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If you saw the title of this article and thought I was going to tell you which charcoal is the best one to use in the WSM, then you're about to be seriously disappointed. The fact is, there is no best charcoal for everyone...but there may be a best charcoal for you and your WSM. The decision is a personal one, based on a variety of factors that I've outlined in this article.
As always...click on any of the pictures to view a larger image.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines charcoal as "a dark or black porous carbon prepared from vegetable or animal substances (as from wood by charring in a kiln from which air is excluded)."
Simply put: Burn wood in an environment where you can limit the amount of oxygen available to feed the fire, drive away the water and other volatile substances, and you're left with char, or what we commonly call charcoal. For the most part, charcoal is pure carbon.
According to Peter J. F. Harris, Department of Chemistry at the University of Reading in the U.K., the beginning of charcoal production coincides with the development of metallurgy some 5,000 years ago. A plain wood fire was not hot enough to smelt metals because of the water and volatiles that are released during combustion. However, burning charcoal produced temperatures well over 1,000°F with little smoke, just what was needed for metal work. Charcoal played an important role in the Bronze Age (about 3,000BC) and the Iron Age (about 1,200BC).
Of course, charcoal was used by man as an art material far earlier. Cave paintings using charcoal date back to as early as 30,000BC!
Man's first encounter with charcoal was probably in the aftermath of a fire caused by a natural event, like a wildfire from a lightning strike. A tree catches fire, falls down, gets partially buried and oxygen deprived, and the smoldering fire transforms the wood into charcoal.
Early methods of charcoal production involved burning wood slowly in pits in the ground covered with soil. Today, we use sophisticated above-ground kilns and retorts in which to manufacture charcoal with great precision and efficiency.
The most common fuels used in the WSM are charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal. Both fuels have advantages and disadvantages, and both can be used to make great barbecue.
Just as an introduction, here are some photos of briquettes and lump charcoal side-by-side.
Photo 1 shows a bag of best-selling Kingsford Charcoal Briquets and a bag of Duraflame Lump Charcoal. Both bags appear to be about the same size, but Photo 2 shows that the bag of Kingsford weighs almost three times as much as the Duraflame.
Photo 3 shows one pound of each product. That's 18 briquettes on the left. As you can see, briquettes are a heavier, denser product than lump.
Briquettes are a manufactured charcoal product. The best-selling brand of briquettes in the United States is Kingsford Charcoal Briquets, the original charcoal briquette, shown in Photo 4.
I once saw an episode of Unwrapped on the Food Network that showed how Kingsford Charcoal Briquets were made. Leftovers from wood and paper processing (branches, bark, and sawdust) are screened and then chopped to a uniform size before being "roasted" in oxygen-controlled retorts—sort of like ovens—at 600-1,800°F. The resulting char is mixed with other ingredients before being molded into the familiar briquette shape, dried, and bagged.
Briquettes are a convenient, inexpensive source of fuel for the WSM. The general consensus is that briquettes tend to burn longer and more consistently than lump charcoal, but not quite as hot. The consistency of briquettes is due to the fact that they are an engineered product, essentially made using a "recipe" that can be duplicated over and over again.
Briquettes frequently contain other ingredients in addition to charcoal to improve the performance characteristics of the product. As a result, they leave behind a considerable amount of ash, which is of concern in cookers that can't accommodate ash build-up. (Fortunately, the WSM is not one of these.)
It's the "other ingredients" part of briquettes that get some folks worked up. "Petroleum by-products", "toxic waste", or "fillers", they say. Well, let's take a closer—and more rational—look at the facts.
The only required "other ingredient" in a briquette is a binder, usually a starch of some sort that holds the crushed charcoal together when it's compressed into those little pillow shapes. The problem is that this basic briquette may not light very easily, or burn very hot, or burn very long. So, manufacturers add more "other ingredients" to improve the performance characteristics of their products.
Here is the official ingredient list for Kingsford Charcoal Briquets from a company press release, including the purpose of each ingredient in parentheses. The explanation after each ingredient is my own.
