It’s summertime–time for barbecues and ice-cold beer. You’ve run to the store, gotten yourself the best cuts of meat and ingredients for your rub. But then you get to the charcoal section, and there’s bags and bags lined up. Lump, briquettes, all-natural, self-starting… As if getting a good smoke wasn’t difficult enough. Now you have to figure out which charcoal’s the best.
But there is a method to the madness. Let’s talk about what kind of charcoal will get you that smoky, sizzling, melt-in-your-mouth steak that makes the dog days of summer actually worth it.
How to Choose Charcoal for Smoking Meat – Buying Guide
First things first: there’s two main types of charcoal. Briquettes and lump. Just figure out which you need, how to separate the good stuff from the junk, and we’ll have you smoking in a jiffy.
Briquettes Maintain a Low, Steady Temperature–For Beginners and Grill Users
Briquettes are little cylindrical or pillow-shaped pieces of charcoal made out compressed fuel–usually wood waste materials (like sawdust or paper). Because they’re regularly shaped, it’s easy to control heat output and keep temperature low and steady. This way, you can smoke slowly, letting the aroma seep in and giving the collagen in the meat time to melt into jelly.
That’s why you want briquettes if you’ve got a grill (and not a smoker). With many grills, it’s difficult to control airflow, which means it’s also difficult to control the size and heat of your flames. But you can arrange briquettes in ways that’ll let you maintain low, consistent temperatures when smoking. (Check out the snake method, if you don’t know it yet!)
Get All-Natural Briquettes for Less Ash and Clean-Tasting Meat
That pretty shape, however, comes with a price. To maintain their form, many briquettes are bound together with chemical additives, which some say leave a toxic smell–especially on lighter food, like fish.
If you want your meat clean, get all-natural briquettes. Make sure they’re a) composed of wood and b) are held together by something plant-based. In addition, the less chemical additives your briquettes have, the less ash is left over after your smoke. Which means less for you to clean up.
No Fancy Frills like Self-Lighters and Flavored Briquettes
You’ll see a few briquettes around that are “self-lighting” or “self-starting.” It doesn’t matter how much of a beginner you are; stay away from these. Self-starting charcoals tend to have lighter fluid added in; this stuff is chemical and turns your meat acrid. There are all-natural briquettes that light up easily; just read the reviews to see if the flames took quickly.
Also, don’t get anything that’s flavored. When you’re smoking, it’s the wood chips, not the charcoal, that should be controlling flavor profile. The cleaner your charcoal smoke is, the more flexibility you have to play around with different kinds of wood and create a smoke that perfectly complements your dish and your taste buds.
Lump Charcoal: Harder to Use, but Pretty Much Guaranteed to be All-Natural
Lump charcoal’s pretty much hardwood that’s been burned and deprived of oxygen until it’s pure carbon. There’s no need for binders, so they’re all-natural–or are supposed to be. That means they produce less ash–invaluable for smokers like the Big Green Egg, which don’t have a lot of room for ash to collect.
The thing about lump charcoal is that it’s irregularly shaped. That means they aren’t as regular in heat output and don’t nestle together as nicely as briquettes. Gaps between charcoal pieces means airflow, and airflow means higher flames. But, remember, you’re looking for a low and slow smoke–which is why lump charcoal’s compatible with smokers, which allow for more airflow control.
Look for Something with Medium to Large Uniform Pieces
In an ideal world, your lump charcoal would be uniform in size; that way, you know what to expect in terms of heat output, burn-out time, and whatnot. We don’t live in an idea world, unfortunately, but you can at least go for brands that are known for being consistent in the quality and size of their pieces. (Everything we introduce in our rankings, by the way, is reliable.)
If you can, go for medium to large pieces. We say this because large pieces tend to burn longer–perfect for your low and slow. Just make sure the chunks fit in your smoker or charcoal chimney first.
Some brands also add in carpentry or construction debris. Needless to say, bricks and nails do not make good charcoal. This is all stuff that’s hard to check until you open the bag, though. (You don’t get ingredients lists with charcoal.) Again, hearsay and customer reviews are your best friend.
