Lumpwood Barbecue Charcoal Or Briquettes?

Is it to be lump wood barbecue charcoal? Should I get the self lighting packs? Or maybe BBQ briquettes? How do I light it and do I need a charcoal chimney burner?

Before we go any further let me please remind everyone of the dangers of fires and remember never to blow onto the coals – you’ve only got two eyes, keep your barbecue cookout safe.

Charcoal is made by the slow burning of wood in an oxygen starved environment and slow does mean slow, we’re talking weeks rather than days. It’s also pleasing to note that it’s pretty environmentally friendly due to the technique of coppicing which allows wood to harvested from trees in a way that promotes further growth in the tree.

To you and me, barbecue charcoal arrives ready for consumption in the shape of briquettes, lump wood or self lighting so which is best?

Let’s start with which is worst...self lighting barbecue charcoal. This is the stuff that comes wrapped up in a brown paper bag (pictured below) and you simply place it in the grill and light the paper. Generally it works but occasionally you get a bad lot and it doesn’t burn and because it is impregnated with fuel it will taint the flavour of your food. Other negatives are that it creates a lot of light ash which can rise up and stick to your food and worst of all – it doesn’t last very long. Avoid at all costs.

Briquettes are basically charcoal dust with a starch binder mixed up with additives and they claim to release a stronger heat for longer.

Frankly there's little in the heat strength argument but they certainly last longer and this is the important point - they give off a consistent level of heat. The positive for the lump wood is that there’s less ash and cleaning up is a little easier.

If I'm grilling at home I prefer to use lump wood to briquettes simply because of the ash clean up.

If I'm smoking or catering I use briquettes. I know exactly how many briquettes will give me how much heat for how long on each of my different pieces of equipment. That gives me reassurance on timings ie. a good forecast of when food will be ready and also I can calculate to minimise waste.

TIP - Having lit the charcoal (whether lump wood or briquettes) be patient and leave it for 45 minutes then you’ll have lovely glowing coals and you’ve minimised the chance of flames starting and burning your food. When ready to cook on, charcoal will be grey in color.

TIP - If you’ve got any BBQ charcoal left over from last summer use it sparingly with some fresh charcoal and never try to have a whole fire with last years leftovers. Charcoal is a natural desiccant therefore it absorbs moisture and it it never burns as well six months down the line - you’ll just end up getting frustrated.

How To Light A Charcoal Grill

Lighting a barbecue charcoal grill is different to a smoker. A grill is relatively simple, just pour your coals onto the grill grate, insert an odour free firelighter block into the coals and strike a match.

Don't use gel or lighter fluid as both of these leave a petro-chemical taste in the coals. And don't use paper because paper creates a lot of ash that easily rises and this can stick to your food or even stick to your neighbour's washing!

Modern odour free firelighters don't leave any smelly petroleum residue because they are made from waste paper and sawdust soaked odourless biodiesel.


An alternative way is to use a poker lighter. These either take the shape of a propane torch or they can be electrically powered (like a big soldering iron). Light the torch (or plug in if electric) and insert the starter into the coals for the amount of time recommended by the manufacturer. When done, remove the starter and place it on a heat proof surface until cool.

If speed is your middle name then go for the propane torch, these babies will have your charcoal ablaze in no time.

The advantage of the electric poker over the propane on is that you can leave it unattended but there are disadvantages too:

  1. You have to plug it in and that means a cable (trip hazard) running from your power source to your barbecue
  2. They don't work really well when it's raining, after all, electricity and water don't mix too well.

Note: All the above tools can be used with a kamado grill / smoker

How To Light Barbecue Charcoal For A Smoker

Priority number one is to get your smoker get up to temperature before you put any food in there otherwise it'll be a long slog and the way to do this is to add preheated coals.

When smoking meats such as brisket or pork shoulder, generally speaking, the longer the cookout the better and the more chance you have of getting that all important tenderness that you're looking for.

Inevitably, after 6 or 7 hours of smoking, your coals are going to need replacing and this isn't as simple as adding more fresh charcoal because:-

  1. Fresh charcoal will absorb energy (and therefore reduce the temperature of your food chamber) as you get it going. If you've ever placed your hand near freshly ignited charcoal then you'll know what I mean. It takes time for charcoal to come up to temperature and the best place for this to happen is in a burner rather than in your smoker.
  2. The smoke from freshly burning charcoal will obscure the flavor that you're trying to get from your wood chips. The smoke from early combustion of wood product is thick and white, it has a bitter taste and is not what we're looking for when hot smoking. We want the blue wispy smoke that comes during the mid to latter stages of combustion. Using a charcoal chimney starter gets you through that thick white smoke phase before you add the fresh coals.
  3. Freshly burning barbecue charcoal gives off soot that will leave a black spotty residue on your meat. Again something to be avoided.

You can solve all these problems using the charcoal chimney burner as this ensures that before you throw more coals into the smoker that the coals are already glowing and are at the ideal temperature for continuing the cookout.

How To Use A Charcoal Chimney Burner

All you have to do is roll up a couple of sheets of newspaper and put the ends together to form a circle. Place this circle in the bottom of your charcoal chimney burner and pour the charcoal on top. From the bottom, light the paper and watch the fire take hold moving gently from the bottom to the top.

A burner works just as well with lumpwood or briquettes

Note: - You can use a firelighter, just make sure that it's an odour free block.

You can also soak a portion of the newspaper in vegetable oil to give it that extra longevity during the ignition phase.

The Best Way To Fire Up A Smoker

This is when a charcoal chimney burner really comes into it's own and it's a great way to fire up your smoker, learn how to get the most out of it and ensure that you get a good long burn out of your first set of coals.

Fill a chimney burner full of briquettes and pour them straight into the smoker and put two or three chunks of hardwood into the coals.

Half full your charcoal chimney burner with briquettes, light it and get them up to temperature. Pour the hot coals on the cold, add another chunk of wood and set your dampers.

Use this method when you season your smoker. Count the number of cold coals and the number of hot coals. Make a note of the ambient temperature and then see how long it takes you to get to your target temperature and for how long you can preserve that temperature.

Stopping And Preserving Barbecue Charcoal

It difficult on a grill. On a smoker it's easy to kill the charcoal, just close off all the vents a starve it of oxygen.

Some will tell you that throwing water on the coals is OK but charcoal is porous and will naturally absorb water. For this reason I don't even use charcoal that's been left over the winter never mind throwing water over it to cool it down. To be fair it is an OK practice if you live in a hot dry climate. It's mild and wet where I live, enough said.

Hot and dry, mild and wet, whichever the case there are some serios points to be made about throwing water on hot barbecue charcoal:-

  • Steam will rise and if you're not careful it will scold you!
  • Ash goes everywhere
  • A sudden cooling off any metal surface will cause it to warp. Dependent on what they are made of, you could warp your cooking grates but more likely you will warp the charcoal crate
  • Never pour water into a will crack it!

See Also:-

Charcoal Grills
Meat Smokers

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