Is it to be lumpwood barbecue charcoal? Should I get the instant lighting packs? Or maybe BBQ briquettes? How do I light it and do I need a charcoal chimney starter?
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.
Barbecue charcoal is traditionally made when hardwood timber is heated up to approx 600 - 700°C in an oxygen starved environment which stops the wood from catching fire. If oxygen were present then the wood would burn rather than char and you would basically be left with a load of ash as you would in a log fire grate.
Technically you can make charcoal from waste materials or even animal bones but barbecue charcoal in general comes from wood (virgin hardwood is preferred to softwood) although Marabu from an invasive species, and coconut shell from waste are also popular options. They both give long burn times and offer an element of sustainability but travel footprint to the UK is higher than locally sourced. To read more about sustainability click here.
There are two types of charcoal:
There are two main manufacturing methods for barbecue charcoal:
It depends on your barbecue. I must confess to being brought up with the perception of lumpwood being the purist's choice.
Frankly speaking the answer to which barbecue charcoal is best depends on the equipment that you are cooking on as well as what you want to cook. I do a lot of cooking on a kamado and kamado cooking temperature is controlled by airflow through the firebox. The ash from briquettes can clog up the air holes in the firebox so all kamado manufacturers will recommend lumpwood charcoal. Really cheap briquettes can also have chemical nasties which would infuse into the kamado ceramic so that's another reason to say no.
I also cook on a Pit Barrel Junior and this is definitely better served by feeding it on briquettes because they offer uniform heat intensity & good burn time with a cooker that runs relatively hot and fast. Weber kettles and smokers are other case in points.
While the briquette manufacturing process is well established and is used as a heat source in many industries as well as for us barbecuers. That doesn't mean that individuals won't have brand preference but for the larger part, most brands of briquettes offer a consistent size and composition of briquette and therefore an equally consistent level of performance. Some premium types such as the coconut shell and the compressed hex or cube shaped briquettes do boast even longer burn times over the more well established pillow shaped ones.
The same however is not true of lumpwood. It comes in different shapes and sizes and there's also a wide variation in price. What is best and how can you tell?
Lumpwood varies due to the type and purity of wood used. Generally speaking, hardwood is best and the more expensive brands will be using hardwood. Hardwood offers higher burn temperature and longer burn times.
More often than not, the less expensive brands (and generic supermarket charcoal) will be soft wood. They may contain accelerants, they may be charred from old varnished / polished furniture and all these added chemicals will deposit unwanted petroleum based odours through your cook and taint the flavour of your food.
This might sound daft but take a piece of lumpwood charcoal and treat it like a piece of food. Smell it....then taste it. If it's good quality then there's little to smell or taste, if you get a hint of solvents then steer clear.
Let’s start with worst - instant lighting barbecue charcoal. This is the stuff that comes wrapped up in a brown paper bag (pictured below) and you 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. The burning paper 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. Just avoid this stuff.
Good quality lumpwood charcoal can be as much as three times the price of the cheap stuff but it's worth it because:
That said, there is still one marketing myth that is good to understand and that's the myth around big charcoal chunks. Let's be clear, you don't want to be cooking on dust but what's important is a consistent size of chunk rather than absolute size because it follows that consistent size promotes consistent heat (no hot spots) and consistent burn time across the spread of the fire.
Those that are trying to sell you "the right mix of large and small chunks" are just pedalling a myth to explain their inconsistently sized output or boasting about their large sized chunks.
TIP - If you’ve got any BBQ charcoal left over from last
summer then use it sparingly with some fresh charcoal and never try to have a
whole fire with last year's leftovers. Charcoal is a natural desiccant
therefore it absorbs moisture and it never burns as well six months
down the line - you’ll just end up getting frustrated.
Every barbecue or smoker will have a set of instructions for how best to light it and one thing I've learned is that the manufacturer usually knows best. That said, the manufacturer guidance will probably fall into one of the three categories below.
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.
You've probably heard of the most popular brands such as Monolighter and Looftlighter. I can only liken these to a hair drier on steroids.
You hold the tip of the lighter to the coals for about 30 seconds (until you get ignition sparks from the charcoal) then pull it away for a further 30 / 60 seconds so it blows on the coals until they are glowing hot and that's the job done. Ninety seconds to get a fire going is pretty amazing.
This video demonstrates the point nicely.
Note: The Monolighter / Looftlighter is not like the poker lighter described below in that you don't insert the lighter into the coals.
The Monolighter has a slightly higher powered blower than the Looftlighter and the perforated housing is more robust.
The alternative 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.
The propane torch, works almost as fast as the Monolighter / Looftlighter but it can be really frustrating if you run out of gas!
The advantage of the electric poker over the others is that you can leave it unattended but when the alternative takes only 90 seconds, is it any wonder that these pokers are considered outdated?
The easy way to light briquettes is to use a charcoal chimney starter.
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 starter 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.
You can also soak a portion of the newspaper in vegetable oil to give it that extra longevity during the ignition phase.
Alternatively place a firelighter on your grill grate and put the chimney burner over it. In either case, you should have red hot coals in 12 - 15 minutes.
Note: A starter isn't just for briquettes, you can ignite lumpwood this way too.
A chimney starter is the recommended way to start and maintain a fire by many smoker / cooker brands because smoking meats such as brisket or pork shoulder could take a longer time than you can get out of a batch of briquettes so your coals are going to need replenishing with more hot coals because:-
Having said the above I have found that my Pit Barrel Cooker starts by simply pouring hot coals onto cold, putting the lid on and cooking. I guess that there's an exception to every rule. In this case a small hot fire avoids early cooler ignition, the same principle as one finds in a traditional offset smoker.
It is difficult on a grill. On a smoker it's easy to kill the charcoal, just close off all the vents and 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 serious points to be made about throwing water on hot barbecue charcoal:-
Some will argue that lighting any fire to cook food is unsustainable but we have to cook. Charcoal may not be as sustainable as renewable electricity but retort processed lumpwood barbecue charcoal produced locally from local woodland is still right up there:
I mentioned earlier that charcoal made from Marabu is in effect consuming an invasive species and coconut shell is consuming a waste product so that's one box ticked. The miles it has to travel to get to you is the issue but in all cases, it's got to be better than burning fossil fuel gas.
Not all barbecue charcoal is sustainable, take some time, do your research and understand what you are buying. Here below are three possibilities to get you started:
Oxford Charcoal Company - Barbecue charcoal created from British sustainable woodlands compliant with the Grown In Britain GiB standard.
Green Olive Charcoal - Ethical & sustainable European wood products based in West Sussex
Globaltic - Sustainably manufactured lumpwood and briquette barbecue charcoal from mainland EU