Charcoal Fuel Types

Charcoal Fuel Types

Grilling with charcoal is a true test for any seasoned griller. From lighting and adjusting coals to regulating airflow and controlling flare-ups, it can be an exciting challenge with some seriously great tasting rewards. But even before you ignite your charcoal to get grilling, there's one very important question to ask: What type of charcoal should I use?

Grillers are often asking me if lump charcoal is a better fuel source than briquettes or if briquettes are more efficient at maintaining even temperatures. There are so many variables, sometimes it's hard to know which type to choose. Therefore I've decided to set the record straight...

Lump Charcoal
Today, the process of making lump charcoal typically begins by stacking wood logs in underground pits and covering them with sheet metal and dirt. The logs are lit at one end of the pile and the wood smolders for a few days. During this time, the oxygen-starved fire burns off water, sap and other volatile substances in the wood. What's left is almost pure carbon, also known as char or lump charcoal.

Grilling over a lump charcoal fire is a dynamic experience. Lump charcoal gets broiling hot pretty quickly, usually in 10 or 15 minutes. Its intense heat can sear food in seconds, browning the surface and scenting it with pure wood smoke aromas. In many cases the smokiness emanates from one kind of wood only, such as mesquite or oak. Quite often though, a bag of lump charcoal will hold a mix of hardwoods, including oak, hickory, maple, and possibly some tropical woods from South America or Asia.

The downside? Once a lump charcoal fire gets to its hottest point, it begins to lose heat rather quickly. In many cases the temperatures will fall from high heat to medium heat in less than 30 minutes, so if you want to maintain a certain temperature range for cooking, the fire needs replenishing. Fortunately lump charcoal lights and heats so quickly that you can get a burst of heat within 5–10 minutes of adding additional unlit coals.

Hardwood Charcoal and Kingsford® Briquettes
For the sake of convenience, some charcoal briquette companies crush their charcoal with a binder, usually a natural starch, so the compact little pillows will hold their shape. Briquettes with no other additives are usually labeled "natural" or "hardwood." They burn almost as hot as lump charcoal, but they also burn out almost as quickly. Their major benefit is their evenness of size and shape. With these briquettes, it is relatively easy to create a smooth bed of coals, whereas the irregular shapes and sizes of lump charcoal can leave "holes" in the fire.

America's most widely used brand of charcoal briquettes, Kingsford®, adds mineral char (a soft coal to raise and prolong the heat), mineral carbon (a hard coal, also for raising and prolonging the heat), and limestone (a sedimentary rock, which creates a coating of white ash on the briquettes when they are ready to cook on) to their mix of crushed charcoal and cornstarch. These briquettes produce longer and more even heat than lump charcoal or hardwood briquettes, and they cast a subtle smokiness on almost anything cooked above or beside them.

Visually, lump charcoal does not have a uniform shape like a charcoal briquette. The pieces can be many different shapes and sizes which can lead to issues especially with holding temperatures for a longer period of time. Second, there is not a direct correlation between the amount of lump charcoal you use and how many charcoal briquettes you use in a recipe. Most recipes have specific instructions using charcoal briquettes, so if you're using lump charcoal, you'll need to estimate the appropriate amount. Lucky for Weber users, our grills have dampers that give us complete temperature control, so this discrepancy is less of an issue.

In the end choosing your charcoal fuel source is really a matter of preference. There is no right or wrong answer—the fuel source truly depends on you as a griller. One tip I can offer up is that I like to use lump charcoal when grilling less than 1 hour since most of the foods I will be grilling call for a medium to high direct heat. For anything over an hour I prefer using charcoal briquettes because they produce a longer and more even heat source, which I find better when grilling for extended periods of time.

Happy grilling, charcoal lovers!

