The Best Charcoal for Grilling
After a total of 100 combined hours of research, testing, eating, and comparing, Stubb’s 100% All-Natural Briquettes is our best overall pick for charcoal for the second year in a row. It is still a pure burning charcoal with no negative taste characteristics and minimal ash production. The quality of ash is also better and less flaky than the other brands we tested, not as prone to getting whipped up in the wind and onto your food.
How we picked & tested
We interviewed grilling experts, including Doug Hanthorn of the Nakedwhiz.com, John Dawson of PatiodaddioBBQ.com, and Dennis Linkletter of Komodokamado.com, and though they had different recommendations on products, they all told us that consistency is paramount. So we focused on briquettes (read more in Lump charcoal vs. briquettes). Last year, we measured, studied, and burned over 40 pounds of charcoal and lump wood on my roof in controlled testing, testing for burn time, consistent heat, and the amount of ash produced at the end. This time we focused our testing only on charcoal briquettes. Our list of contenders came from researching reviews from Amazon, The Naked Whiz, and PatiodaddioBBQ, stalking recommendations on forums like BBQ-brethren.com, and from our own results last year. This left us with 7 main contenders:
- Kingsford Original Brand ($.24 per lb.)
- Kingsford Competition Brand ($.90 per lb.)
- Royal Oak Briquettes ($.73 per lb.)
- Nature-Glo Old Hickory Briquettes ($.37 per lb + shipping)
- Stubb’s Briquettes ($.93 per lb.)
- Co-Shell Briquettes ($.55 per lb.)
- Trader Joe’s Brand Briquettes ($.44 per lb.)
I spent a day on my roof, burning through controlled batches of all 7 varieties. As part of our testing this year, we did side-by-side comparisons of individual brands from separate bags to test for uniformity. All brands performed nearly equally. We skipped any self-lighting briquettes because there’s no need to add extra chemicals when a good charcoal chimney will do the job.
Although the fairest way of testing charcoal is to weigh it out into equal piles to ensure uniform amounts of carbon despite differing densities, it’s not the most realistic. It’s our assumption that most people don’t bother to weigh out their own charcoal before using it. Instead, we measured our charcoal by volume, filling up our 250-cubic-inch chimney to the designated “full” line each time like normal people.
Once the top pieces of charcoal were ignited, we poured the coals into one side of a standard 22.5-inch Weber One Touch Gold kettle grill and recorded a range of temperatures along the pile every five minutes using a Fluke Ti32 thermal imager, which Fluke was generous enough to loan to us. Once the charcoal was finished burning, we measured the ash production by volume as well. The grill remained uncovered during the burn with the bottom vents half open. At 60 minutes, if there was still charcoal burning, I gave the grill three solid shakes to see how the briquettes were holding up. At this point, usually the charcoal pile was so small and covered with ash that you probably would have added a new chimney’s worth if you were to continue grilling. For a few brands, this knocking gave new life to the coals, and for others it was pretty much the end of the line.
We also performed a fairly subjective taste test with four friends as ‘food tasters’ and several pounds of near identical pre-made ⅓-lb., all-beef burgers from Western Beef. Our other testing goal (beyond taste) was to see how well done our burgers cooked over each charcoal. To that end we cooked each burger for four minutes on each side, cooking burgers successively over the course of 40 minutes or until they became too raw to eat.
What we observed was that different charcoals really did give off different radiations of heat despite having similar surface temperatures, and that certain charcoals did impart distinct flavors onto the burgers we cooked. For our tastes, the charcoals that provided the highest searing heat also imparted the best flavor to our burgers overall. None of the charcoal we tested gave our food a ‘bad’ or too acrid flavor. How you like your food to taste remains a matter of personal preference, and different cooking techniques will create different results. Specifically, we noted that burgers cooked over Kingsford Original had the most unique flavor and smell, Nature-Glo Old Hickory imbued the sweetest taste, and Stubbs created the strongest seared flavor. Coshell Charcoal, made of coconut husks, had the gentlest radiating heat and mildest (almost nonexistent) grilling flavor, which did allow for a lot more flavor of the burger to stand out.
