A lot of people have been asking me, “Which charcoal is best?” So, I decided to take some time and go over the pros and cons of Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes.
The Truth About Charcoal
If you are like me, you probably grew up with a family that used charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid. Honestly, I wasn’t really aware that there were any other options till probably when I was in my late 20’s. When I was a kid it seems like the choices were Kingsford or some off brand of cheap stuff. We must have always sprung for the Kingsford (My Grandpa believed it was the best), because I can still see the bag in my memory.
My first insight into the controversial world of charcoal came in my mid 20’s. At that time I had a friend who worked in a charcoal packaging plant. Although I was already an avid BBQer, I had always just stuck with charcoal. Even when I was broke I always tried to buy Kingsford. I just thought the other brands wouldn’t light up right.
To my shock and dismay I soon found out that was not true. My friend, who worked at the charcoal plant, lived in the same apartment complex as I did. A group of us apartment neighbors used to gather in the corner of the parking lot, drink beer, and BBQ all the time. One day, early in my adventures at that apartment building, I went over to his apartment and saw a stack of charcoal (Not exactly sure how he got this stack of charcoal…). But anyways, they were all different brands, including Kingsford, different grocery store brands, etc. I asked about it, and he said that at his work they packaged charcoal. The same charcoal into all different brands’ bags!
I was appalled. All these years that I had been spending extra money on Kingsford, I was literally just paying for the name on the bag. I have no idea how long this had been going on, but I felt super ripped off, sad, and stupid. I am sure at some point Kingsford was a legit company, but we all know how big business works. At some point they sold their name, and whoever owns that charcoal monopoly just puts the same charcoal into different bags.
Needless to say, I never bought a bag of Kingsford ever again (unless there was some mega sale going on). Only the cheap stuff for me! Just to be fair, maybe Kingsford was putting their “high quality” charcoal into all the cheaper brand bags, instead of vice versa, but either way…it’s the same stuff!
Over the past 20 years I have grilled many, many times with a variety of charcoal. Although I started with only using standard charcoal briquettes, over the years that expanded to the pre-soaked varieties, different shaped briquettes, and lump charcoal. I am happy to share all that I know with you all. So, here is my honest break down of your charcoal options.
Pros of Briquettes
- Cheap– Briquettes typically cost less than lump charcoal. There are also more choices, so you are more likely to find a good deal.
- Easy to find– They are available everywhere, even at pretty much any corner convenience store.
- Easy to stack/charcoal chimney– Their small and consistent shape make them pretty easy to stack in your grill if you are using lighter fluid (which I do not recommend). If you are lighting your coals using paper and a chimney (much better for you), it is easy just to pour the charcoal in.
- Burns longer/steadier– Briquettes burn at a slower less intense heat than the lump variety. So, they tend to be better for things that take longer to cook, or something you are trying to slowly smoke.
Cons of Briquettes
- Unhealthy– The number one reason why I would steer away from briquettes is what they are made of…They contain some wood stuff, mixed with chemicals and additives. The details of which I choose to not delve into for when I am in a pinch and need to use them, I don’t want to be totally freaked out.
- Smokey– They can be fairly smokey, but when you burn something there is generally smoke. It’s just that with these, the smoke probably contains some pretty nasty chemicals.
- Cleanup– Briquettes do not totally burn away. So you always have to let them cool completely and then dump them.
- Can leave a flavor on your food– It is important to let the coals get white so that most of the chemical smell and flavor has burned off, but I am not convinced it’s ever completely gone. Don’t get me wrong though, I have made a multitude of delicious meals over charcoal!
Pros of Lump Charcoal
- Healthier– Lump Charcoal is the purest you can get. It is literally wood coals created by burning wood without oxygen. So, it removes the water and other stuff in wood that makes it smoke and burn fast like it does in a bonfire.
- Burns away– When you use lump charcoal, it pretty burns completely away to nothing. It is really amazing! No clean up!
