If you’re a serious grill enthusiast, you’ve probably learned that charcoal grills are the way to go. Using coals instead of gas as your heat source adds a ton of extra flavor to your food, imparting a rich, smoky element that’s hard to beat. But what’s the best way to fuel your charcoal grill? You’ll find several types of charcoal at the hardware store, from briquettes and hardwood, lump charcoal to flavored briquettes, coconut shell charcoal and binchotan (an activated lump charcoal used in Japanese cooking). Which one is the best for your grill? We asked our Test Kitchen team for their advice.
Psst: This is everything you need to know about how to use a charcoal grill.
If you head to the store to buy charcoal for the grill, you’ll likely encounter briquettes. These inexpensive cubes are made by compressing wood by-products like sawdust and lumps of wood together, along with additives to make the coals burn long and hot. They also tend to produce a lot more ash than lump charcoal, so you’ll want to remove the excess before each grilling session. Briquettes can give off a chemical odor as they’re started, too, so it’s important to let them burn until they’re covered with white ash before starting your cooking session.
Although the manufacturing process sounds off-putting, briquettes are a good option for anyone new to charcoal grilling. They burn more consistently and longer than lump charcoal, so they require a lot less hand-holding. For the cleanest burn, look for briquettes that don’t have added lighter fluid.
- Easy to find
- Long, even burn time
- Take longer to light
- Produces a lot of ash
- Might impart additional flavor to your food
Roughly $1.50 per pound, or $30 for a 20-pound bag. The easy light briquettes are significantly more expensive, around $4 per pound.
What to cook with briquettes
We like using briquettes for any items with long cooking times, like grilling a whole chicken. Catherine Ward, our prep kitchen manager, always uses Kingsford briquettes when smoking. They provide a consistent, slow burn that makes it easier to turn your grill into a smoker.
How to start briquettes
The best way to start briquettes is with a chimney starter ($20). Fill the chimney with the appropriate amount of briquettes (a full chimney for high heat, half-full for medium heat and a quarter-full for low heat). Remove the top rack and set the chimney inside the grill. Place a piece of newspaper underneath the chimney and light it through the vents. Let the fire burn undisturbed until the coals are covered in white ash, about 30 minutes. Carefully dump the coals out into the grill using oven mitts to protect your hands. Spread them out into a direct or indirect heat pattern and cover the grill until it reaches the desired temperature.
Best charcoal briquette brands
When it comes to briquette brands, you really can’t go wrong with Kingsford Original ($13). These small, compact briquettes burn hot and long, and they don’t have any added flavor. We also like the all-natural briquettes from Cowboy brand ($37). If you don’t want to mess with lighter fluid or a charcoal chimney, look to Kingsford Easy Light ($23).
Serious grillers tend to skip the briquettes and go straight to hardwood charcoal. This charcoal is made by slowly burning wood in the absence of oxygen. When all the sap and moisture is removed from the wood, the result is a clean-burning charcoal. Because it’s made from pure wood, hardwood charcoal has a more natural, smokier flavor than briquettes. It also tends to respond better to air control using the vents, allowing you to be more precise with the temperature inside the grill.
The vast majority of our Test Kitchen team prefers cooking over hardwood coal because of its cleaner flavor. Josh Rink, our food stylist and test cook, likes how it lights quicker and burns hotter than briquettes. And because it doesn’t contain any by-products or additives, hardwood charcoal produces fewer ashes, so you won’t need to clean out the grill as frequently. The unevenly-sized pieces do burn more quickly than briquettes, though, so be ready to add additional charcoal to the grill for long-cooking items.
- Lights quickly
- Burns hot and “clean” (no added flavors)
- Responds well to air control through vents
- Produces little ash
- Short burn time
- Unevenly-sized pieces
Roughly $2 a pound, or $35 to $40 for a 20-pound bag.
What to cook with hardwood charcoal
Shannon Norris, our senior food stylist, uses hardwood charcoal anytime she lights up the grill, so feel free to use them on any of your favorite grilling recipes. It has a cleaner flavor and fewer chemicals, so it lets the natural flavor of the grilled food shine.
How to start hardwood charcoal
You can start this charcoal in a chimney starter, but it’s much easier to use a lighter cube ($5) or a starter square ($21). Remove the top rack on the grill and loosely pile the charcoal in the middle of the grill. Bury a starter cube or square in the center of the pile, making sure there is still airflow to the cube. Light the cube and let the charcoal burn for about 15 minutes, until the center of the pile is red-hot and the pieces begin to be covered in white ash. Knock the pile down a little bit to spread out the heat and cover the grill until it reaches the desired temperature.
Best hardwood/lump charcoal brands
Our hands-down favorite lump charcoal for grilling is Royal Oak Lump Charcoal ($13). It burns hot and clean, with a lightly smoky scent. We also like the blended wood flavor from Rockwood All-Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal ($40), which uses a blend of oak, hickory, maple and pecan wood. You also can’t go wrong with Jealous Devil All Natural Lump Charcoal ($35), a chemical-free lump charcoal made with South American hardwoods.
Next: Learn how to grill (almost) everything using this handy guide.