Once upon a time, shopping for charcoal was easy. Your only choice was whether you wanted to buy your briquettes presoaked in lighter fluid.
Today, charcoal giant Kingsford offers nearly a dozen varieties of briquettes—and it's facing plenty of competition from premium brands, too, most notably those selling lump charcoal.
Lump charcoal, the favored fuel of many grilling purists, promises hotter, longer burn times than standard charcoal briquettes. Some people also prefer lump coal’s more natural composition: Though briquettes are made primarily of sawdust, lump charcoal is simply charred wood.
But is lump charcoal really worth its premium price? We asked BBQ expert Meathead Goldwyn, owner of Amazing Ribs, and co-author of "Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue." Then we pitted the leading brand of briquettes against more premium and pricey lump charcoal in our labs.
Kingsford Briquets ($0.54 per pound) and Big Green Egg hardwood charcoal ($1.25 per pound) were each tested in two types of grills—a traditional Weber Kettle and a Big Green Egg Kamado-style. Here's what we learned.
What the Pro Says
"For me, cooking is all about control," says Goldwyn, "which is why I prefer cooking on briquettes." Goldwyn notes that each briquette represents a precise unit of potential heat, whereas lump coal, which varies in size, is harder to control when you're attempting to regulate a precise fire.
"There's also the issue of smoke," he adds. "Charcoal is placed in a tank and the wood compounds are converted to char. Since some pieces of lump hardwood are much bigger than charcoal briquettes, the center of a piece of lump coal might still be unconverted wood." Goldwyn notes that when that center ignites, it produces a smokey flavor that many people appreciate. But he doesn't. "I'd always rather get my heat from the charcoal and my flavor from wood chunks, so I know exactly what's going into my fire."
What Our Test Found
In both grills, the lump charcoal did burn slightly hotter (40 to 50 degrees). But for evenness, briquettes were the clear winner. If we scored this test the same way we measure Evenness Performance on gas grills, the lump charcoal would have earned a score of Fair in the kettle and Very Good in the Kamado grill; the briquettes would have earned Excellent scores in both grill types.
We think briquettes are better suited than lump charcoal to most grilling tasks. They're also easier to stack, control, and light, which a lot of backyard chefs will appreciate.
We suggest you save lump charcoal for the times you need to do serious searing, such as charring a thin steak or pork chop, without overcooking.