If you talk to barbecue pros and enthusiasts, they will tell you charcoal beats propane, hands down. Why? Charcoal gives meats and veggies an unmistakably smoky flavor, and it can even be used for low-and-slow smoking. And honestly, it’s just a lot more fun to build a real fire from briquettes, instead of using a tank of gas for fuel.
You’re probably here because you’re wondering what the best charcoal briquettes on the market are. While there’s a lot to choose from, there are some clear favorites due to ingredients, consistency, and flavor. Let’s get started!
Comparing the Best Charcoal Briquettes
Quick Summary | Top 5 Bags of Charcoal Briquettes
- Original Natural’s Hardwood Briquettes grade out highest in this group. 100% all natural hardwood, no additives/fillers, and a 30-day money-back “delicious guarantee” make this charcoal a winner.
- Kingsford is a household name in barbecue, and their original “blue bag” of briquettes delivers the reliability and pleasant flavor you would expect. This is the go-to for a lot of enthusiasts who pick up their charcoal from the local grocery or hardware store.
- If you like the flavor from hickory and oak wood, go for John Wayne Hardwood Charcoal, which is made in the United States.
- If you’re looking for hard-hitting smokey flavor, check out Kingsford’s mesquite briquettes. Mesquite goes great with beef, so if you haven’t tried it before, give it a chance next time you grill up some steaks.
- Like the Original Natural briquettes in our top spot, Bayou Classic is a premium brand of 100% natural charcoal. They are made from the same hardwood used in their lump charcoal.
Top 5 Briquettes | An In-Depth Look
1. Original Natural Charcoal Hardwood Briquettes Review
It might seem odd to think of a charcoal brand as “premium,” but this definitely fits the bill. Original Natural briquettes are created with 100% natural hardwood. This makes them easier to light up, so you won’t have to worry about tainting the flavor of your food with lighter fluid. The hardwood also cuts down on the amount of smoke and ash.
If you’re concerned with potential health risks of grilling, you’ll be happy to know that Original Natural doesn’t use chemical additives or other fillers in their briquettes. And even if you couldn’t care less, it’s nice to know that extra chemicals won’t be affecting the flavor of your food.
Unlike some other brands, Original Natural stands behind their product with a 30-day guarantee, which they call the “Delicious Guarantee.” If you’re unhappy, get a refund in full with no questions asked.
2. Kingsford Original Charcoal Briquettes Review
Next comes the “Ol’ Reliable” of the list. If you live in the US, you’ve almost certainly heard of Kingsford and seen their bags of briquettes in stores. They are a classic choice that can be found all over, and as a result they are the go-to for a lot of grillers and smokers.
Kingsford briquettes burn consistently, which is especially great for low temperature smoking, but this is partially due to binders and other additives. For example, sodium nitrate is added to help the charcoal burn easier, and other binders like sawdust and starch help create consistently shaped, non-crumbly briquettes. If extra additives are a deal breaker, go for one of the all-natural options in this list.
On these briquettes you’ll notice there are K-shaped grooves on each side. These improve airflow by creating more space between each briquette when stacked. This might seem negligible, but even a small change in airflow can have a measurable effect on temperature. For example, even a quarter-turn on a smoker’s damper can change the temperature several degrees.
To sum up, these are a rock-solid, ubiquitous choice if you don’t mind some binders and additives.
3. Fire & Flavor John Wayne Briquette Charcoal Review
These John Wayne charcoal briquettes from Fire & Flavor are made from hardwood, specifically oak and hickory. Oak is a fairly neutral wood that works for almost anything, while hickory adds some more intense, relatively sweet flavor.
Like the Kingsford charcoal above, these briquettes have ridges that allow air to flow between piles of charcoal. This ensures that the briquettes burn consistently and don’t leave behind unburned sections where air couldn’t reach.
To make you feel even better about your purchase, a chunk of all sales is donated to the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. On top of this, the bag has a downright cool design with a picture of the Duke himself, and they are appropriately made in the United Sates.
4. Kingsford Charcoal Mesquite Briquettes Review
All charcoal adds some flavor to your food, but what if you’re looking for an even bigger, smokier taste? You could add wood chips or chunks to your fire, but a flavored charcoal is much more convenient. This Mesquite charcoal from Kingsford is particularly potent.
If you aren’t familiar with mesquite, it’s recognized as one of the stronger smoke flavors in the world of barbecue. Not everyone loves it, but it’s definitely worth a try. Like the bag indicates, mesquite flavor pairs well with beef, and it also works for veggies.
Aside from the added mesquite, it’s quite similar to an original bag of Kingsford charcoal. It delivers the consistency you would expect, but does contain binders and additional ingredients.
