- 1 Should You Buy Kingsford Charcoal?
- 2 What is Charcoal? (200)
- 3 Where Do You Buy Charcoal?
- 4 Types of Charcoal
- 5 Can You Use Pellets in Place of Charcoal?
- 6 How do You Make Your Own Charcoal?
- 7 What Are the Best Types of Wood to Use for Charcoal?
- 8 Your Charcoal, Your Way
Should You Buy Kingsford Charcoal?
We buy Kingsford charcoal from the store and think nothing of it.
Suburbia grills are littered with it, while a bunch of guys and gals have no idea that there could be a better way depending on their grill, and what their preferences are.
Those are called charcoal briquettes, and while they are the dominant form of charcoal in this day and age (and for over a century, I might add), they’re not the only option available at your fingertips.
There are actually five primary types of coal, each with their own little off-shoot subcategories, but they can all basically be roped into five.
All you need to remember is five different types of charcoal, and the next time you’re at the store trying to make a decision, this post will come back to your mind.
Let’s start by really describing what charcoal is in the first place.
What is Charcoal? (200)
Charcoal is wood that’s been stripped down to its most basic form: carbon.
Utilizing a method of low-oxygen cooking, a low temperature steadily burns the wood, reducing its volatile compounds.
These compounds include hydrogen and water.
Charcoal is what’s left in the absence of remaining organic life.
That sounds a bit horrifying, but it’s basically the carbon in life completely condensed down into a simple little piece of fuel that you can use.
Most charcoal is going to come from softwood, but hardwood charcoal is popular amongst those who use smokers since it gives a longer burn without having to buy additional charcoal.
The dream is that you can light it and forget about it, and smoke the day away.
Charcoal tends to ignite rather quickly, though it can take a bit of encouragement sometimes.
That’s why we have charcoal chimneys for you to use when you’re trying to get everything lit up.
Where Do You Buy Charcoal?
You can get it from anywhere: Lowe’s, Amazon, even the supermarket (though usually just during the middle of summer).
However, if you’re a big griller and you like to keep a ton of charcoal handy, you could buy from local charcoal companies.
If it’s made locally, it’s going to be cheaper for you to go and pick up 100+ pounds than it would be to opt for whichever type of Kingsford charcoal they’re trying to push on us this season.
Types of Charcoal
There are five different types of charcoal that are in use today.
Each has its own benefits, some are even available for you to make on your own.
Lump charcoal is often thought of being superior to briquettes, but since it’s difficult to package and hard to control the outcome of the lump shapes, it’s not the most sought after.
We buy a lot of things with our eyes, after all.
These burn quicker and at a higher temperature than briquettes, but may also burn out faster as a result.
Since lump charcoal responds to oxygen extraordinarily well, you can manipulate the vents on your charcoal grill to actually control the temperature range in a short amount of time.
Watch the temp gauge on your charcoal grill change within seconds while using lump charcoal.
The most common charcoal that’s been around since the 19th century.
Charcoal briquettes are basically your go-to because of how slowly they burn.
These are made in low oxygen environments, just like most charcoal, but they can be left to burn for days at a time until they’re just right.
Briquettes can be purchase in large-scale volume bags, and remain among the cheapest ways to use your charcoal grill today.
Making briquettes on your own is a very difficult feat, but one that can be achieved.
You have the most versatility with briquettes since most major brands will make them out of a ton of different wood types.
These are also made in the shape and fashion of briquettes, but hardwood tends to burn slower.
It’s a denser type of wood, which means the heat moves through it slowly.
You can end up paying about 1.7x the amount of money on a bag of hardwood briquettes than standard softwood briquettes, but depending on how often you grill, it could be worth it.
Since they burn for longer, it’s a viable option if you don’t want to constantly refill your charcoal chimney, or you’re trying to have an all-day grilling affair and want to actually get a chance to socialize as well.
You can tend to the grill without having to constantly dump more charcoal in.