According to our tests (all degrees Fahrenheit), Stubb’s held its high-end surface temp of 1,000 degrees for 45 minutes and only ever bottomed out at 825 degrees. (This differed from our previous testing where Stubb’s held a 1,000 degree temperature for 60 minutes but had a lower limit of 700 degrees. A larger grill with more airflow and a change in grilling conditions may be enough to account for this over the course of an hour. We still found the two tests to be nearly identical overall.)
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As some of our readers have pointed out, Stubb’s isn’t perfect. Its smaller briquette size is a definite problem. We too noticed that its comparatively smaller charcoals tended to fall through the grates of our 22.5-inch Weber One Touch grills earlier in the cooking process than other charcoals. This increases the distance from your coals to your food, which is a problem in direct grilling and less so in closed indirect grilling or smoke roasting or with ceramic cookers. We found, however, that even with direct grilling, the high heat Stubbs produced outweighed any increased distance that came about as it slipped lower into our grill.
For some of our commenters and reviewers on Amazon, Stubb’s smokes too much and carries an acrid flavor. After testing multiple bags over the course of a year, I have not experienced this problem. Stubbs seemed to produce no more or less smoke than any charcoal we tested with no strong residual flavors. As with any charcoal, it is important to start it fully before you begin cooking. We burned all our charcoals for roughly twenty minutes in a chimney, until the top charcoals were just beginning to turn, before using it. This ensures that the entire pile is white hot and creating minimal smoke. If briquette size is still a concern, try Royal Oak Briquettes or Nature-Glo Old Hickory instead. Last year we were alarmed to read some negative reviews on Amazon about the Stubbs product. Amazon reviewers have claimed that the Stubb’s briquettes you can buy from Lowe’s are made in America and are vastly superior to the briquettes you can buy on Amazon, which are made in Paraguay. Despite that, though, the bag we were given last year for review and rated so highly was made in Paraguay. It is still the best performing briquette we’ve tested. When we asked them about this issue, a brand manager at Duraflame told us, “For the past four years, all Stubb’s briquets have been made in the US. Before that, they were made and packaged in Paraguay. There are obviously still some Paraguay bags working their way through the market, but there is no real difference between the product. The product made in Paraguay and the product made in the US are manufactured to the same specifications…Also, we did not distribute product to retailers based on origin.” This year both bags of Stubbs we tested were made in the U.S. and performed nearly identically to last year.
Should I upgrade?
The simple fact is that there is no ‘perfect’ charcoal product on the market today. There are too many styles of grilling and smoking, too many grill types, and too many opinions for one charcoal to meet every person’s needs. As Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn has pointed out many times before on www.amazingribs.com, your choice of charcoal is not nearly as important as almost everything else you do before you begin cooking. “Pick one consistent brand of briquet,” says Meathead, “learn it, and stick with it for a year until you have all the other variables under control. The quality of the raw food, seasoning, sauce, cooking temp, and serving temp far outweigh the impact of charcoal on outcome.” That said, if you’re looking for a charcoal that burns hotter, longer, and more evenly than the competition, our pick does that without the other additives often found in other briquettes.
Our lump wood pick
Care and maintenance/setup
There are a few things to keep in mind when using and storing charcoal. First, keep your charcoal dry by storing in a cool, dry place. For a detail piece about charcoal storage and the myth about wet charcoal storage and spontaneous combustion, read The Naked Whiz’s ultra-informative piece.
Lump wood vs. briquettes
Charcoal is a simple residue—the almost pure carbon remainder of any animal or mineral substance that has had all its water and volatile, vaporous elements removed through cooking. Today, briquettes and lump wood are the two most common types of charcoal on the American market. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, though how and what exactly you are going to cook goes a long way in deciding your preference. When most people look at the charcoal aisle at the grocery store, they see bewilderment—you can now find self-lighting briquettes, original briquettes, and all-natural briquettes along with bags of various types of lump woods, which are either mixed or advertised as a single variety of wood like mesquite. But some people look at the same aisle and see a white-hot ideological fire burning at the heart of American grilling. Choosing between lump wood and briquettes can send even the most sensible barbecue fanatic into diatribe.
Lump wood charcoal is just that. It’s lumps of wood turned into charcoal, which is why it’s heralded for its purity and flavor. You can actually make lump wood charcoal in your backyard if you’re so inclined. To many, lump wood’s simplicity is its primary advantage: there is no vegetable oil or starch binder, nothing you can’t see—just good hardwood char, which carries a lot of flavor while producing minimal ash. But the problem with lump wood, if you see it as a problem, is that it’s not uniform. Because no two pieces of lump wood are shaped the same, no two pieces of lump wood will ever burn the same either. This means that from bag to bag, handful to handful even, your temperature and cooking time can vary wildly.