5. Bayou Classic Natural Charcoal Briquets Review
These briquettes by Bayou Classic are made from 100% natural hardwood. In fact, they come from the same hardwood that is used in their lump charcoal. That means you get the awesome taste of lump charcoal (more on that below) in the consistent briquette shape. Additionally, they won’t create an ashy mess since they are free from fillers.
What stands out about these? Clean taste and long burn time are two big things. That makes them great for smoking, not just grilling. They won’t over-flavor your meat over a period of several hours, nor will the coals burn out too soon. Check them out if you use a charcoal smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain.
What to Consider When Choosing Charcoal Briquettes
Additives and Chemicals
One downside of briquettes is that they can contain additives, fillers, and chemicals. To make matters worse, it’s often difficult to tell what the ingredients in a bag are.
What exactly do manufacturers add? Check out this list of Kingsford ingredients, which also includes why each one is added. For example, you can see that sodium nitrate and sawdust are added to speed up ignition time, while limestone is added to create a light-ash color.
Should you be concerned about additives? That’s up to you, but remember that they do serve a purpose and aren’t just thrown in for no reason. As mentioned below, the main thing you’ll want to avoid is lighter fluid.
Surprisingly, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to briquette shape. Many brands have grooves, and that’s because they genuinely improve airflow by creating more space. You’ll also want to look for thin edges, since it’s easier to get a small area burning. Lastly, you’ll obviously want to avoid broken and irregular pieces; if you’re shopping for charcoal at the store, try to look for bags that haven’t been beaten up during the shipping process.
"Instant" and "Match Light" Varieties
You’ve probably noticed that none of the bags in our top 5 are labeled “instant light” or “match light.” It’s best to avoid these briquettes that are covered in a lighter fluid-like substance, since they have the strongest chemical smell of all briquettes.
Much like food packaging, charcoal bag sizes can be deceptive. Additionally, densities can vary slightly. Be sure to compare by weights, which will always be printed on the bag, rather than just eyeballing.
Best Methods for Lighting Charcoal
So if it’s best to avoid “match light” charcoal, how are you supposed to efficiently light your briquettes? There are a few options depending on what you have available.
To start, there are a handful of products designed specifically for lighting charcoal. A chimney starter is your best bet, and doesn’t have any electrical parts that will fail you. There’s a reason why even pro grill-masters love chimney starters – they just plain work! All you have to do is light up a couple starter cubes or some newspaper under your charcoal and wait.
There is also the Looftlighter, which is essentially a high-powered blowdryer. You put your charcoal on the grill first, and the Looftlighter expels hot air to light up the briquettes.
Last in the device category, there are electric charcoal starters that are like heated coils. You build your pile of briquettes around this device, then turn it on. Note that you do have to pull it out once your fire is going, which can be a little messy.
If these products are not an option, it’s definitely possible to get your charcoal going with just starter squares or some newspaper. There are even all-natural fire starters nowadays. Channel your inner boy scout and make it happen!
…But if you’re really in a tough spot, you can use lighter fluid as a last option. Be aware that in addition to its unpleasant smell/taste, it can also be dangerous. A good tip is to really let your coals get going before throwing your meat on the grill; that way all of the lighter fluid has a chance to burn away.
Charcoal Briquettes vs. Lump Charcoal
You’re probably pretty familiar with the briquette by now, but what about its lump counterpart? Hardwood lump is the purest form of charcoal, and it doesn’t contain any additives. Here are the main differences between lump and briquettes:
- Size/Shape: lump charcoal reflects the original shape of the wood it came from, and the pieces are typically larger than briquettes. On the other hand, briquettes are pressed into equally sized pieces, and binders, such as starch, are often incorporated in this process.
- Flavor: most folks agree that lump charcoal has a better aroma than briquettes, which can often have a chemical smell due to additives. To avoid this, go for natural, additive-free briquettes.
- Temperature: lump charcoal burns at a higher temperature than briquettes, and the temperature is more prone to fluctuation due to the irregular pieces. Briquettes still get plenty hot, and they burn at a more consistent temperature due to their shape.
- Ash: briquettes produce more ash than natural lump charcoal.
Adding Wood Chips or Chunks to Charcoal
If charcoals containing specific types of wood have piqued your interest, maybe you’ve wondered if it’s okay to just throw some wood on the coals. The answer is yes, this is a great way to add some extra smokey flavor. Wood chips burn up relatively fast, so chunks are better for longer cooks.
What about wood from your yard – can you add it to your briquettes? Definitely, so long as it’s hardwood, which includes fruit woods, then it will work perfectly fine. It is, however, best if the wood is seasoned. Fresh “green” wood will create a lot of smoke due to its moisture.
Summing Things Up
While all brands of charcoal might seem the same at a glance, hopefully this article has proved otherwise. From additives to wood origins, there’s a lot to analyze when choosing the best charcoal briquettes for your next cookout.
If you have any strong opinions about these products or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment!