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All About Charcoal
We love cooking on charcoal. Is one type better than another?
What You Need To Know
Charcoal has a primal appeal. It’s one of the oldest manufactured cooking fuels, with production dating to at least the Iron Age. As ancient humans learned, charcoal is a more efficient fuel source than wood. It’s lighter, more portable, and burns more evenly.
Charcoal burns hotter than gas and produces a lot of radiant heat, which enables superior browning. Many prefer the taste of food cooked over charcoal, as the charcoal produces smoke that contributes a savory “grilled” flavor to food, making it especially delicious.
In the United States, charcoal is typically made from wood. There are two types: lump (aka hardwood) and briquettes. Both are byproducts of the lumber industry. Lump resembles the wood it comes from. Briquettes, the form of charcoal most Americans use today, are compact pucks made from sawdust and other materials.
The process for making the two is mostly the same: wood or sawdust is heated slowly at high temperatures in ovens or kilns with little or no oxygen. This drives off water, gases, and other substances, leaving behind what we cook with: char, a solid substance that is composed mostly of carbon. With briquettes, there are extra production steps. The charred sawdust is mixed with wood fiber, starches, minerals, and other ingredients and then compressed.
So, does it matter which kind of charcoal you use? To find out, we tested five of the most popular brands according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, two brands of briquettes and three brands of lump. We ran heat tests and used each to cook a variety of foods. Dr. Laura Hasburgh and Dr. Kara Yedinak at the USDA’s Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), the national leader in scientific research on wood and wood products, helped us run additional tests and answered all of our burning questions.
What You Get in a Bag of Charcoal
To kick off our research, we turned out bags of each brand and sorted the pieces by size. The briquettes were incredibly uniform, with very few broken pieces or powder in the bags. By contrast, the lump charcoal we tested varied a lot, not only from brand to brand but also within the same bag. One brand contained mostly 4-inch cubes of wood, while another had pieces ranging from powder and pea-size chips to large 7-inch slabs. Size matters: Charcoal smaller than about an inch and a half can fall through your chimney starter or grill grates, rendering those pieces unusable. About 20 to 50 percent of the lump charcoal in the bags we surveyed were too small to use (or contained unusable foreign objects such as rocks).
Which Burns Hotter? Which Burns Longer?
Some lump charcoal enthusiasts claim that lump bur...
Everything We Tested
If you’ve ever grilled on charcoal, chances are you’ve used Kingsford Original Briquettes at some point. They are the single most popular form of charcoal in the United States by a long shot—according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, Kingsford accounted for more than 62 cents of every dollar spent on charcoal in multi-outlet stores for the year leading up to April 2022. But there are good reasons to choose the “big blue bag,” as it’s sometimes called. In our tests, these heavy, dense briquettes consistently ran hotter than other brands of charcoal, and provided us with some of the longest cooking times. They are inexpensive, and there’s very little unusable material in any bag, giving you good bang for your buck.
We were especially impressed by the long cooking time—between 3 and 4 hours on average—we got from a single chimney of these briquettes, making them a great choice for cooking barbecue low and slow. Slightly larger and heavier than Kingsford briquettes, these were also capable of burning quite hot, making them great for quickly searing foods, too. Bags of these briquettes contained the smallest amount of waste of any brand we tested, with almost all the contents in usable condition.
This lump charcoal is made from a mix of hardwood branches; the pieces generally looked very much like they’d just come off a (burnt) tree. A full 6-quart chimney of this lump charcoal was capable of getting quite hot and provided a good amount of cooking time. Pieces did vary a bit in size and shape—it was common to have not only powder and pea-size chunks, but also pieces measuring about 4 to 6 inches in length. There was also a fair amount of unusable material in each bag, which often included the occasional stone or uncharred wood.
Made from leftover pieces of milled wood, this major lump charcoal brand made us feel like we were cooking with charred planks. Bags of this lump had the greatest variation in size and shape, with pieces ranging from powder and pea-size chunks to 7-inch slabs that had to be cut to fit into the chimney starter. This charcoal tended to have the most unusable material, as well. Because the oak used was especially lightweight, it didn’t get particularly hot and didn’t provide a ton of cooking time—plan to use more of it (or re-up your charcoal periodically) if you want to cook for longer than about 45 minutes.
While significantly more expensive than the other lump charcoal we tested, this premium charcoal was much more consistent in size and shape, providing us with more usable material per bag than the other lump. A good portion of the pieces were roughly 4-inch cubes of lightweight wood chunks. As a result, a full 6-quart chimney of this lump charcoal provided moderate heat and relatively modest cooking times; you’ll want to use more of it (or add charcoal as you go) if you need to cook for longer than 1¼ hours.
Reviews you can trust
Reviews you can trust
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing. We stand behind our winners so much that we even put our seal of approval on them.
Miye is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She covers booze, blades, and gadgets of questionable value.