Briquettes solved that by being shaped into the even little black pucks we know so well. They’re a nearly hundred-year-old invention from the mind of Henry Ford, who saw a way to profit from the scrap timber and sawdust being thrown away from his Model-T production lines. They were designed to bring industrial uniformity to charcoal. A mixture of wood or paper mash is dry heated and mixed with anthracite coal and lime. This is then bound with corn starch and pressure molded into uniform briquette shapes. Briquettes offer you a certain amount of uniformity while you cook. It means that as you get comfortable with your grill and chimney, you can start to gauge how many briquettes equals how many minutes of cooking depending on how you set up your grill. Briquettes are also somewhat denser than the average lump wood alternative, so a pound of charcoal briquette can take up much less space in your grill than a pound of lump.
When it comes to deciding which is “better” however, it really depends on whom you ask. Doug Hanthorn of Nakedwhiz.com is one of the stauncher champions of lump wood on the internet, and his site’s forums are home to some very serious lump wood fanatics. As a ceramic grill enthusiast, though, he perhaps values minimal ash production more than your typical grill owner—ceramic grills (like the “Big Green Egg”) are notoriously frustrating to control if their vents get blocked up. When we spoke, he walked me through the various benefits of lump wood, but for Hanthorn, it all comes down to one thing in the end: “Lump wood is 100% pure,” says Doug, “there are none of those Kingsford issues,” referring to the additives present in traditional Kingsford Original briquettes.
On the other side we have John Dawson, competitive BBQ champ, software engineer, maintainer of PatiodaddioBBQ.com and staunch briquette advocate. When asked about lump wood, Dawson replied, “Lump is a solution in search of a problem.” He has been a fan of Kingsford since he was a kid, raised on the stuff with his father, who told him not to waste his time with anything else.
“If it’s not broke don’t fix it,” says John. “I think far too much effort, time and energy is put into thinking of charcoal. For me the bottom line is that it doesn’t do me any good to produce the best BBQ in the world if I can’t reproduce the results time in and time out. So it’s all about eliminating variables. Number one out of the gate is to get the fuel nailed.” On the forums, John points out, lump wood charcoal has a cult-like following along the lines of organic and gluten-free foods, which makes sense. The draw of lump woods is the unadulterated purity that they represent. It’s not an accident that the rise in availability of lump wood from store brands like Whole Foods has gone hand in hand with the commercialization of organic food and other “all-natural” movements. “There are world BBQ champions who use 100% Kingsford blue bag all the time,” says John. “So obviously, if there was a flavor or bad taste being given off by these so-called unnatural additives, people would have picked up on it by now.” While we’re not 100% convinced by this write-off of charcoal additives, his point about consistency stands. That’s why we think natural briquettes are the better charcoal for most people because they bridge the gap between purity and consistency, offering the best of both worlds—albeit at a bit of a premium price.
Is charcoal environmentally friendly?
The short answer is no. The party line is that despite charcoal being dirtier it comes from a sustainable resource; usually trees. Gas for gas grills emits less carbon but is derived from non-renewable fossil fuels. (If your charcoal has fossil fuel additives within it, you’ve managed to find the worst of both worlds.) All the science points to the fact that gas grilling has a carbon footprint nearly three times smaller than charcoal grilling. Using a hyper-sustainable charcoal made out of coconut husk might narrow this gap slightly, but I doubt it, once you factor in production and shipping.
Is charcoal grilling healthy for you?
Not according to the National Cancer Institute. Grilling meats over high heat produces heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These chemicals have been linked (in studies on lab animals) to increased rates of cancer. Though it remains unclear if such exposure causes cancer in humans, the NCI report still warns that numerous epidemiologic studies (like this one) have found a correlation between the high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats and increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer. However, another study, published in the Journal of Food Science and cited by The New York Times, found that a barbecuer could reduce the number of HCAs in his or her foods by adding rosemary extract to both sides of a piece of meat as it cooked on a grill. Our best advice: eat moderately, season your food liberally with antioxidant-rich herbs and spices like rosemary and garlic, and don’t burn your food. Better yet, slow roast your food near an indirect heat source within a covered grill and still season liberally. Also, try to stay positive.
