Barbecue enthusiasts love a good debate. And, understandably so! There’s a lot of different variables that go into the cooking equation, each of them, in some way, impacting the end result.
So, when it comes to the all-important question of what you’re cooking with, which side of the lump charcoal vs briquette question should you be standing on? Each have their own benefits and drawbacks. Is one really better than the other?
In this article, we take a good look at what it’s like to cook with both lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes. We’ll go over the pros and cons of both and talk about how they’re the same and different to help you decide which to use and when.
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A Quick Comparison of Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes
Many contain additives
Able to reach hotter temperatures
Burns for longer
Produced for consistent performance
Produces less ash
Higher ash production
Easier to light
Takes longer to light without using accelerants
Irregular sized pieces
Regularly sized lumps
What Is Lump Charcoal?
Lump charcoal is a type of cooking fuel that’s made by burning wood slowly, without any oxygen, until the sap, natural chemicals and moisture have been used up.
What’s left are pretty much carbon chunks. There’s no fillers or additives. So, you get a clean burning charcoal that lights easily, can get very hot, doesn’t leave much ash, and, responds well to changes in oxygen levels when opening and closing barbecue vents.
Because it’s such a clean fuel, lump charcoal is often preferred by purists or those looking for a more natural, less harmful barbecue fuel.
The Pros of Lump Charcoal
- Pure wood – no additives or fillers
- Easy to light
- Burns hot
- Low ash production
- Easy to influence temperature by changing oxygen levels
The Cons of Lump Charcoal
- Fast burning
- Naturally irregularly sized pieces can cook at different rates making temperature less steady
- More expensive type of charcoal
What Are Charcoal Briquettes?
Briquettes are uniformly shaped charcoal pillows that are made from sawdust and leftover wood. Just like lump charcoal, the sawdust and/or wood is burned down slowly, without much oxygen, to remove the sap, natural chemicals and moisture, leaving condensed carbon chunks. Because briquettes are condensed into regular shapes, they burn slowly and perform consistently, making them ideal for barbecuing.
But, what’s important to note is that unlike lump charcoal, additives that fill out, bind or help the charcoal to light easier, are often added to the wood in the production process. So, charcoal briquettes can contain chemicals and other impurities. Sodium nitrate, borax, cornstarch and limestone are common.
But, thanks to the rise in popularity of more pure forms of fuel, charcoal briquette manufacturers are finding ways to make briquettes without all the extras. Now, you can actually get briquettes that don’t have all the unwanted extras, or natural alternatives that aren’t so questionable (check out our review for our favorites).
The Pros of Charcoal Briquettes
- Keeps a steady temperature
- Burns for a long time
- Performs consistently
- Cheaper than lump charcoal
The Cons of Charcoal Briquettes
- May contain chemical additives
- Can be hard to light (especially without additivies)
- Produces a reasonable amount of ash
- Additives can taint food
How Similar Are Lump Charcoal and Briquettes?
Both lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes are:
- Types of charcoal;
- Made from real wood;
- Can be additive free; and
- Are suitable for grilling and smoking.
But, because of their form and shape, lump charcoal and briquettes have different burning properties. Their differences are what cause them to be such hot topics of debate, and, can also give a slight edge when used appropriately.
How Do Lump Charcoal and Briquettes Perform Differently?
How lump charcoal and briquettes perform in comparison to each other is where the debate really comes in.
Lump Charcoal Performance
Generally, lump charcoal burns hot and fast. Logically, that makes it ideal for grilling. But, because lump charcoal pieces can be such different sizes, some experts argue that smaller pieces can often block the airflow through the fire. Not enough airflow to the fire means it can’t burn and will die down. Obviously, that’s not ideal if a hot fire was your goal for grilling.
Also, because lump charcoal responds really well to reduced airflow, it’s really easy to choke it down for low and slow cooks. It might burn out a little faster than tightly packed briquettes, but, you can add more lump charcoal on longer smokes.
Another advantage of lump charcoal is that it doesn’t produce much ash.
Ash production might not be a big deal on some barbecues that have enough space for ash, or, where it can fall out (like the larger Weber Smokey Mountains). But, if you’re using a kamado where the ash is contained and cleaning it out mid-cook isn’t really an option, you’ll want low ash.
