Grilling with Charcoal

Why We Love Charcoal

Lauren Jones, Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet | 05/15/2013 | Grilling

Here at Kalamazoo we can’t think of many things that get us going more than grilling with charcoal. It generates incredible flavors and a wide range of temperatures, and let’s face it – it can be fun to play with fire! We’ll walk you through the different types of charcoal available and what to use for different cooking styles along with a few tips from grillmaster Russ.

Different Types of Charcoal

Let’s start with the basics; charcoal briquettes. Briquettes are what most people think of when they think charcoal. That is; compressed charcoal dust bound together into squares. They usually come in two varieties, quick-start and traditional - try to avoid the quick-start variety and stick with traditional. Typical charcoal briquettes are bound together with a variety of chemicals, while premium briquettes are bound with corn starch – a natural ingredient. These are definitely preferable. We recommend never using lighter fluid, whether you have a Kalamazoo grill or not. If you are working with a conventional charcoal grill, the preferred way to light a charcoal fire is with a chimney starter; they’re quick, and eliminate the need for lighter fluid. We like Steven Raichlen’s Square Chimney Starter. The shape allows the coals to light uniformly, and stay glowing for up to an hour.

Lump charcoal is charcoal in its purest form and doesn’t incorporate binders or added chemicals. Sometimes it’s made from reclaimed wood, and other times from virgin wood. It produces less ash than briquettes, and is more responsive to oxygen making it easier to control the heat of your fire by using the adjustable air vents on your grill. You’ll sometimes find foreign objects in your lump charcoal, because of the raw nature of the product.

In Japan, the traditional wood used to make charcoal is bamboo. It burns extremely clean with almost no smoke, so clean in fact that in Japan many people burn it inside their homes. More recently, coconut charcoal has risen in popularity. Sold as tube shaped briquettes, these coals include binders just like traditional briquettes. Coconut charcoal is great because it’s made from renewable resources, burns extremely clean and is much better for the environment. 

How to Choose Good Charcoal

The telltale sign of charcoal quality is how much ash it leaves behind. This is more of a discerning factor for quality in briquettes than it is in lump. The less ash the briquettes leave behind, the more pure they are. Good pure lump charcoal will leave behind very little ash because of how completely it burns.

If using lump charcoal, you should also consider the size of the pieces. In briquettes this usually isn’t a problem, although some brands are more prone to falling apart. A bag of lump however, will include some large pieces, lots of medium sized pieces, and tiny unusable pieces and dust at the bottom of the bag. Since you’re paying by weight, you want as little dust as possible.

Select the Right Charcoal For the Job

Each style of charcoal has different heat characteristics, and it’s important to consider them when choosing the right type for the job at hand.

Lump charcoal is ideal for searing foods like fish, burgers, and steak that are not overly thick, because it generates high temperatures, and has a faster heat cycle. Essentially it gets hotter, and burns more quickly than other types of charcoal.

Briquettes tend to give off a more stable, even heat that is great for smoking, roasting and anything that takes longer than about twenty minutes to cook. They don’t get quite as hot as lump charcoal, but they stay lit for much longer.

Regardless of the type of charcoal you use, a charcoal fire produces a drier heat than a gas fire, which emphasizes the glorious Maillard reaction - that wonderful caramelized crust.

Grillmaster Russ’s Favorites

Kalamazoo grillmaster Russ loves Royal Oak’s products. Their lump is completely natural, with consistent size and wide availability making it a great go-to. He also recommends Royal Oak Chef’s Select briquettes. It comes in a very plain bag marked “not for retail sale.” The briquettes are large, all natural and have a nice, long heat cycle. It’s made for professional cooks, and can be hard to find so keep your eyes peeled.

Royal Oak's Chef's Select charcoal

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