Nature-Glo Old Hickory has a charcoal briquette nearly two-thirds larger than the Stubb’s briquette with just slightly lower temperature profiles. This extra size does come with some disadvantages, namely more ash production. Nature-Glo produced a little more than 4 cups of ash vs Stubb’s 2 cups. This ash buildup created a noticeably larger temperature range for the Nature-Glo, producing some considerable dead spots across the pile. In taste comparisons, Nature-Glo also scored very well. Finding it can be difficult, though, and almost always requires shopping online. In the end, this lack of general availability was the deciding factor against recommending Nature-Glo as one of our top picks. It is also worth noting that Nature-Glo Old Hickory is produced by Royal Oak as a food services package separate from Royal Oak’s standard briquette product. Nature-Glo had a slightly sweeter taste, attributed to hickory, than the Royal Oak briquettes, which produced a more smoky flavor. Nature-Glo Old Hickory costs $.37 per lb + shipping on Amazon.
While Kingsford Original briquettes are very cheap, consistent and perfectly adequate for most basic grilling needs, they are also full of additives that you don’t need near your food. Things like mineral char, mineral carbon (coal, to you and me), limestone, borax, sodium nitrate, and sawdust, all of which add up to a lot of ash towards the end of your cook. This won’t hurt if you’re just grilling burgers and hot dogs with the lid off, but you might have reason to think twice before using it for anything that requires you to leave the lid on for extended periods of time. Kingsford is the cheapest charcoal on the market that we could find. It’s sold everywhere; despite the additives, it’s used to win plenty of barbecuing championships around the country every year. It costs roughly $.24 per lb though prices vary; look for your summer sales.
Kingsford Competition was created by Kingsford to compete in the ‘all natural’ briquette market. It directly answers the growing concerns over additives in their original brand briquettes. These briquettes only contain wood char, starch binders, and very small amounts of borax used to release the actual briquettes from the briquette mold during manufacturing. While it burned a bit hotter, initially, than the Kingsford Original, it didn’t burn quite as long. At $.90/lb., it was simply outclassed by other ‘all natural’ briquettes on the market.
While Trader Joe’s won’t officially reveal who bags their charcoal for them, the Original Charcoal Company has no such qualms and confirmed to us that they are the suppliers. The Trader Joe’s briquettes burned nearly as well as both Stubb’s and Royal Oak briquettes in our tests and is reportedly 95% pure hardwood with 5% vegetable binder and no additional additives. However, it is only available at Trader Joe’s locations seasonally from mid-May to whenever supplies run out (usually around August). Rancher briquettes are available year-round in several locations, according to their website, in Georgia and South Carolina. The lack of general availability meant we couldn’t recommend this charcoal as our overall top pick or even runner-up. But if you have a Trader Joe’s near you, priced at $.44/lb., this charcoal is a very strong pick.
Coshell, a brand of briquettes made entirely from coconut shells, burned for an unmatched 85 minutes with temperatures ranging between 1,100 and 600 degrees. However, we found that meat cooked over Coshell still took much longer than the other briquettes. Despite all charcoals measuring nearly equal temperatures on our thermal imager, burgers initially cooked for four minutes on each side came out well done on the other charcoals while Coshell only cooked them to medium rare. You should expect to nearly double cooking times for hamburgers or hotdogs. The briquettes held up after being knocked and actually seemed to gain extra strength from the reduced ash covering. It did produce 3 cups of very fine, sandy ash, which was frustrating. But more importantly, Coshell briquettes have almost zero smell, which might be a turnoff for cooks looking for a smoky, grilled taste. Many reviewers on Amazon also cite a lack of traditional grill flavor. It’s also relatively expensive, at close to $2 a pound (although it’s currently on sale on Amazon for much less).
Wrapping it up
Stubb’s Charcoal Briquettes burn hot and evenly for a long time, producing less ash than the competitors. It’s still affordable and comes without the additives found in cheaper brands.
(A special thanks to Weber for the donation of three One Touch 26.75” Gold Grills used in testing. They were a snap to put together and performed excellently. They are still our number one pick for best grill.)
Originally published: June 5, 2014