Did you notice there was no mention of
or "toxic waste"? What about "fillers"? Looks like every ingredient is
there for a purpose—to improve the performance of the product.
Lump charcoal, sometimes called charwood or natural charcoal, is made from pieces of wood that have been burned down into charcoal using the same oxygen-controlled environments described above for briquettes. However, at the end of the process, the charcoal chunks are bagged and sold as-is. There are no "other ingredients" in lump charcoal.
According to The Naked Whiz's Lump Charcoal Database, three types of wood are used to make lump charcoal: sawmill scraps (e.g. chunks of wood leftover from processing trees into lumber), kiln-dried lumber scraps (e.g. leftover end cuts, defective pieces, or wood flooring scraps), and tree limbs.
Photo 6 shows some detail of what lump charcoal looks like up close. Photo 7 shows a piece of tongue & groove wood flooring scrap at an angle on the right.
The general consensus is that lump tends to burn hotter than briquettes, but not as long or as consistently. Some lack of consistency is to be expected, given that the content and piece size varies within an individual bag and between bags.
Some people report that they find odd items mixed in with lump charcoal, like rocks, soda cans, etc. These are few and far between and are no reason to avoid using lump.
The price of lump charcoal compared to briquettes varies depending on your region. In some parts of the country, lump can be purchased as cheaply as briquettes; in lump-deprived regions, lump can be harder to find and, as a result, more expensive than briquettes.
According to The Naked Whiz's Lump Charcoal Database, extruded charcoal is made from compressed sawdust logs that are carbonized in kilns. The most common brand is Kamado Extruded Coconut Charcoal. Members of The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board report good results using this product, but it has very limited distribution and is usually special ordered in pallet quantities.
The WSM is designed to use charcoal as its fuel source. Occasionally, someone notices that other cookers are fired using wood and attempts this in the WSM. Wood chunks or logs can be used, but with considerable effort, inconvenience, and expense. Wood must be burned down to hot coals in a separate container, then shoveled into the WSM, and this process must be repeated several times during the course of cooking. Also, wood is expensive, charcoal is cheap. Most people who try this once don't try it again.
Instant light charcoal containing lighter fluid, such as Kingsford Match Light, should not be used in the WSM for low and slow barbecuing.
When using the Minion Method, the continual lighting of fresh briquettes "will cause lighter fluid to permeate the meat," according to Kingsford's website. It also states that "adding (Match Light) to an existing fire may also cause a flare-up."
Some of the factors that you should consider when choosing a charcoal product include:
You'll have to decide how much weight, if any, to give to each of these factors. There may be other factors that are important to you that I've not listed here.
After careful consideration of the factors listed above, I have concluded that Kingsford Charcoal Briquets is the right fuel for me and my WSM. And no, I don't receive any compensation from Kingsford for saying that!
Here's how I reasoned through each factor. Remember, you may arrive at a completely different decision based on what products are available where you live and your personal preferences.
I recommend Kingsford to new WSM owners because it's a very consistent product that is available nationwide, at an affordable price, and it provides a long, consistent burn. Using Kingsford takes one variable out of the barbecue equation, making it easier for folks to duplicate the recipes I publish here on the website.
However, once a person has some experience with Kingsford under their belt, I would suggest that they experiment with other fuels. Some will stick with Kingsford, while others will switch to other brands of briquettes or lump charcoal.
Don't be bullied by hard-liners who tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the only path to barbecue nirvana is by using only charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal.
I hereby give you permission to create your own great barbecue using whichever charcoal makes most sense to you—briquettes or lump!
I've explained my rationale for using Kingsford, and why I recommend it to WSM beginners. After you evaluate what's most important to you in a charcoal and you make a decision, move forward confidently and learn to master that fuel in your WSM.
Remember, you can always change your mind and switch from briquettes to lump or vice versa...or mix both together...or use either one on different occasions.
Once you've picked a fuel, it's time to heat things up! See Firing Up Your Weber Bullet for a variety of methods to start your cooker (including the long-burning Minion Method) and How To Use A Chimney Starter.