Is Barbecuing on Charcoal Still the Best?

on Wednesday, May 18, 2016

When cooking over a live flame, whether it be grilling, barbecuing, or smoking, charcoal briquettes are by far the most popular choice of fuel. Note that we didn't say it was the best fuel just the most popular. Cooking over charcoal has both its advantages and disadvantages over its rivals propane gas and wood. This article will explain the benefits and drawbacks of charcoal briquettes to help you decide when and where to use them.

The trick to understanding the popularity of charcoal briquettes is that, although they are not the best choice to cook with if you want to get the best flavor in your meat, they are the most practical choice for ease and simplicity. First of all, charcoal briquettes (and the grills that use them) are cheap and can be found anywhere. Propane gas and smoke wood (and their equipment), in contrast, can be more expensive and take a little extra effort to find. Charcoal briquettes are relatively easy to light and keep lit, especially when combined with lighter fluid (and some briquettes come pre-soaked for easy lighting). They burn slowly, evenly, and at a relatively uniform heat. Although propane gas is also easy to light and easy to control, firewood is much more difficult to light and not easy to control the temperature with.

The main disadvantage of cooking with charcoal briquettes is the flavor they give the meat. Briquettes lack the aromatic smoky flavor gained by burning smoke woods. Worse, charcoal briquettes contain many fillers, additives, and binding agents to help the briquettes hold their shape and burn evenly. The problem with this is that it can give the cooked meat an unpleasant chemical taste, especially if briquettes are soaked in lighter fluid first for easy lighting. In grilling, where meat is cooked directly over a high heat for only a few minutes, this is not too big of a problem. In barbecuing, where meat is cooked indirectly over a low heat for several hours, this chemical taste builds up until it is hard to ignore.

Fortunately, there is a middle road option that provides the best of both worlds the ease of cooking with charcoal and the smoky flavor of cooking on wood. This third option is hardwood lump charcoal. Unlike briquettes, which are chemically processed, shaped, and formed, lump charcoal is hardwood that has been burned down into "natural" charcoal (the pieces are different sizes and irregular shapes, hence the name "lump" charcoal). Hardwood charcoal contains no chemical additives to taint the meat. If you light the charcoal with something other than lighter fluid (like a coal chimney or electric coil), you can avoid any chemical flavor whatsoever. Quite the opposite, in fact-although not as flavorful as actual smoke woods, hardwood charcoal does still lend a mild, natural smoky flavor to the meat.

Hardwood charcoal is only slightly more expensive than briquettes, and almost as easy to find. Although you won't find it in gas stations and convenience stores, most supermarkets and superstores carry it. Be aware that hardwood charcoal burns hotter and faster than briquettes this can catch barbecuers new to lump charcoal off guard. Fortunately, hardwood charcoal also responds quickly to changes in airflow, making it easier to control the temperature inside the cooker.

Finally, a strong word of caution: if you plan to use charcoal, never, ever use it indoors. Charcoal releases carbon monoxide, a toxic gas, as it burns. Indoors, however, carbon monoxide can build up and become dangerous. Colorless and odorless, you won't even notice its there until people start getting sick, and overexposure to carbon monoxide can cause permanent brain damage. Outdoors, however, the open air can quickly disburses any carbon monoxide released by burning charcoal before it can concentrate and become dangerous. As long as you use charcoal outside, you have nothing to worry about.


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