Opinions get heated very quickly in the world of BBQ, and it’s no different when it comes to fuel. While most traditional smokehouses use seasoned wood logs, a more practical solution for home grillers is charcoal. But what kind of charcoal, and what’s the real difference between the two main camps of briquettes and lump? More importantly, which one should you use in your grill? It’s time for a no-holds-barred showdown, lump versus briquettes!
What Is Lump Charcoal?
Lump charcoal is the result of burning wood mostly in the absence of oxygen. It is natural and does not contain additives. Companies will often tell you what kind of wood their charcoal was made from, and that may impart some distinctive flavor in your meat. Lump charcoal lights faster, burns hotter, and leaves less ash than briquettes, which makes it great for searing cuts like steak. It is more responsive to oxygen, which means you can influence the temperature easier, but sometimes the temperature can fluctuate unexpectedly. Lump charcoal will look like bits of charred wood, and pieces will be uneven in size, texture, and burn time.
How Are Briquettes Different?
Charcoal briquettes are made in bulk to burn consistently and predictably. They’re typically manufactured from wood by-products and compressed with additives that make for a stable fuel with reliable heat output. Briquettes will burn at a steady temperature for your entire cook, which is great for low-and-slow cooking. They look like little square pillows, and each brick should be identical to the next in size and shape. As for downsides, briquettes produce a good bit of ash, and some cooks worry about those various chemical additives getting into their meat.
Additives and Binders
Lump charcoal is just the charred wood bits, while briquettes have fillers added for stability and easier ignition. Binders help the consistency of the briquette’s burn, but many companies don’t release what they use as additives. Kingsford, the big kahuna of briquettes, will release a form letter to customers who ask about briquette ingredients that lists limestone, starch, sodium nitrate, and borax among the additives.
Additives may cause an unpleasant smell, especially when the briquettes are first lit, but if you allow them to burn until they are covered with white ash before starting to cook, you can mitigate any unpleasant aromas. However, if you want your grass-fed, pasture-raised beef to be cooked as naturally as possible, opt for lump charcoal or raw wood.
Lump charcoal burns hotter and faster than briquettes, which is ideal for situations when you need some seriously high heat. Just how hot does lump get? Over 1000° Fahrenheit in the right conditions.
Briquettes burn at a lower temperature (always staying under 1000° F) for longer, and will maintain a consistent temp across their lifespan, which is more suited to cooks that take several hours over low heat.
Lump charcoal will typically impart a nicer flavor to your meat, and you can even buy charcoal made from a specific hardwood – hickory, oak, maple, and pecan are common choices – depending on the flavor profile you’re going for. The wood flavor from briquettes is generally less distinctive, and sometimes the additives can have an offensive chemical aroma.
Pros and Cons Summary
Let’s examine the scorecard, shall we?
Lump Charcoal Pros
- Lights quickly
- Burns hot
- Can add woody flavor
- Little ash production
- All natural
Lump Charcoal Cons
- Inconsistent temperature
- Burns faster
- More expensive
- Can be harder to find
- Consistent temperature over long periods of time
- Burns longer
- More affordable
- Available everywhere
- Slow to light
- Chemical smell due to additives
- Lots of ash production
So, What's Better for Your Next Cookout?
At the end of the day, both lump charcoal and briquettes can be effective, depending on the way you want to cook your meat. If you’re searing steaks or wanting to cook something else at a high temperature, go for lump charcoal. As an added bonus, there won’t be as big of an ashy mess to clean up! Also, if you’re health-conscious and want a pure product, that’s another reason to go for lump over briquettes.
Briquettes are better suited for consistent, low temperature smoking for hours at a time, when the key factor is a steady temperature. If you have a traditional charcoal smoker, it typically makes sense to use a bag of briquettes, not lump.
If you’re missing the flavorful smoke of real wood when smoking with charcoal, try throwing some flavorful hardwood chips, chunks, or pellets on top of your charcoal. Meathead of Amazingribs.com says hickory chips will add much more flavor than hickory charcoal.
With that being said, you can still grill steak with briquettes or smoke brisket with lump. At the end of the day, all of this stuff is charcoal. Personally, I like to have both types on hand, and I think it’s most important to invest in quality charcoal, whether you’re going the briquette or the lump route.
P.S. (Ignition Smoke)
No matter what kind of charcoal you use, both types will give off what’s called “ignition smoke” when first lit (briquettes more so than lump) . Be sure that before you put your meat on the grill, your charcoal is good and warm, and there’s no more puffy white smoke coming off the charcoal. You don’t want that on your meat!
If you need any clarification on lump charcoal vs briquettes, be sure to leave a comment below. Also feel free to share your experiences with each type of charcoal, and what your favorite brand is currently.