Charcoal vs Briquettes—Which is Best for Your Grill

Charcoal or briquettes? We'll help you decide. Here's what you need to know about both these grill fuel sources.

How to choose which fuel to use for your charcoal grill

Whether it’s a husband, father, uncle, or brother-in-law, every family has its own King of the Grill. You know, that one relative who will reliably spend Memorial Day, or the Fourth of July standing over a hot grill wearing a funny apron and wielding a large spatula. This is a guy who knows his meat, his barbecue sauce, and his charcoal or briquettes. And let’s not leave out the ladies. According to a recent survey, almost twice as many men as women claim to be their family’s grill master; however, 73 percent of women who grill believe that they produce tastier grilled meat because they marinate or pre-season their meat before slapping it on the grill.

But no matter who is your family’s grill master, it’s likely that they’ve taken a side on the most current big grilling debate: Which is better, pure lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes when it comes to producing delicious grilled meat?

Grilling the Experts: What’s the Difference Between Charcoal and Briquettes?

Pure lump charcoal is the natural product of slowly burning wood without oxygen until all moisture, sap, and natural chemicals are removed, leaving only pure charcoal behind. Charcoal briquettes on the other hand, are compressed, manufactured wood by-products with additives designed to facilitate faster lighting and more consistent, lengthier burning.

Charcoal briquettes are more easily available and sold in most corner stores. We are familiar with the traditional name-brands and easily recognize their packaging. It’s probably what our fathers used in our childhood backyard barbecues.

Pure lump charcoal, may be a little more difficult to find than briquettes, though its recent bump in popularity is causing it to pop up on more and more supermarket and hardware store shelves.

Getting to the Meat of Which is Best: Pure Lump Charcoal or Briquettes?

Though advocates of each type of grilling method may extol the virtues of their favorite grilling medium, it really depends on personal preference and experience. And to those who are familiar with both, it might even depend on what type of cooking you plan for a particular barbecue event.

Lump charcoal lights quickly and burns hotter than briquettes. It is natural wood reduced to pure carbon so it does not leave much ash behind, making clean-up easier. Pure lump charcoal is completely natural, with no added chemicals or ingredients, making it appealing to purists, and those who wish to avoid additive ingredients. Lump charcoal burns with less smoke, and the smoke it does emit, will not have any chemical odor.

Because it burns hotter and faster than briquettes, charcoal is a good choice for steak, pork chops, or any meat requiring a good outer sear and short cooking times. Lump charcoal reacts quickly to changes in air ventilation so it has the advantage of easier temperature adjustments during cooking.

Pure charcoal transfers no chemical odor or flavor to the food being grilled because it contains no additives. Some people dislike what they perceive as unnatural chemical flavor from briquettes that may be noticeable in foods if they are grilled on briquettes before the chemical additives have burned away. Pure lump charcoal on the other hand leaves only a natural smoke flavor in grilled meat and vegetables.

Charcoal briquettes may take longer to light than lump charcoal, but they also maintain a steady temperature for longer periods of time, making them a good choice for meats that require slow-cooking. Each briquette is pre-measured to burn a consistent amount of time, for a more predictable outcome. Charcoal briquettes can burn for many hours with little adjusting needed, making them ideal for lengthy slow cooking times to produce tender meat.

Briquettes are less expensive and more readily available for purchase at any store. Although some people claim to taste the additive chemicals in the meat grilled over briquettes, others state that allowing the briquettes to burn until they are mostly gray and white, rather than black, before adding meats will ensure that any chemical additives have burned away.

Most of us have a loved one who is the family’s grill zealot, and that person will loudly defend their preferred grilling methods (and don't even get them started on whether a charcoal grill is better than a gas grill), maybe even waving a pair of barbecue tongs at you to remove you from the presence of their grill if you debate the merits of their favored grilling medium. However, since both pure lump charcoal and traditional charcoal briquettes both have their pros and cons, it’s really a matter of personal choice, and what works best with your famous secret rib, chicken, or Boston Butt recipe.

Resources—Serious Eats, Smoked BBQ Source, Consumer Reports