Binchotan has been around for hundreds of years, and they’re made during an extremely slow process that can take weeks on end.(*)
Traditionally, they’re made from Japanese oak trees, but that’s not the only reason they’re unique.
They don’t just use split pieces of wood; they actually use the branches as well.
In these kilns, it can take one to three weeks on a very, very low temperature to actually reach the right consistency.
While this isn’t something you’re going to run into on a regular basis (not traditional binchotan, anyway), it’s definitely another piece of awesome grilling history to know about.
Coconut Shell Charcoal
Learning about these was a ton of fun.
Coconut shells don’t have much use once you actually get the coconut out from the middle, and extract the coconut water.
Instead of the standard burning process, coconut shell charcoal is made by doing something called distillation, which makes it stronger and burn longer than standard charcoal.
This could either mimic the cost of standard briquettes or depending on your area, it might be an arm and a leg to get your hand on some.
It doesn’t have a specific aroma when it burns, but these little shell chips actually burn for way longer than you would expect them to.
Can You Use Pellets in Place of Charcoal?
You can use pellets in a charcoal grill, but it’s going to give a different experience.
Wood pellets require very high heat to burn effective, around 1,100° F, and it can cause a lot of problems when you’re trying to keep consistent heat.
If you notice, pellet grills have hoppers and steel tubes with an ignition chamber for a reason.
It keeps the oxygen levels low so that the wood can burn slowly.
If you just set a big pile of wood on fire in your charcoal grill, it’s going to burn out quickly and char your food worse than you ever thought possible.
You can’t really close the lid, because if you sap away all the oxygen, then you’re left with mostly useless wood that isn’t going to reignite.
All I’m saying is that they invented charcoal for a reason; it works better, and you can use low oxygen environments because it can work effectively while smoldering at lower temperatures.
It’s not a good idea to use wood pellets in a charcoal grill, for fuel efficiency and consistency in your finished foods.
How do You Make Your Own Charcoal?
Charcoal is a slow process, but one that you can hone with a bit of DIY know-how and some power tools.
If you can get your hands on a metal 55-gallon drum (with a lid), then you’re in business.
Charcoal needs to burn in a low oxygen environment, meaning that you’ll need to get crafty.
Fill your barrel with all the wood you’re going to use for charcoal, and do not fill it with anything else.
Once it’s full, you can begin burning it by lighting a fire in several separate locations.
Drill holes should be positioned in the bottom of the barrel, as well as a few on the side, and a couple on the top to allow smoke out.
Put the lid on your barrel once it begins smoldering.
The low oxygen environment you create by replacing the lid will leave the wood on a low smolder, with just enough oxygen to keep the heat going.
After about six hours, your wood will have reduced to about 50% of the original weight that you put in there.
You’ve burned away all the hydrogen and water and reduced its weight, but made it perfect for lighting a fire.
What Are the Best Types of Wood to Use for Charcoal?
There are two categories we need to run down in order to make that distinction: softwood and hardwood.
For softwood, pine is probably the best charcoal you can make, but for hardwood, oak is the number one go-to.
There aren’t a lot of hardwoods that people use, primarily because they can lead to these orange sparks that jut out during ignition, making it harder to actually get the fire going.
Softwood is the primary choice for charcoal because it’s easier to burn and less expensive.
You can find certain softwoods in such abundance that people are giving it away for free.
Take a look at which wood is most abundant in your area, and source it locally to keep costs down.
It could end up being cheaper to run your charcoal grill than a gas one.
Pine is cheap like it’s really cheap.
Consider the fact that it’s one of the least viable woods for construction or building in any capacity, and it makes it useful for firewood.
That’s about it.
Pine is dirt cheap and easy to burn, but you’re going to need a lot of it to get the right amount of charcoal.
Plenty of this moist wood will burn away during the charcoal compound-stripping process.
That’s okay though because even with that in mind, it’s still going to be really inexpensive to make this yourself.
You might even notice that store-bought pine charcoal will be lighter on your wallet.
I would put this somewhere between pine and ashwood.
