The Griller’s Guide to Charcoal Briquets

Tue, Jul 19, 2005


Many barbecue and grilling aficionados depend on the humble charcoal briquet as their fuel source when firing up the grill. No propane for many an outdoor chef — only charcoal will do. Everyone seems to have their favorite brand of charcoal they like to buy too — Kingsford, MatchLight, Royal Oak. Are they all the same?

How is charcoal made? How much do you really know about the history of charcoal? Do you know how to best store and light your charcoal? How do you know when its ready too cook on. In this article I’ll try to give you the scoop on grilling with charcoal.

The Difference Between Charcoal and Charcoal Briquets

Prior to the invention of the briquet, lump charcoal was king. Charcoal is the product of burning wood in a low oxygen environment. The impurities and everything else burns off, leaving a lump of carbon, or charcoal. The charcoal burns hot, as it is the essence of the wood.

Briquets are made of scrap wood and sawdust that are likewise burned into carbon. This carbon is compressed with a starch binder and ground coal and molded into the briquet shape we all know. The uniform shape gives charcoal a nice, even heat for grilling.

Charcoal briquets burn so slowly because the carbon (which is what burns) is tightly compressed, making it hard for oxygen to penetrate it. However, charcoal also burns off the binding agents and other chemicals, so some cooks prefer to barbecue with natural lump charcoal instead, because of its lack of binders and fillers.

The History of the Charcoal Briquets

In the 1920s it was none other than Henry Ford and his friend Thomas Edison who figured out a way to turn the wood scraps from the production of Model T’s into charcoal briquets. Ford built a charcoal plant to produce the briquets and named the company Ford Charcoal. Later, it was renamed in honor of Ford’s relative E. G. Kingsford who purchased the new invention from Ford and grew the company into Kingsford, the charcoal that many of us still use today.

Storing Charcoal Briquettes

One good thing about charcoal is that the shelf life is indefinite so long as the briquets are stored in a cool, dry place. If the charcoal briquets become damp, they will not light efficiently. If you are using charcoal coated with lighter fluid (such as MatchLight) leaving the bag open will cause the solvent to evaporate. This will also prevent the briquets from lighting properly. If your charcoal does get wet for whatever reason, you might as well just throw it away because you’re going to have a heck of time lighting it.

You can keep the charcoal in the bag, but you should make sure that the top is clipped shut after each use. The best way I’ve found to store your charcoal is in a large plastic tub with a lid or a small trash can. A couple of five gallon buckets (withs lids) will also do the trick.

Lighting a Charcoal Fire

To light charcoal, arrange them in a mound in the center of the grill. Add lighter fluid to coat the charcoal evenly, and let it soak in for about a minute before lighting it with a match. Never add more lighter fluid after the fire has started.

Several brands of self-starting charcoal are now available. These essentially are charcoal that have been pre-coated with the equivalent of lighter fluid. They are easier to start, that’s for sure. You may also want to consider an electric starter or a chimney starter, which will light the fire without the use of chemicals.

Knowing When Charcoal is Ready for Grilling

The charcoal is ready for grilling when the briquets turn ash gray in daylight or glowing red at night. This usually takes anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.

If you need to add additional charcoal while grilling, here is the recommended method. Add 10 or 12 briquets to the outer edge of the fire immediately after it has been spread. Once these coals become 80% ashed over, add to the center of the fire as needed.

Specialty Charcoals

There are a number of specialty charcoal variations on the market today. One of the most popular is charcoal that is embedded with wood chips such as Mesquite or Oak. These add additional smoke and flavor to the fire while cooking. These work well, and there’s no learning curve since they are used just like traditional briquets.

Other specialty boutique charcoals are marketed as chemical free or manufactured from certain types of wood. While more expensive, they offer purists an option from the mass produced charcoal.

One Response to “The Griller’s Guide to Charcoal Briquets”