Charcoal is one of those mysterious variables in grilling and barbecuing. For every charcoal product on the market you'll find at least a dozen opinions about what is best, most traditional, or most flavorful. One thing is clear – not all charcoal is the same. The way different types of charcoal is made contributes to how the product works. You can even blend different types of charcoal to get unique flavors from your meat. It all starts with how charcoal is made.
A Brief History of Charcoal
Somewhere in the ancient history of humans, we learned how to create and use fire for cooking, warmth, and protection. Around that same time, man learned that charcoal burns hotter and cleaner than wood. It's impossible to say when or how we discovered the secrets of making charcoal, but it has been an important commodity for all of history to every civilization.
Charcoal was once primarily made for the purpose of metallurgy. Charcoal allows for much higher temperatures which are essential when smelting iron, copper, silver, steel, and numerous other metals. At this period, charcoal was only rarely used for cooking food as it was a relatively difficult and expensive product to produce.
Charcoal gained prominence as a cooking fuel sometime after the discovery of barbacoa, a type of structure used for slow cooking meat that Spanish explorers found on the islands of the Caribbean. Charcoal and its use in barbecue cooking run hand in hand from there.
Edison, Ford, Stafford, and Kingsford
Shortly after World War I came to a close, the Ford Motor Company was selling cars almost as fast as they could make them. A group of friends that included Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs began annual "camping" trips in various parts of the country. These trips often entailed as many as 20 cars complete with staff to serve the party. One camping trip led to Ford purchasing timberland in Michigan for use in making the numerous wooden parts of the Model T.
From Ford's Waste, Charcoal is Made
Ford asked his cousin-in-law, Edward Kingsford, to help with the project. The sawmill and parts plant was a success, but resulted in a tremendous amount of wood waste. Instead of discarding the leftovers, Ford teamed up with Orin Stafford, a University of Oregon chemist who had patented the charcoal briquette. Stafford's method reduces the charcoal powder that is often waste by combining it with a binding agent and pressing it into pillow-shaped blocks.
Ford saw the potential in charcoal production and enlisted the help of his camping buddy, Thomas Edison, to design a briquette factory at the site of the saw mill. For many decades, Ford Charcoal was only available from the Ford dealership which had the effect of reducing the marketability of the material.
All that changed in 1951 when the plant and product were sold and renamed Kingsford in honor of the town that had grown around the plant and the man who helped make it possible. Once briquettes were available in local stores, barbecuing on charcoal became a national pastime virtually overnight.
Is Charcoal Burnt Wood?
Regardless of whether you use lump charcoal or briquettes, they start out as wood that is burnt. The trick to making charcoal is to burn enough of the wood to release the moisture (and numerous toxins along with it) while leaving a product that is nearly pure carbon. Carbon is the result of heated and oxygen deprived wood which gives you the perfect product for cooking.
How Do You Make Charcoal?
The process of making charcoal is both simple and complex at the same time. At the essence of it, wood is piled up then ignited and smothered. In the ancient days, making charcoal was very wasteful because the process was not easy to control. The wood can reach too high of a temperature and burn, creating ash instead of charcoal. When temperatures fail to reach a high enough point, more wood will remain. The result is poorly burning charcoal. Producers today use strictly regulated processes to ensure efficiency and high-quality results unheard of 100 years ago when Ford and Edison built their first charcoal factory.
The process works because heat from smoldering causes evaporation of moisture and the wood is converted to carbon through a process called pyrolysis. In order for this to work, the wood must burn in a high temperature and low oxygen environment. When it is done correctly, the result is a product that releases few toxins, burns cleanly, and lasts much longer than raw wood.
Can You Make Charcoal at Home?
Making charcoal at home isn't difficult but you will need to remember that this is a traditional charcoal making method and your end results may not be as good as some of the products you can buy. To make charcoal at home, you will need a large steel drum, a source of untreated hardwood, some type of fire starter, and about two days of time.
To make charcoal, you'll need to start a fire in the empty drum. Begin adding chunks of hardwood that are roughly the size you plan to use in your grill. Add wood in layers, waiting in between additions for the fire to burn the previous layer. Continue adding and waiting until the barrel is full and the burning wood is largely ignited. This is an important step because it allows the smoke, wood gases, and volatile chemicals to burn off.
Put the lid on the barrel to create a high heat and low oxygen environment and let the fire smolder until it is out. This can take 24 hours or longer. If you remove the lid before the fire is out, there is a good chance the hot embers will reignite and light your fresh charcoal on fire.
Do not use water to put the fire out as this will ruin your charcoal. It is really important to wait until the fire is totally out before removing the lid. Make sure there are no smoldering pieces when you remove them from the barrel for storage. Don't accidentally light your house on fire because you didn't notice the charcoal burning in the storage bin.
Hardwood Charcoal vs. Charcoal Briquettes
Many Americans grow up with family barbecue parties where charcoal briquettes are the most common fuel. Briquettes have many advantages –they're cheap, easy to light, and leave very little ash compared to wood. But there are some disadvantages, too. The composition of the briquettes is sketchy at best since you have no idea what types of wood are used to make the product and you don't know what was added to it.
Charcoal briquettes are frequently made from whatever material happens to be available. This can include sawdust, wood scraps, and other waste products. This is all ground up and pressed into the familiar shape we know and love. Briquettes may be made from any combination of hardwood, soft wood, or fruit wood and often contain other chemical additives to improve the burning or lighting properties.
Then there is lump charcoal. If you haven't tried this type of charcoal, we highly recommend giving it a go. Lump is made from unprocessed chunks of hardwood. Most often, one type of wood is used in the production. This allows for unique flavor profiles from the types of wood. Some of the most common hardwoods are oak, hickory, and maple. Fruit and nut woods are also common. You'll find lump charcoal from cherry, apple, walnut, pecan, and other similar trees. You might even find charcoal made from exotic hardwood species like mahogany, teak, or guava.
What is the Best Charcoal for Grilling?
There are numerous drawbacks to using briquettes, but they do have their place as far as a convenient way to cook food. If you've got the choice, though, buy lump charcoal. Lump lets you tailor the flavor of your meat and provides a subtle smoke flavor even when you are grilling. Lump charcoal is a simple product, so there are less chances for toxins and foreign chemicals to be present. Many briquette makers add chemicals during production to make their product easy to light. Those are not chemicals you want to make a habit of putting in your body.
Find Your Favorite Flavor
Charcoal may seem like it is little more than burnt wood but the truth is more complex. Properly made charcoal is pure carbon and is no longer wood. It also isn't ash – which doesn't burn. Charcoal allows you to cook for longer with less toxic chemicals and less mess. If you have always used briquettes and never given much thought to what they are made from, you might want to try lump charcoal.
Lump is significantly better for you and provides a much better flavor. Try using pecan or oak with beef, cherry or hickory with pork, mesquite for chicken, or alder for fish. You'll immediately notice the differences in flavor that you can get. The best thing is that the flavor is completely natural. Experimenting with different types of hardwoods while outdoor cooking can also help you develop signature flavor profiles that enhance everything from burgers to veggies.
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