Look for Dense Hardwood Mixtures for Clean Smokes and Long Lasting Fires
Most bags of lump charcoal are made up of a mix of different hardwoods, and are super vague about exactly what trees went into them. However, generally speaking, mixes of American hardwoods are pretty reliable–they burn for quite a while, at more or less consistent temperatures, and are neutral in flavor. (Again, so you, the pitmaster, can add in your own woods.)
On the other hand, charcoals that are all one type of aromatic wood, like hickory or mesquite, have a distinct smell. (Especially if the wood hasn’t been carbonized all the way.) We’d say you don’t need these, unless you really want that specific aroma in all your dishes. But, again, why not just depend on wood chips?
By the way, dense woods, like oak, give you a slower cook, perfect for smoking. Oak’s great because it’s also mellow and has a neutral flavor and scent. Another popular wood is quebracho, from South America. The name, by the way, means axe breaker; it’s pretty dense stuff.
Top 10 Best Charcoals for Smoking Meat to Buy Online
Have you gotten an idea of what you need yet? Because it’s time to look at our 10 favorite charcoals that’ll smoke up your summer.
10. Kingsford Original Charcoal Briquettes (15.4 lb.)
Lights Fast, but Burns Steady and Consistently
Mention briquettes, and most people will think of Kingsford. It takes only a second to light, but keeps a nice, low flame for hours. It’s also readily available and consistent from pack to pack–so you know exactly how much heat you’re going to get before you even start cooking.
The ingredients are all natural, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s not wood. There’s your usual sawdust, as well as mineral char and coal (extra heat), limestone (keeps the charcoal burning longer and makes the ash a lovely white), borax (keeps it from breaking in the press), and sodium nitrate (helps the briquette combust faster). So all the stuff here’s got a purpose, but they also mean you’ll have a lot of ash left over after your smoke.
9. Royal Oak Natural Lump Charcoal (8.8 lb.)
Readily Available and Has a Delectable Oaky Aroma
Royal Oak’s also readily available, and you get medium-sized pieces pretty much throughout the bag. The wood’s clean and has this mild flavor that works well with fish and all kinds of wood chips–peach, hickory, apple, you name it. It’s quick to light and can go on for a few hours before you need to top it off. And it leaves barely any ash behind.
The only thing is, Royal Oak isn’t the best at being consistent. Some bags come with mountains of dust–though some of it is probably from rough handling at the store or shipping center–and a few people have complained about stones. But, anyway, most of the time, RO works pretty darn well.
8. COCO-BBQ Eco-Friendly Barbecue Charcoal (9 lb.)
Steady Temperature, Low-Maintenance, and Eco-Friendly
This was made for the low and slow. It stays between 225 and 250–your perfect smokey temperature–for around 10 hours, and you don’t have to lift a finger. There’s not much smell; some report a subtle sweetness, like coconut, which makes meat just that much more irresistible.
The pieces light up easily and don’t throw sparks. They’re actually pretty big for briquettes and give off less ash. But the biggest draw, of course, may be the fact that no trees died for the smoking of your meat. How’s that for eco-friendly?
7. Fire & Flavor John Wayne Briquette Charcoal (8.3 lb.)
Tastes as Clean as Lump, but Has the Uniformity of Briquettes
This bag’s oak and hickory, so the smoke’s already got a woody scent to it–but it’s a little sweet and delectable. John Wayne is also all-natural, and there’s no weird aftertaste. The charcoal burns long, low, and steady.
Basically, they’re as clean as lump, but the temperature’s easy to control, since they’re briquettes. You get lumps of a consistent size. Some say they’re a little finicky to light–avoid the temptation to use lighter fluid!–but the taste is well worth the extra effort.
6. Rockwood Lump Charcoal (20 lb.)
Burns Clean Fast and Tastes Pure
You’ve got three good American woods: oak, hickory, and maple–which give off this mouth-watering aroma and a consistent burn. It imparts flavor, even if you don’t use wood chips–but you can also throw them in and be in full control over the smoke profile.
And there’s very little waste. First off, you get a good number of medium-sized pieces and not much dust. Next, Redwood uses wood from trees already felled, so no living trees were harmed in the making of this charcoal. And last off–you know that acrid smoke that comes out right when you put the charcoal in the grill (and you have to sit there until the clean smoke comes)? Redwood burns clean fast (in about 10 minutes), so you don’t need to waste time and charcoal waiting.