- Less smoke/ash– As stated above, these coals are made by removing most of what makes wood smoke and ash. Briquettes would probably do the same if they weren’t made of a bunch of weird stuff.
- Use less (not useless lol)– I find that a big bag of lump charcoal lasts longer than its briquette counterpart. Because of the odd shapes you can’t stack it as compactly, so you automatically use less.
- Tastes better– This stuff is natural, so you don’t run the risk of the contamination that briquettes can cause…that is as long as you don’t use lighter fluid.
- Lights faster– It gets hot fast. So if you are used to briquettes, keep an eye on it till you get used to the lighting time.
- Burns hot– Even though I am using less, and having less total surface space of heat with these, my food still cooks, and it cooks fast. In most cases this is just fine with me.
Cons of Lump Charcoal
- Costs more than Briquettes– Lump Charcoal does cost more than briquettes (usually about $3 more a bag), and you get less. But as I mentioned above, you also typically don’t need to use as much for the same affect.
- Awkward shapes– In my experience the shapes of the lump charcoal are the biggest negative about them. You get these huge pieces mixed with little tiny pieces. It makes it hard to stack, and can make it difficult to have an evenly distributed heating surface area. Also, I can only fit like 5-10 chunks in my lighting chimney, which bugs me at the time, but it always ends up working out just fine.
- Burns fast– If you are trying to do a slow cook, or trying to smoke something, lump charcoal may not be the best choice. It burns hot and fast, but generally this is plenty of time to cook a typical meal, like chicken, steak, carne asada, etc.
Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes- Which Charcoal is Best?
As you can see briquettes and lump charcoal have about the same number of cons on my list, but the pros of the lump charcoal heavily outweigh the pros of the briquettes. And, for me, health outweighs the slight cost difference by far.
In the end I definitely recommend lump charcoal over briquettes. They are hands down better for you, provide a easier clean up, and generally cook a better, more natural tasting food. If however you need to cook something at a steady temp for a longer period of time, briquettes may work better for you.
But even with all of this said, if I am out camping and I forgot to pack my lump charcoal and I have to run to the little camp store, I will not hesitate to by that trip saving bag of briquettes. I will just make sure I let them get nice and white hot before slapping my meat over them.
Another notable mention, is that I have recently started to see “All Natural” briquettes at the store. So far I have only seen Kingsford brand of these and they are super expensive. I have not tried them yet, but it is on my to do list. I am hoping they get more popular and the price comes down soon. I do like the idea of having all natural and the convenient shape of briquettes in one product. I am curious to see how fast and clean they burn.
As soon as I break down and spend the money to try them out, I will be sure to do a post about them for you all.
A Word About Lighter Fluid
I do need to add here though that I will never use lighter fluid to light coals ever again. I used it religiously for years. Then a few years ago I read about the health hazards of this chemical fluid, so decided to try using a chimney with paper instead. I liked using the chimney, so I kept using it. After using this natural lighting method for a year or two, I got lazy one day while camping and decided to use lighter fluid….Big mistake! (FYI, I carry lighter fluid in case I need to start a bonfire with damp wood.)
All those years I was using lighter fluid, even my family did when I was a kid, I had no idea. My now purified pallet from using the chimney for so long was very aware of the taste residue lighter fluid put onto the food. It wasn’t just me either, we could both taste it. It was inedible and gross. It was really disturbing to know that I had been unknowingly eating that crap all those years, and no doubt ingesting some nasty chemicals.
The Matchlight charcoal briquettes come pre-soaked in lighter fluid (or some sort of combustible chemical), and therefore should also be avoided for the above reasons.
I highly recommend trying and using a charcoal chimney. I have one or two listed on my Hot Sauce Shop page if you would like to check it out.
I hope this article was helpful. I f you have any questions, comments, or suggestions please let me know. I would love to hear from you! You can leave a comment below or in my contact form in the main menu above. I will get back to asap. Thanks for reading, talk to you next time!