Aspen is inexpensive, and in my book, a good additive to hybrid charcoals.
Putting this in with some hardwood would be excellent because aspen charcoal tends to light quickly and help ignite a good, long burning fire in your bottom of your grill.
Aspen wood is inexpensive, but it’s surprisingly not located everywhere.
You’re going to have a better time sourcing the wood and making the charcoal yourself than just buying aspen charcoal.
Ashwood trees grow fairly quickly, and they’re everywhere.
You want to opt for white ash when you can, but black ash is still a good type of wood to use.
Ashwood is most commonly used in smokers, though you can absolutely make you8r own charcoal out of it.
You’re going to end up with lumps, as even achieving a slightly briquette-shaped result here is going to be difficult.
Ashwood is rather inexpensive, so you might even be able to find a local supplier that isn’t charging crazy prices.
Charcoal can be used in art as well as for grilling, and willow charcoal is actually the most preferred artist-grade charcoal there is.
Willow charcoal can be pretty pricey, and there aren’t a whole ton of benefits over choosing a different type of softwood instead.
It just comes down to preference.
If you live in an area that has a bunch of willow trees that you’re legally allowed to cut down, then why not give it a shot?
It’s it can be sourced for free, it’s definitely worth it. Willow charcoal burns at a steady, standard rate.
This one’s tricky, because technically, balsa is actually a hardwood.
However, when you’re manipulating it for construction and for charcoal, it’s actually pretty soft and easy to work with.
Since hardwood is denser than softwood, balsa falls in that gray area in between.
Balsa is generally cheap but more abundant in the midwest than anywhere else (kind of like how you’ll find pine in more abundance up north).
Balsa has a high moisture content, so it can take a lot longer to actually burn it and make charcoal.
But to save money, it’s worth it.
Maplewood isn’t all too hard to come by, it’s just more of a regional thing, so some locations in the US might have to pay more to import it.
You can make maple charcoal pretty easily since it burns pretty quickly.
Maplewood literally has sugar inside of it, so it burns quickly in the beginning, but as it becomes charcoal, you’ll notice the maple scent dissipate and become more subtle.
Maple charcoal might burn a little faster than balsa and willow, but it gets the job done without having to spend a lot of money.
It’s a good wood to choose when you’re trying to get started with making your own charcoal.
Hardwood makes for excellent charcoal, primarily because it burns a lot slower.
If you can learn to make your own hardwood charcoal, you’ll be able to keep fires alive for hours on end without needing to add accelerants or additional charcoal.
There’s a reason people pay top dollar for it.
Oak charcoal tends to come out in lump form, and it can take a super long time to burn.
That’s why everyone loves it, and why you’ll see so many people online actually opt to buy it instead of standard charcoal briquettes.
It’s going to give them a longer burn, making it perfect for those days where the grill is just going from 10:00 AM until the bottle of Jack is empty at midnight.
Oakwood is very easy to source, but it can definitely take a long time to dry out, so you’ll have to have some patience going into this one.
Hickory wood is a beloved wood type by Kingsford, but the way they make their briquettes, I’m not so sure it makes a difference.
If you’re going to make hickory charcoal on your own, don’t obliterate it as they do.
Hickory wood lights extremely quickly, which can be a blessing and a curse at the same time.
You can burn through your charcoal rather quickly, or you can just mix some of this in with oak charcoal to get a quick ignition with a long-term burn.
Hickory wood can be difficult to source, so be sure to have a way to acquire it before attempting to make it.
Your Charcoal, Your Way
Whether you go with a lump, briquettes, coconut shells, or you decide to make your own, we both know that charcoal grilling makes everything taste better.
Check out our guide on the pros and cons of grilling versus smoking, and put some of these unique charcoal types to the test.
Pick the ones that burn slower for your smoker, the charcoals that burn brighter for your grill, and go make something fantastic.
If you’re not sure what to make next, you could grab an idea from our grilling guide with 33 recipes between various meats, seafood, and vegetables.
Get inspired, then get cooking.