Every barbecue enthusiast has an opinion about the best fuel to use on a charcoal grill. If you’ve not thought much about your fuel options, you should, because the fuel you use can make a big difference to the quality of your barbecued meals.
The three fuel options are charcoal, briquettes and wood.
In this article we’ll look at each of these in turn and then make some suggestions about the best ways to use each of them on your charcoal grill.
Mankind has been making charcoal for thousands of years, and probably been using it for cooking for almost as long.
Charcoal is made by burning wood in an atmosphere starved of oxygen, and while it’s burning, water and other volatile components in the wood are vaporized. The charcoal produced is used as a fuel instead of wood.
It’s good for cooking food over because it burns more consistently than wood and it doesn’t impart any particular flavors (good or bad) to the food cooked. Flavors can be produced by adding wood chips to the burning charcoal (we’ll discuss this later).
Generally speaking, the best woods for burning on an open fire are also the best ones for producing charcoal. But very often when you buy lump charcoal for a BBQ grill you’re not told what type of wood was used to make it, but if you do get a choice choose charcoal made from hardwoods such as oak, hickory or mesquite. Avoid the inferior charcoal produced from timber off-cuts.
Charcoal briquettes appeared on the marketplace after Henry Ford spotted an opportunity to use the wood waste produced from car manufacturing to make charcoal briquettes. He did this by making use of a previously patented technique for producing “fuel briquettes”.
This technique involved a special process for combining and compressing granulated charcoal (produced form his waste wood) with a mixture of borax (used to aid the manufacturing process) and petroleum products (used to bind the wood-chips together and help ignition).
Henry Ford was definitely onto a good thing. He made lots of money selling his briquettes for the nations charcoal grills. Today there are lots of different varieties and brands of briquettes on the marketplace, some of which don’t contain the unpleasant-smelling petroleum products.
However, even if you can avoid buying briquettes containing petroleum products, it’s still best to let them burn for a while on your charcoal grill before you start grilling food to make sure that you get rid of any other substances that might affect the taste and smell of your food.
Lots of people use a Charcoal Grill Chimney Starter to prepare the briquettes for their grills. This method avoids putting burning coals onto your grill until the unpleasant substances in them have burned off. Using a chimney starter you can also replenish your grill with fresh batches of hot briquettes when you are barbecuing for long periods of time.
Many barbecue veterans prefer to use wood for their barbecue grills. The reason isn’t hard to understand. Burning wood gives off natural substances which can impart the most wonderful tastes to food. These substances are lost if the same wood is converted to charcoal.
The really interesting fact about these flavoring substances is that they differ from one type of wood to another. So if you barbecue the same food with hardwoods such as oak, beech and hickory the chances are that you’ll notice a very different taste with each variety of wood.
What’s the Best Fuel for a Charcoal Grill?
There are advantages and disadvantages for each of the three types of barbecue grill fuel.
Briquettes are extremely popular and widely available. We’ve pointed out some of their limitations, but one of the big advantages of briquettes is that they’re easy to handle and transport, and when they burn they maintain a consistent high temperature (600 degrees F and higher) for long periods.
Some types of hardwood Charcoal lumpswill also provide high temperatures, but natural charcoal will frequently not maintain a particular temperature for longer periods.
Wood can reach even higher temperatures than either briquettes or natural charcoal but it’s not easy to maintain these temperatures. If it’s important to maintain a consistent high temperature with wood you’ll probably need to replenish your grill with fresh wood during the cooking period.
One very important point to make is that if you are using wood on your charcoal grill, remember to keep the grill open. If you don’t do this your food will end up tasting far too smoky – perhaps even inedible.
Getting the Best Results on Your Charcoal Grill
Wood will give you superb results on a charcoal grill providing you bear in mind the tips and guidance we’ve provided above. But if you don’t want to be involved with the extra effort and skill that’s involved if you barbecue with wood you can compensate for the lost flavors by burning wood chips with your briquettes or charcoal lumps.
If you want to use wood chips soak them thoroughly in water first and then scatter them on the glowing coals before and (if necessary) during cooking. They will smolder and eventually burn up, but whilst they are doing this they will introduce the magic flavors into your cooking which you won’t get by burning charcoal or briquettes on their own.
The big benefit of adopting this approach to barbecuing is that you can experiment with a wide variety of different types of wood chip to produce varied and interesting flavors into your barbecue food.
Here’s a list of the different types of wood chip and the foods they are reckoned to go well with:
- Oak chips are good for all types of barbecue food, especially beef and lamb
- Pecan & Hickory produce a rich, dense smoke which is reckoned to be good for pork
- Mesquite is excellent for beef
- Maple produces a much milder smoke which is good for poultry, seafood and pork
- Alder produces a light flavor particularly suited to salmon, turkey and chicken
- Apple produces a very tangy smoke. It’s good for chicken pork and game
- Cherry produces a sweet and tangy smoke and is good for salmon and duck.
There are lots more different types of wood chips. If you want to experiment with a few types purchase several small size bags of chips from your local BBQ Shop or from a good online store like Amazon.com