In anticipation of the sizzling steaks, ribs, and chicken I’m going to grill this summer, I’m stocking up on charcoal.
But which charcoal should I buy? Lump or briquettes? Grade A or Grade B? Flavored or unflavored?
Troy Olsen (a sales representative for Associated Energy Systems), educated me in the finer points of charcoal. And let me tell you, Troy knows his charcoal.
Charcoal is recycled timber. When timber is harvested, some parts of the trees cannot be milled into lumber. Those remnants are bundled and loaded into air-controlled ovens that charcoalize the wood.
Grade A Lump Charcoal
This is the charcoal that’s on top of the pile once the wood has been charcoalized. It’s typically larger in size than other forms of charcoal, which makes it easier to start. When you grill with Grade A lump charcoal, you’ll see very few sparks flying out of the grill.
Grade B Lump Charcoal
This is the charcoal that’s in the middle of the charcoalized pile. It’s typically smaller in size, and because tree bark, sand, and dirt from the ground can get in it, you’ll see more sparks flying out of your grill.
This is charcoal dust – small pieces of charcoal at the bottom of the pile – that get ground up and mixed with sand and a binding agent to become charcoal briquettes. Sometimes, briquettes have a paraffin-type wax mixed in, making them self-lighting.
Which type of charcoal to use?
Most grills use lump charcoal because it’s far more economical than briquettes, which use one-third of their lifespan just to get the fire started. With lump charcoal, you can begin cooking as soon as your grill is at the right temperature, usually within 5-7 minutes.
Big Green Egg, for example, produces lump charcoal that’s a blend of four species of wood: hickory, maple, oak, and mesquite. Because BGE charcoal is a blend of woods, your smoked foods will have a mesquite and hickory flavor, says Troy.
Wicked Good Charcoal is produced from a hardwood (similar to ironwood), which gives it a long burn time, but less flavor for your food. This type of lump charcoal is ideal for desserts, hearth breads and pizza – foods where you don’t want a mesquite flavor.
And if you use Wicked Good Charcoal to grill salmon, for instance, you can add alder chips to obtain a delicious alder flavor.
Starting your charcoal
There are several methods for starting lump charcoal. At Rich’s, you can buy a chimney for starting charcoal. “You put the charcoal in the chimney, put newspaper underneath it in the changer, and light new newspaper – it takes five minutes,” says Troy.
Troy notes that some grills – including the Big Green Egg – don’t need chimneys. Rich’s sells EGGcessories such as firestarters (made from sawdust and paraffin), an electric starter, and an EGGcelerator (pictured, left) that attaches to the draft door of some EGGS and fans the lump charcoal.
Once the heat is established, the remaining charcoal is used to maintain the heat – low and slow for barbecuing… hot and fast for grilling.
Be sure to stop by one of Rich's five Puget Sound showrooms — Bellevue, Lynnwood, Southcenter, Tacoma, or Silverdale — for all your charcoal and grilling needs.