So, lump charcoal is generally preferred among kamado users for both smoking and grilling.
Charcoal Briquette Performance
Charcoal briquettes are made to burn consistently over a longer period of time. They put out low to a high enough heat for smoking depending on how you’ve got the ‘cue choked. But, because they’re all pretty much the same size and shape, they’re ideal for keeping the temperature steady.
Briquettes are a bit harder than lump charcoal to light because the rounded shape doesn’t leave an easy, open edge for the fire to get established in. But, once they’re going they’re a predictable and reliable form of heat.
A lot of people prefer them to lump charcoal because of their consistent performance.
The higher ash production is a negative that might not matter much depending on what type of barbecue you’ve got.
But, the main reason charcoal briquettes have had a bad rap lately is additives!
Fillers, binders and chemicals are often added to reduce costs, help them keep their shape, and, light and burn more easily.
In our opinion, it can’t be good to send heat and smoke through your food that contains potentially harmful additives. Some people, us included, believe they can taste the impurities in their food. Others, aren’t at all bothered by it and will opt for cheaper briquette varieties that are easier to light.
But, thanks to the growing movement of more pure forms of food and fuel, there’s lots of choice now when it comes to all-natural or additive free briquettes. Check out our favorites here.
So, What’s Better? Lump Charcoal or Charcoal Briquettes?
Unless you’re using a barbecue where having a really low amount of ash is essential, we do actually prefer to use an all-natural charcoal briquette.
The uniform shape of briquettes just means it’s easier to control, and, consistent performance equals consistently good meals on our plate (that’s the ultimate goal, right?!). The longer burn time reduces the amount of babysitting you need to do, especially when cooking low and slow. And, now that you can easily get all-natural briquettes, lump charcoal doesn’t have that all-important appeal.
Yes, briquettes are a bit harder than lump charcoal to light. But, with a charcoal chimney, they’re not too bad, and, in our opinion, worth it for the longer cook time.
The slightly lower price (even for the natural varieties) is just an added bonus for us!
In saying that we naturally head for a briquette, there’s no way we’d turn down a bag of quality lump charcoal! Pure wood, low ash, easy lighting and a versatile heat range does make them a top choice for fuel. Plus, there’s a lot of experts who use lump charcoal each and every time.
But, when there’s pros and cons of using both charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal, there’s going to be a divide. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which you think is better. Grab a bag of both and give them a try!
Finding A Quality Charcoal For Grilling and Smoking
Regardless of where you sit with the lump charcoal vs briquette debate, there’s no arguing that finding a good quality charcoal will go a long way to making smoking and grilling easier, better and healthier.
Here are some of our favorites (they’re all natural and chemical free):
FAQs About Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes
Can you use lump charcoal and briquettes at the same time?
Yes, you can use lump charcoal and briquettes at the same time.
A few people do this to round out the benefits and drawbacks of both fuels and feel like using both is a good solution.
The best way to do it is to layer briquettes and lump charcoal on top of each other. So, you’re not actually mixing the bags but creating a bit of a layered fire.
Theoretically, lump charcoal burns hotter for less time so will ideally boost your temperature while the briquettes act like the workhorse, powering the fire in a slow and steady manner.
But, in reality, we feel like you run into problems getting the heat consistent. As soon as that lump charcoal burns through, you’re going to see a temperature drop unless you open it up and refuel which will have to be done more frequently due to the different burn rates. Basically, we don’t think you’re actually getting the benefits and feel like it’s more of a headache trying to sit somewhere in the middle!
Is lump charcoal the same as briquettes?
No. Lump charcoal is made from whole pieces of wood that’s slowly burned without much oxygen. Briquettes are made from sawdust from wood that’s burned and compacted into small brick-like shapes.
What burns longer lump charcoal or briquettes?
Charcoal briquettes usually have a longer burn time than lump charcoal. This is because a more condensed carbon chunks of similar sizes and they generally keep a steady temperature.
Why is lump charcoal more expensive than briquettes?
Because lump charcoal is made from small, whole logs, the raw materials cost more than the sawdust that’s left over form other industry. It’s also made from pure wood with no cheaper additives or fillers to help reduce the overall cost.