Lump charcoal (sometimes called lumpwood) and briquettes are similar in many ways but a world apart in others. Of course, the differences vary depending on the brand you’re using and whether or not the briquettes are ‘quick light.’
In general, lump charcoal lights quicker, burns faster, and generates more smoke than briquettes. However, it may be the lack of additives that are making lump charcoal a fast favorite.
The word ‘natural’ on bags of lump charcoal attracts those people that want their food and their cooking organic. But, since briquettes burn more consistently, they’re easier to cook with, especially if you’re going for low and slow.
So, what’s the main difference between lump charcoal and briquette charcoal?
The main difference between lump charcoal and briquette charcoal is the presence of additives and what they mean for the cooking process. Lump charcoal is additive-free, which means it burns faster and leaves less ash behind. Briquettes, on the other hand, burn slower and leave more ash behind. But the ‘unnatural’ additives that briquettes contain turn some people off to cooking with them.
Really, it comes down to your preferences and the type of grilling you’re doing. In this article, we’ll give you a rundown on the other differences between lump charcoal and briquettes. We’ll tell you what the experts are using, the pros and cons of each, and how to get the very best out of whichever kind of charcoal you’re using.
Lump charcoal is usually made from scrap wood, which is burned for long periods with very little oxygen. The end result is lumps of irregular size and shape, which are then packaged and sold. Almost all lump charcoal packages say that they’re natural and additive-free, which they are. However, the kind of scrap wood used to make the charcoal is usually very similar to the type used to make briquettes.
Pros of Lump Charcoal
First and foremost, lump charcoal is popular among purists and those looking for an all-organic cooking experience. The fact that briquettes have additives turns some people off. So, this is really only a pro if you care about additives in your charcoal.
Another factor in favor of lump charcoal is the smoke that it generates. Sometimes the process of making lump charcoal doesn’t burn down all of the wood, leaving little bits behind, usually rooted in the lump. As we all know, burning wood generates smoke. Many people like this because it helps give their food that characteristic smoky flavor that barbecue is known for. However, the same can be done by adding wood chips to your charcoal fire, no matter what kind you’re using.
Lump charcoal also leaves behind less ash than briquettes. If you use a typical kettle grill, this isn’t much of a factor. But, for some grills, such as the Kamado style ceramic BBQ, too much ash can be detrimental. Lump charcoal is also easier to light. If you’ve ever struggled in getting your briquettes to light, you may want to try lump charcoal to see the difference.
Lastly, lump charcoal tends to burn hotter and faster than its briquette brethren, making it ideal for high and fast cooking. For a good sear, a high temperature, some smoky flavoring, and coals that burn out quickly, lump charcoal is the way to go.
Cons of Lump Charcoal
What makes lump charcoal suitable for some makes it bad for others. Lump charcoal comes in all shapes and sizes, so it’s hard to get a consistent temperature going with it. Plus, the smoke that it generates can be hit or miss, so if you’re looking to impart a smoky taste on your food every grill session, you don’t want to rely solely on lump charcoal.
Since lump charcoal burns hot and fast, it’s not ideal for low and slow cooking. For indirect heat and long cooking times, cooking with lumpwood requires more attention and fuel replenishment than many people care to perform. Lastly, lump charcoal is almost always more expensive than briquettes.
The charcoal found in briquettes is made by burning scrap wood with minimal oxygen. Once that process is over, additives are included to help bind the charcoal together, make the burn consistent, and increase the briquette’s density to make it burn longer.
Some common briquette additives are sodium nitrate, borax, starch, limestone, and sawdust. Most of these additives are naturally occurring in some form or another. Quick light charcoal usually has some sort of chemical additives similar to lighter fluid to help them light quickly.
Charcoal Briquettes Pros
The most significant factor in favor of briquettes is its ability to burn evenly and steadily. A steady, even burn allows you to maintain your desired temperature more easily than with lump charcoal. When you’re cooking low and slow, a constant temperature is critical.
The fact that briquettes generate more ash than lump charcoal can be a good thing for slow cooking. The ash provides a sort of insulation that helps to trap some heat. Too much ash can indeed be a bad thing for certain grills. However, if you’re looking to maintain that magic low and slow temperature of 225 degrees, briquettes make it easy.
Of course, a slow and steady burn makes for longer burn times. The additives in briquettes help to keep the coals burning longer, meaning a bag of briquettes will last you longer than a bag of lump charcoal when used for the same type of cooking.
Lastly, briquettes are, on the whole, cheaper than lump charcoal. Combine the often significant price difference and the fact that they burn longer, and you have a good idea of why the briquettes are so popular.
Charcoal Briquettes Cons
The biggest con for many is the fact that briquettes are made with additives. Since those additives burn up when grilling, people assume that they make their food less safe. The science is still out on this fact, though. There is no conclusive evidence to say that cooking with lump charcoal is healthier than cooking with charcoal briquettes.
Another con is the fact that briquettes can be hard to light. Lump charcoal doesn’t take much to get fired up, but briquettes usually need a little help and a bit more time to get to cooking temperature.
The amount of ash that briquettes generate can be a problem. If you have a small grill or forget to empty your ash catcher, your next grill session can be a little frustrating.
Lastly, cooking with briquettes generally doesn’t generate a smoky flavor in the food. For smoke, you usually need to add wood chips for that great barbecue flavor.
A Note About Quick Light Charcoal: Pretty much everyone suggests staying away from quick-light briquettes. The lighter fluid they’re soaked in often passes on a faint chemical taste to the grilling meat. The same goes for using lighter fluid on any type of charcoal. Unless you like the taste of chemicals in your food, stay away from the lighter fluid. Instead, use a chimney starter for firing up your charcoal with little hassle.
What Do The Experts Use?
The experts all have their preferences. Many like lump charcoal because they can get it from local sources and prefer the smoke that it generates. On the other hand, those people who are cooking for several hours or more prefer briquettes because they’re easier to maintain and last longer.
Many experts, though, don’t seem to care. They use whatever they can get cheapest. 9 times out of 10, that’s going to be briquettes. These people insist that the type of charcoal they use doesn’t impact their grilling all that much. Instead, they focus on the quality of the meat, the rub, wood chips, and seasonings.
Lump Charcoal vs. Briquettes: Which is Better?
So, which is the better of the two? Lump charcoal can get your grill going quicker than briquettes, but it’ll also burn out faster. Briquettes take longer to get going but will burn for hours without much attention on your part.
In summation, let’s answer a question with a question. Which is better, lump charcoal or briquettes?
Well, what are you cooking?
For low and slow, you’ll probably want to go with briquettes. For a nice sear, high heat, and fast cooking, pick up a bag of lump charcoal. It’s good to have a bag of both on hand to be prepared for your next grilling adventure.
If people renown for their barbecue will cook with either one, why shouldn’t you?