Here at Feeling Outdoorsy, we prefer to BBQ over hot coals rather than gas, and when it comes to choosing the right charcoal it can be harder than it sounds! A big debate amongst keen BBQ-ers is which is best, lump wood or briquette charcoal and there are passionate views on boths sides. Here is our take on the situation!
Lumpwood charcoal has a lot going for it. It's made by burning wood in the absence of oxygen and as a result is nearly all carbon and is therefore a favourite with purists. It has little to no additives, meaning that you get a nice smokey aroma to food cooked over it. It is quick-lighting and can get to maximum temperature in around 20 mins. It burns hotter than briquettes so it's great for searing steaks, and leaves very little ash. It is also more sensitive to burning in oxygen, so it's much easier to control cooking temperatures using the vent on your BBQ. However, it's not perfect. As it's a more natural product, it can come in all shapes an sizes so it takes a bit of practice to set out a consistent bed of coals with relatively even heat. It also burns faster than briquettes, particularly if made from pine, so can start to cool after 30mins and need topping up (although the new coals will soon get up to cooking temperature). Hardwood lump charcoal is better, using oak or hickory for example.
Often formed in to squares or rectangles with rounded edges for easy stacking in the bowl, briquettes are made from wood by-products which are mixed with additives and pressed in to the desired shapes. The additives can be a mix of a range of chemical and natural products, but it's difficult to find out exactly what. Some say cheaper versions may release a chemical smell or taste to the food, but better quality ones don't affect the food in the same way although that's another debate to be had on a different day! Briquettes also produce a lot of ash so you'll need to empty your ash tray more frequently. On the positive side, briquettes burn for longer and at a more consistent temperature. As they are a more uniform shape, they are also better for using with Dutch ovens, as they can provide a consistent heat for a long time when placed on the lid and around the base. They are also cheaper than lump charcoal.
Well, there are pros and cons to each and we actually use both. We much prefer lump charcoal overall, and when cooking steaks, chops and sausages for the family, they provide the intense head needed and last the distance. When cooking for longer periods, say for over an hour, whether entertaining or cooking low and slow meat joints, we use high quality briquetttes as they offer the longer burning time and a more consistent temperature. We'll throw a few pieces of lump charcoal in too to add a nice smokey flavour to the meat.
In essence, whether to opt for lump wood or briquettes, it really depends on the style of cooking and how long you want to cook for as to which to go for.