Decoding Charcoal: Types, Tastes, and Techniques for Mastering Your BBQ

Charcoal is either a forgotten part of the barbecue you’ve perhaps grabbed from a garage or supermarket pallet or something you’re obsessed over.

But what are the differences? And what’s important to consider when choosing charcoal?

But first…

Make sure you get yourself a charcoal chimney starter.

A chimney starter is definitely the easiest way to get your charcoal alight. In about 15 minutes, you’ll have a whole grill full of nicely burning charcoal.

The Main Charcoal Types

With so many options available, it’s perhaps worth understanding the different types and how they can affect your barbecuing. Each type of charcoal has its strengths and best uses. Choosing the right one depends on your cooking and your flavour preferences.

Lump Charcoal

Lump charcoal is made from natural hardwoods, with nothing added. It’s wood that has been burnt down until it’s pure carbon, so it burns hotter and cleaner than briquettes. Lump charcoal lights quickly and produces less ash. It is excellent for hot and fast cooking, such as grilling with a closed hood or direct grilling,

Charcoal Briquettes

Briquettes are pillow-shaped and uniform in size and shape. They burn longer and maintain a steady temperature. However, because of their shape, they produce more ash and have additives. Briquettes generally combine coal dust, accelerants, charcoal fines, and binders to keep their shape and an oxidising agent, possibly lighting fluid, designed to make them easy to light.

Hardwood and Sawdust Briquettes

These are similar to regular BBQ charcoal briquettes but made from pure wood. These are often traditionally used in fireplaces but also for cooking outdoors.

Wood briquettes offer a balance between lump charcoal and regular briquettes. They burn cleaner and longer; the sawdust versions are made from compressed sawdust. They are eco-friendly and burn evenly. However, they don’t burn as hot as other types, so they will be more helpful if you’re looking for longer cooking times.

Binchotan Charcoal

Binchotan is the most expensive charcoal in the world. It’s hand-crafted from oak by Japanese charcoal makers in the Kishu province of Wakayama and is up to 98% carbon. Binchotan is sought after by elite cooks thanks to its flameless, clean burn and high and steady heat production. It can also be reused up to three times.

Coconut Shell Charcoal

Made from coconut shells, this type of charcoal is environmentally friendly. It burns hot, two to three times longer than ordinary charcoal, and produces very little ash. It’s often used in hookahs and indoor grilling.

Sugar Maple Charcoal

Jack Daniels uses sugar maple charcoal as part of its distillery process. This type is made from sugar maple wood from the sugar maple tree. It imparts a mild, sweet flavour to the food and is a good choice for smoking meats.

Does Charcoal Choice Make a Difference?


Different charcoals impart different flavours to the food. For example, lump charcoal and hardwood briquettes give a more natural, smoky taste. More artisan charcoals, such as Binchotan and sugar maple charcoal, add unique, subtle flavours.

Cooking Time

Some foods require a longer cooking time, some meats require searing, and others need direct or indirect cooking techniques. As explained above, different charcoals give different cooking times, so your charcoal choice should reflect the type of food you’re cooking.

For example, charcoal briquettes burn longer and maintain a steady temperature, making them ideal for slow cooking and smoking. Lump charcoal burns hotter and faster, perfect for quick grilling or searing.

Temperature Control

Again, depending on the food you’re cooking, the charcoal choice will depend on the temperature you need to achieve.

Lump charcoal allows for higher temperatures and more precise control, which is essential for searing meats. Briquettes provide a consistent, steady heat, ideal for longer cooking sessions and larger joints.

Ash Production

Clean-up is always a horrible part of a barbecuing session. The different charcoal and fuels produce different ash levels. Lump charcoal and hardwood briquettes produce less ash than regular briquettes, making cleanup easier.

But there’s an additional aspect to having a fuel that produces less ash. Less ash also means better airflow and more efficient burning while cooking.

Lighting the Charcoal

Take lump charcoal as an example. Lump charcoal lights quickly and burns hotter, but that also means you may need to use more or top it up more often. It can be tricky to try to restock a barbecue mid-cook.

Briquettes require more effort to light—or at least more patience and effort to get going—but they will burn consistently for a longer time.

Final Thoughts

The choice of charcoal affects flavour, cooking time, temperature control, ash production, and lighting. Picking the right type makes your barbecuing experience easier. But with most things, trial and error is a good teacher, and as long as your food is cooked correctly, you’ll enjoy the experience.