals give a deeper, quicker crust to burgers or steak, and the unadulterated composition means you're not burning any junk in your grill.

Plus, hardwood affords you grill master bragging rights. And at the end of the day, isn't that what it's all about?

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