What are your thoughts? (14)

07.14.13

Paul W

Kevin,
I put on another pork shoulder on the 4th of July and used the same approach but followed your recommendation on foiling at 170. It was smaller than the last one at 4.5 pounds, and it got up to 195 after 15 hours. I only had time to let it sweat in the cooler for about an hour because it was getting late, but let me tell you it was AWESOME! All my guests told me it was the best pork BBQ they had ever eaten. Just like last time, I had no problems at all keeping the grill temperature right around 220-230 degrees. Thank you very much for all your help! Now I'm off to try a chuck roast and see how that goes. This Performer is the perfect grill/smoker for me!

Paul

07.02.13

Paul W

Thanks for the reply, Kevin.

I tried smoking a pork shoulder yesterday and it didn't go so well. The Performer worked way better than I expected though. I used one char basket and started out using a few used coals and 15 new ones. Adding 4-6 unlit coals per hour with a chunk or two of hickory the first 6 hours worked well and made it easy to keep the grill temperature between 220 and 250 degrees. Most of the time I kept it at 220. It is way easier to control the temperature on this grill than I thought it would be. I kept the bottom vent wide open and had to adjust the top one very little to maintain the temperature. The only problem I had was after awhile the ash had accumulated in the basket and wasn't letting the coals burn hot enough. I figured out what was happening and then just gently shook the basket with tongs when adding coals with no more problems. I've learned that all I need to do to maintain any temperature I want is to regulate the size of the fire and the air getting to the fire.
I've heard that I should allow 1.5 to 2 hours a pound when smoking a shoulder. However, after 15 hours for a 7 pounder, I was worried about over cooking it. My remote thermometer wouldn't get above 171 and I was worried it wasn't accurate anymore so I pulled it off the grill. It tasted great but only about half of it pulled apart easy. The rest I had to cut apart.

Any idea why it was taking so long?

07.01.13

Kevin Kolman

Hi Paul,

It sounds like a very fun and eventful barbecue session! Here is what I think happened…

I think you were right with your approach and regulating temperature. You did everything right, but need a little more patience. I’ve found that when smoking, the meat is done when it reads done. Sometimes I can smoke a little quicker with amazing results and other times it can take a little longer with equally amazing results. I have also found that for the best results, you should wrap the shoulder at an internal temperature of 170 degrees and place it back on the grill. Take it back up to 195 degrees and then put the shoulder into a dry cooler. Let it sweat for a few hours and you will have a pretty amazing result. Remember to be patient and make sure all temperature devices are working properly. Keep me posted on how the next one turns out.

Happy Grilling!
-Kevin

06.27.13

Paul W

Kevin,

After 15 years on my Genesis, I just bought a Performer Platinum to play around with. I did my first beer can chicken on it using lump charcoal and it was awesome. I would like to try a small pork shoulder on it. I know how to set it up with a water pan and use the baskets for indirect heat, but what charcoal would you recommend? I know I can add unlit lump every hour to maintain heat, but can I add unlit briquettes for longer heat or do I have to buy a chimney and light them before adding? Sorry, I'm a charcoal newbie.

Paul

06.26.13

Kevin Kolman

Hi Paul,

I appreciate you asking and remember that I’m here to help! I would say that for longer cooking, using briquettes will give you a more consistent burn and heat source over time. This is important, especially when smoking. Regarding a chimney starter…I think everyone who grills with charcoal should have one. No matter what the situation, you can always use one. When adding coals, which should be done every hour on the hour, those should be unlit. Using lit coals will cause a spike in temperature and can cause you to have to adjust the dampers more throughout the cooking process. I hope this helps and keep the questions coming.

Happy Grilling!
-Kevin

05.21.13

Mike R

I recently bought a Performer charcoal grill, and I have to agree with everyone who uses a combination of briquette and lump charcoal. I use a 90/10 briquette to lump ratio in my first chimney and then add a few extra pieces (usually large ones) of lump to build up heat. They light quickly and provide a quick solution for high heat later into your first chimney of charcoal.

One thing I've noticed with lump is that it can fall in a way that limits its burning potential. I remedied that by propping the lid barely open against the Tuck Away lid holder on my Performer and on a friend's 18.5" kettle.

Another easily overlooked remedy for lower heat when you need high heat is to do a thorough cleaning of the inside of the kettle so heat can reflect better. I did this (finally) and my pre-heat temperature went from around 450 to over 600.

