Choosing the right fuel for your BBQ is critical. Not only does it provide the heat source for you to cook your food over, but it also imparts a flavour to your food just like any other ingredient. Different types of fuel will burn at different rates so understanding the differences between them will help you choose the right fuel for your cooks.
In this section, we are going to focus on charcoal as I think a gas BBQ is relatively self explanatory.
Resource page contents
- What is the difference between Lumpwood and Briquettes?
- Deciding which fuel to use
- What is a Chimney starter and how do they work?
- Adding the right amount of fuel
What is the difference between Lumpwood Charcoal and Briquettes?
In its most basic form, lumpwood charcoal is almost pure carbon created by heating wood in the absence of oxygen. Heating wood in this environment removes water, gasses and other substances to leave you with dry lumps of carbon. The lumps of carbon, known as ‘Char’ burn hotter and more consistently than simply burning wood making it perfect for cooking on your BBQ. It is the closest you will get to cooking on the embers from a hardwood fire.
Charcoal Briquettes are made from the same carbonised wood that is ground down and formed into the famous pillow shaped briquette. This form of fuel is generally bound using natural ingredients such as starch. As they are tightly formed, they burn at a slower rate extending your cook time but still provide enough heat to cook over.
Why Quality Matters
Unfortunately, not all lumpwood charcoal or briquettes are made equal. Some fuels are treated with accelerants to make them “easier to light” however these can taint your food. These products will often recommend not using the charcoal until it is completely covered in a layer of white ash, at which point most of the accelerants should have burned off. If you open a bag of charcoal or briquettes and all you can smell is lighter fluid, I would avoid them. These products are often labelled ‘Easy light’ but in my experience, a good quality natural product will light easily in a chimney starter so there is no need for these accelerants.
Everyone has their own preferred fuel choice so I’m not trying to tell you what brand to buy. Try out some of the more reputable brands such as Weber, Aussie Heat Beads or some of the great local British charcoal brands. Once you find a brand you are happy with, stick with it.
Learning how your fuel burns in your BBQ and how to achieve your desired temperature will make your life a lot easier. Different brands of lumpwood or briquettes will burn differently so being consistent with your fuel choice will help you learn the best way to set up your BBQ.
Deciding which fuel to use
Lumpwood charcoal burns hot and fast for around one hour. Whilst it’s possible to control how quickly lumpwood burns by controlling the airflow, it can be a little difficult to master for long cooks. If you are simply cooking up a couple of steaks or a few burgers then you can’t beat lumpwood. It is generally made from hardwoods such as beech or oak but some producers also create fruit wood charcoals. Each different variety of charcoal has its own flavour profile so it’s great to experiment with different food / charcoal combinations. Think of your charcoal as another ingredient and choose your variety accordingly.
Try to aim for a restaurant grade charcoal. This will have been graded both in size and quality to a much higher standard than some of the cheaper, supermarket brands. You should also look out for charcoal that has been sourced from a sustainable source, usually identified with the FSC logo on the bag. These products have to meet certain standards to ensure the forests they are soured from are being managed properly.
If you are cooking for anything over an hour, the easiest way to maintain that temperature inside your BBQ is to use briquettes as they will burn more consistently for a longer period of time. They are all uniform in shape so, in theory, each briquette should give you the same amount of heat.
This is a huge advantage when you are first starting to learn temperature control. If adding 20 lit briquettes to your BBQ gives you a specific temperature, then you can expect to get a similar temperature the next time you add 20.
They are made to burn for a long time – usually around 2.5-3 hours at a steady temperature. This is a fantastic way to manage those longer cooks and take some of the stress out of fire management.
As I mentioned above, you want to avoid a lot of the ‘easy to light’ products as they generally contain chemicals to help them ignite. So what is the best way to light your charcoal?
What is a Chimney Starter and How to they work?
A chimney starter is by far one of the easiest ways to light the charcoal for your BBQ. The old method of placing a few fire lighters under a stack of charcoal then dousing it with lighter fuel not only adds a bad flavour to your food, but it can take a long time before your coals are ready to cook on. Add to that the fact that not all the charcoal will light at the same rate and it can easily stress you out before the first piece of meat hits the grill!
A chimney starter takes away all that annoyance as it will light all your charcoal evenly and quickly. It becomes especially useful when lighting briquettes as they are notoriously harder to light that standard lumpwood charcoal.
So how do they work?
You simply fill your desired amount of charcoal into the chimney starter, place some form of lighter on the charcoal grate of your BBQ and set the chimney starter on top of it. The starter is designed to draw air through the bottom, up through your charcoal and out the top (like a chimney). The rush of air flowing through the coals lights them up quickly and as they are all held together in the cylinder, they are evenly lit all the way through.
You will know your coals are ready when the top layer of charcoal has turned white and the flames are dancing at the top.
Using a BBQ Glove, simply pour the lit coals into the BBQ and add your cooking grate. After a few minutes with the lid on to pre-heat your cooking grate, you are ready to cook. A full chimney starter of lumpwood charcoal should light in around 10-15 minutes. Briquettes can take up to 20-25 minutes to get a full chimney going.
A lot of people moved away from charcoal BBQ’s as they were such a pain to light but this simply isn’t an issue any more. It is recommended that you pre-heat your Gas BBQ for around 15 minutes before cooking so the time difference between the two is negligible.
Adding the right amount of fuel
Another great benefit of a chimney starter is that they allow you to measure the amount of charcoal you are adding to your BBQ so you will quickly learn how much fuel is needed to achieve a desired temperature. By keeping track of the level the chimney was filled to and the resulting grill temperature, it can make it easier to hit your target temperature i.e. 2/3 chimney starter of briquettes = 180-200C….. Ideal for roasting when setup for indirect cooking.
I’ve never talked to someone who has purchased a chimney starter and didn’t think it was one of the best investments they had ever made. They make getting a fire going really easy and hassle free allowing you to concentrate on the thing that matters, cooking your food!
So hopefully that has explained some of the differences between lumpwood charcoal and Briquettes, and when you might choose to use each of them. There is no best fuel to use – simply try to buy the best quality you can afford, and find one you like the taste of.
If you are only starting to build up your BBQ gear, a chimney starter should be one of the first things you buy. I truly believe that no charcoal BBQ owner should be without one. It was the best money I ever spent on BBQ gear.
If you’ve been following through all these resource section in order, you should be starting to get a good understanding of this amazing way to cook, but there is one more fundamental thing I want to talk about…. smoke!