5. Jealous Devil All Natural Lump Charcoal (35 lb.)
Pure Quebracho Wood for a Long Burn and Clean Flavor
This is made from quebracho wood–the good, dense stuff that gives you a long, consistent burn. They’re split pretty consistently–mainly medium pieces, bit larger than a briquette, with some softballs and a little dust (about 5% of the bag). It’s got a subtle aroma and leaves just a bit of ash.
Jealous Devil’s pretty good about being consistent between bags. You get duds once in a while, but the team’s usually quick to send replacements as well. The biggest downer to this charcoal is the packaging; it’s like a breathable mesh, and dust seeps out of it and gets all over your clothes. Some repackaging may be in order.
4. Royal Oak Ridge Premium Charcoal Briquets (15.4 lb.)
Versatile, yet Reliable–One of the Hottest, Longest-Burning Briquettes
Royal Oak is back–in briquette form. Again, we love it because it’s easy to find, and because there’s no junk in it. There’s also relatively little ash (for a briquette), and no funky tastes. It lights quickly, with little fuss.
But what sets RO apart is how long it burns. The pieces are bigger than average, so if you control the airflow and temperature well, and it’ll last you hours. It also gives you consistent heat–and can actually blaze pretty hot (close to 1000 degrees), just in case you’re looking to do some high-temperature searing after your smoke.
3. Kamado Joe Big Block Natural Lump Hardwood Charcoal Box (20 lb.)
In a Box so You Get Huge Pieces for a Long, Slow Burn
The thing about buying charcoal online–it gets tossed about during shipping, it crumbles, and you’re left with a bunch of useless pebbles. So KJ has done the innovative thing and started packing their lumps in boxes. So you get a good mix of big pieces half the length of a child’s arm, some medium fist-sized pieces, a few smaller ones, and some useless dust. Basically, the useful to useless lump ratio is really good, as far as truck-shipped charcoal goes.
KJ’s made from this dense Argentinian hardwood, so you get a long, steady, slow burn (helped along by the fact that there’s entire tree trunks in the box). The ash and the smoke is clean. So you, the smoke master, can add in your wood chips and control the flavor of the smoke.
2. Fogo All Natural Premium Hardwood Lump Charcoal Bag (35 lb.)
Fogo All Natural Premium Hardwood Lump Charcoal Bag
Here’s another one for your long and slow–over half the bag is pretty big, large than softballs. Then you get some smaller fit-in-your-palm-sized pieces, and the rest (about 10%) is dust and shards. Fogo’s pretty good about being consistent from bag to bag–but the size variation within a bag means you have to sift around for pieces of about equal size (which you want for that consistent burn).
The smoke’s clean; there’s a mellow oaky aroma–not overwhelming at all–so the flavor of the meat is all up to you. It’s easy to light, doesn’t spark, and leaves you with just a bit of ash.
1. Weber Charcoal Briqettes (20 lb.)
Large Briquettes for a Long-Lasting Burn, Waterproof Bag for Long-Lasting Briquettes
These briquettes are bigger, which does mean better; they burn longer and distribute heat evenly, leaving you with meat that slides down your throat. Weber is also all-natural, which means no chemical aftertaste. It also leaves you with less ash–for a briquette, anyway.
And we used to never think much about packaging, but Weber taught us a thing or two. The bag is resealable, so you don’t have charcoal dust flying everywhere, blackening up your shed and the trunk of your car. It’s also waterproof; you can be smoking close to the sprinklers, and if the water suddenly comes on, your charcoal is safe. If you really want to nitpick, we admit the ziplock technology isn’t the best. (It takes a few attempts to close the bag.)
What’s summer without the feel of good, smoked meat melting in your mouth? But to get that delectable texture, you need the right amount of flames; to get that low, steady flame, you need the right charcoal.
So we talked about what lumps let you control flavor profile and master the flames. We looked at stuff from different brands, made from different woods, on different ends of the price scale. So, pitmaster, it’s time for you to grab some charcoal and get smoking.
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