Good Grilling,
Mike

04.22.13

Sean M

Kevin, I've got a ranch kettle grill and following the suggested quantity in the book (works out to be about 2 full chimneys). It doesn't maintain the heat I thought it would. When cooking with 10-15 guys, we end up having to add a lot of charcoal (ends up being almost 2 bags over 2.5 hrs) and that's with the lid mostly closed. Is there a more accurate quantity of briquettes when cooking direct heat for longer periods of time?

04.22.13

Kevin Kolman

Hi GrillersAnonymous,

Two full chimneys are about 200 plus briquettes, which should be more than enough to keep that grill hot for at least one hour. One tip I can share is to lay a thin layer of unlit briquettes on the charcoal grate. Then, place the lit chimneys over the unlit. This will help keep your fire going longer without having to add more. Another option would be to use a hardwood briquette. Also, keep the lid closed as much as possible and set timers. These are the two keys to grilling with charcoal. I hope this helps and keep me posted.

Happy Grilling!
-Kevin

07.21.12

Mike P

Kevin,

Your comment on 6/14/2011 about never adding more than 50 briquettes when cooking with charcoal caught my eye. Does this include direct cooking? I have been using my Weber 22 1/2" kettle for years and when direct grilling have always used much more than 50.

Thanks
Mike

07.21.12

Kevin Kolman

Hi Mike,


Refer to the grilling guides that are supplied with your grill, and you will find that for a 22.5 inch grill we recommend using 50 briquettes for either direct or indirect heat. The grilling guides are developed to help our grillers manage heat and obtain optimal grilling temperatures. Consistency and great grilled food is the name of the game. When placed in a large pile, the heat from the charcoal as a whole will get you the high searing temperatures you will need. Similarly, when you make two different piles opposite of each other with 25 briquettes on each side, it will give you the perfect 350-400 degree roasting temperature. Now depending on weather, the amount of food you are grilling, and how long you will be grilling, you might need to add more charcoal. For an average direct meal 50 briquettes should be more than enough to get the job done. Keep up all the great work and Happy Grilling!


- Kevin

04.25.12

jack t

Greetings. We have the Smokey Mountain Cooker (charcoal, 18.5") and have cooked a couple whole turkeys in it, with very good results, flavor-wise. However we are a little mystified at the amount of charcoal it seems to take us to maintain the temp within "Smoke" range. The manual says for whole turkey, 8-12 lbs, use 100 briquets (a charcoal chimney-style starter holds about 80). In this last cook we did, I ended up having to use three whole chimney-starter-fulls, over 5-6 hours. Here are the sequence of events, just for the record (all bottom vents open wide except where noted; top vent closed full or tiny crack off/on):

10am - add full chimney-starter of coals, temp goes up to 210° (this batch of coals was
doubtful, slightly burned from last use, maybe a tiny bit damp).
11:30am - temp down to 150°, add full chimney of new/good coals (already started that
is), temp shoots to 300°, close bottom vents 1/2, open top vent full, temp still
300°~ at 12:10
1:45pm - temp has dropped to below "smoke" range, add 1/2 chimney of started coals,
temp goes back up to 260°
2:30pm - the temp had again dropped below "smoke" and I blew on the coals with a
hairdryer, which got them going and shot the temp back to 250°. This is a
dependable trick, but blows ash all over the meat...)

2:50pm - ditto 1:45pm situation, add another 1/2 chimney of started coals

3:30pm - blow coals back to 250° with hairdryer

4:15pm - end off, had to finish turkey off in the oven for expediency, it was probably 80% cooked in cooker.

