Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes — Which is Better, When, and Why?
When it comes to charcoal, you have one main choice to make: Lump or briquettes? In this guide, we compare and contrast the pros and cons of each. We discuss when to use one or the other and the benefits gained from switching between the two at the correct times.
Leaving aside the favored brand — or even sometimes color — of your grill, and whether to use a Texas Crutch during a ribs or brisket cook, possibly the most heated debate in the whole world of grilling is that of lump charcoal vs briquettes.
Charcoal, because of its high carbon content, has more potential energy than raw wood: it can provide cooking heat that burns hotter, more steadily, and cleaner than dried wood.
To say a fire burns cleaner is merely saying it’s free of eye-watering, sneeze-inducing chemicals going up in smoke. And that’s one of the benefits of using charcoal rather than dried wood.
There are two basic types of charcoal:
Almost everybody has an opinion on which is best, and many will argue fiercely for their chosen side.
So, what is the difference between the two types? What are their origins, advantages and disadvantages? Why do some choose one fuel type over the other?
That’s what we’re going to look at in this guide and by the end of the discussion, you’ll have a good grasp of which best suits your grilling or smoking needs.
Lump Vs Briquettes Key Takeaways
- Lump — Is 100% all natural carbonized wood, burns hotter but faster, irregular shape can mean irregular inconsistent burns. It adds more smoke flavor to food.
- Briquettes — Are compressed sawdust that’s carbonized, often contains fillers and binders, burns cooler but for longer, burns consistently due to uniform shape. Adds low smoke flavor to food.
- Can use either in most grills or smokers.
- Lumpwood is better for high heat searing and grilling, and where you want to add the most flavor.
- Briquettes are better for controlled, low and slow smoking cooks — except in kamado style grills where you must use lump.
What Wood Would Do?
There are two basic types of trees, hardwood and softwood. They’re defined by whether they keep their leaves year ‘round.
Softwoods include pine, fir, cedar, and spruce — these keep their leaves. They contain high amounts of saponins and turpines, chemical compounds used to make soap and foam-free fire extinguishers. Not surprisingly, they introduce a weird taste in anything cooked over them which could make some people sick.
And that’s why charcoal is always made from hardwood. These leaf shedders include:
Hardwoods contribute to the flavor of foods. Interestingly, where and how a tree grows matters more than the type of tree.
Factors affecting wood flavor:
- Bark thickness
- Wood’s drying time
- Water content
Grilled meat with a regional accent — how cool is that!
Purity and Charcoal Quality
Unfortunately, there are no international standards for the manufacture of charcoal. You’ll have to take their word for it that they’re using untreated wood.
And realistically a bag of lump charcoal could have more than one tree type, depending on what’s available from the wood source. But a blend of woods could make for a unique flavor experience.
On the bags or in the online product description, there may be some language about quality processes. These should eliminate or sharply reduce your chance of finding rock, metal, PVC or other oddities nestled in with your charcoal.
Those are the basics of charcoal. You may want to check out this short overview video by Fine Cooking, Lump vs. Briquette — just ignore the hand-over-fire test and use an IR thermometer.