There was a mild wind off and on, but nothing severe, and it was warm out, 75° or so. The thing I noticed when checking the coals in the basket was that they generally looked like they were not burning hot enough, in spite of bottom vents wide open and mild breeze. I would have thought there would be ample airflow through all those vents to really burn them, but there was only a moderate amount of ash coming off them, and a lot of half-burned coal when we ended off. As you can see we added a lot more coals than the 12-14 bricquets every 3-4 hours that the manual says, to remedy low temp. I don't mind using more charcoal, I'd just like to know why it doesn't seem to burn hot enough. Per the bottom vent diagram, wide open should be max heat/burn. Please advise what I'm doing wrong, or can try. Thanks! jt

04.25.12

Kevin Kolman

Hi Jt101:
Wow,sounds like you have been on a little Weber adventure. Smoking is one of my favorite things, especially on a Smokey Mountain Cooker Smoker which I own 6. I have a couple of great tips to give you to get things back on track.

First, for smoking 6-8 hours use about 2 liters of water in the water pan. Second, adjust the vents on the bowl to about a 1/4-1/2 open. I try not to adjust these during smoking. During smoking I will only adjust the vent in the lid to control temperatures throughout the smoking process. Third, when setting up the smoker I use about 1.5 chimneys of unlit charcoal and about 50 briquettes of lit charcoal. I then put the smoker carefully together to preheat. Once the smoker has reached its ideal smoking temperature I then add the food.

Following this process you should be on the right track to smoking greatness. Hope this helps and Happy Grilling!!-Kevin

01.05.12

Mike M

As Webinator stated, the Lump Charcoal Database has a lot of good information in it. I found out about the DB after I purchased some Coconut Charcoal (not in the DB though) and wanted to know more.
I typically use a blend of briquettes and lump, and I still use coconut as well. The blending I feel gives me some more stability when I am going to go for several hours of grilling. The coconut experiences I have had showed me that it can burn for quite some time.
The only real problem I have had was with lumps falling through and getting caught in the spinner blades. Now that I have a Performer again with the baskets those problems have gone away

11.25.11

Michael H

I recently got a new Weber kettle after not having one for about 10 years. I never had any problems using briquettes, but I was told I should try lump charcoal. This model has the baskets and the propane lighter. I am finding that the lump charcoal doesn't light all that quickly. Also, I found that adding charcoal after 30-45 minutes is typically not very successful, i. e. the temperature doesn't come back up. I checked the vents and everything looks right (they were wide open). Has anyone else had these kinds of problems using lump charcoal in the baskets?

11.25.11

Kevin Kolman

Hi MHarper:
Congrats on your new Weber Performer Charcoal Grill with gas ignition. I have a Performer myself and I am very familiar with both types of fuel. I recommend using briquettes for beginner and intermediate grillers because they give a more constant heat overtime. Charcoal briquettes are much easier to use because they hold temperatures longer and last longer due to their design. Lump charcoal on the other hand does burn hotter and faster than a briquette making the grilling experience a little more advanced. Now, there are many different types of lump charcoal but from my experience lump does light a little bit faster than briquettes because lump charcoal does not have a distinct size like briquettes. Some pieces are larger while others are smaller. This is what makes working with lump more adventurous because it does not burn like a briquette. Although it burns, it will burn faster so you will have to add more to your pile sooner than you would briquettes.
I recommend that when grilling with lump, try starting the grill with the Char-Baskets together over the burner tube. Once lit you can then move the baskets to one side of the grill when the lump is completely ashed over. This will give you a nice high searing zone and a large indirect (safe zone) for grilling. You should have no problem grilling for 30-45 minutes. If you are going to be grilling for longer you will want to add more lump after you get done grilling your first batch of food. Once the grill is set up you then can adjust the damper on the lid according the temperatures you would like to grill with. Hope this helps if you have any other questions please let me know. Happy Holidays and Happy Grilling!!-Kevin

08.24.11

Andrew D

If you were to use a bead base with charcoal on the top would you ignite it all at the same time, or wait for the beads to almost ash over before adding the charcoal?

08.24.11

Kevin Kolman

Hi Dwerdna:
If I were going to add beads to my charcoal briquettes as a base I recommend that you ignite the beads first and then add the charcoal on top of the beads. Heat beads do take longer than briquettes to completely ash over. This is why I would add the charcoal after you have first ignited the beads. Happy Grilling!!-Kevin