After three years of testing and a total of 115 hours of research, including conversations with charcoal obsessives, barbecue champions, and professional colliers, we’re convinced that Royal Oak Ridge Briquets are the best charcoal for your grill. This charcoal burns hotter, lasts longer, and produces less ash than nearly every other briquet we tested. It’s competitively priced at about 75 cents a pound, and it’s available all year from stores such as Home Depot, Kmart, and Walmart.
We interviewed grilling experts including Doug Hanthorn of the The Naked Whiz, John Dawson of Patio Daddio BBQ, and Dennis Linkletter of Komodo Kamado, and although they had different recommendations for products, they all told us that consistency is paramount, so we focused on briquets (read more in Lump wood vs. briquets).
Last year, we burned more than 40 pounds of charcoal and lump wood on my roof in controlled testing, measuring burn time, heat consistency, and the amount of ash produced at the end.
This time we focused our testing only on charcoal briquets. We assembled our list of contenders after researching reviews on Amazon, The Naked Whiz, and Patio Daddio BBQ, hunting down recommendations on forums like The BBQ Brethren, and looking at our own results from last year. That left us with seven main contenders, most of which occupied what we consider a fair price range, roughly 50 cents to 80 cents a pound:
I spent a day on my roof, burning through controlled batches of all seven varieties. In another 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 self-lighting briquets because there’s no need to add petroleum distillates when a good charcoal chimney will do the job.
Although the fairest way to test charcoal is to weigh it out into equal piles to ensure uniform amounts of carbon despite differing densities, that isn’t the most realistic method. Because we assumed that most people don’t bother to weigh out their charcoal before using it, we instead measured our charcoal by volume, filling up our 250-cubic-inch chimney to the designated “full” line each time (like normal people).
Once we ignited the top pieces of charcoal, 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 generously loaned to us. Once the charcoal finished burning, we measured the ash production by volume. The grill remained uncovered during the burn, with the bottom vents half open. At 60 minutes, if charcoal was still burning, I gave the grill three solid shakes to see how the briquets were holding up. At this point, usually the charcoal pile was so small and covered with ash that if it were your grill, you probably would have added a new chimney’s worth if you wanted to continue grilling. For a few brands, this knocking around 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 nearly identical premade ⅓-pound 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 the burgers successively over the course of 40 minutes.
Our pick for all-around briquets suitable for just about any cooking situation is Royal Oak Ridge Briquets. These briquets burn almost as hot as—and last longer than—some of the best briquets we tested. Testers noticed that food acquired no negative taste with this charcoal, and we measured comparatively little ash mess after the briquets had burned. Royal Oak has a devoted following online for its consistent quality and reasonable pricing: At about 75 cents a pound, this charcoal is cheaper than Kingsford’s Competition Briquets but about three times what you pay for Kingsford Original Charcoal and currently about 10 cents more per pound than our runner-up, Stubb’s 100% All-Natural Bar-B-Q Charcoal Briquets (which has historically been more expensive than Royal Oak).
Note that the Royal Oak briquets, unlike the Stubb’s briquets, have added nitrate and/or nitrite. According to a Royal Oak representative, these ingredients act as oxidizers, allowing the charcoal to light faster and burn a bit hotter initially. Incidentally, these compounds are the same ones the food industry uses to cure meat. Some commenters on forums have mentioned that these oxidizers can make controlling the charcoal temperature during the early phases of cooking difficult.
In 2014, Royal Oak added a ridged edge to its briquets, which it claims helps the briquets light faster and burn longer. The new design creates a voluminous briquet that’s significantly larger than the smaller and smoother Stubb’s briquets. This means that individual Royal Oak briquets will ash over a bit faster than their Stubb’s counterparts, fill a chimney with fewer total briquets, and, depending on how you moderate the airflow in your grill, burn a bit longer.
During flavor testing, our burger testers couldn’t taste any negative additional flavors from burgers cooked over Royal Oak Ridge Briquets. One tester did mention a heavier smoke flavor (but not an unpleasant one) in comparison with the burgers cooked with Coshell charcoal or Stubb’s charcoal.
In enthusiast circles, supporters of the trinity of Royal Oak, Kingsford, and Stubb’s engage in an ongoing debate over which brand is the best charcoal, and Royal Oak has a vocal following. Royal Oak also produces Chef Select, a food-services package that is indistinguishable from the standard consumer packages of Royal Oak.
According to Cowboy Charcoal, the distributor of Stubb’s charcoal, these briquets are all-natural because they consist of 95 percent hardwood and 5 percent vegetable starch binder, with no other additives. Keep in mind, though, that “natural” has no real meaning defined by the FDA. Anything labeled “natural” can have additives and synthetic ingredients, and synthetic ingredients are not necessarily worse than natural ones.
The Stubb’s charcoal, unlike the Royal Oak charcoal, doesn’t include oxidizers for increasing its initial temperature, which is a slight drawback. Without those oxidizers, Stubb’s briquets take a bit longer to light than competitors—about five to 10 minutes longer to light completely, judging from our testing. But despite its omission of oxidizers, the Stubb’s charcoal didn’t display any of the sparking or popping associated with similar briquets. Whether the intense heat or the high percentage of hardwood was the cause, we can’t say, but something about this combination gave our burgers the strongest seared flavor, according to our taste testers.
While we didn’t find many formal reviews of charcoal, Stubb’s remains well reviewed on barbecue forums. In a poll on The BBQ Brethren, one of the larger barbecue forums on the Web, Stubb’s bested Kingsford, with many posters praising its long burn and low ash production. It also rated well in a multibrand comparison on Barbecue! Bible.
As some of our readers have pointed out, Stubb’s charcoal has a couple of drawbacks. First, the smaller briquet size is a definite problem: We noticed that this charcoal tended to fall through the grates of our 22.5-inch Weber One Touch grills earlier in the cooking process than other charcoals. That increases the distance from the coals to your food, which is a problem in direct grilling (but less so in closed indirect grilling or smoke roasting, or with ceramic cookers). We found, however, that even with direct grilling, the high heat of the Stubb’s charcoal outweighed any increased distance that came about as it slipped lower into our grill.
Second, at times Stubb’s has been one of the most expensive briquet charcoal brands out there—its price is now a competitive 65 cents a pound, but historically it has risen as high as 93 cents a pound. That’s more than Royal Oak, which usually costs about 75 cents a pound, and it’s far more than Kingsford Original, which hovers around 25 cents a pound.
On the other hand, grilling is as much a kind of showmanship as it is a science, and Fogo, like all lump wood, looks great in a grill, even as you have to work harder to overcome its inconsistent shape. In our tests, we found this to be particularly true of the Fogo charcoal: Because it’s sourced from trimmed tree branches, it contained some of the largest chunks of charcoal among all our lump charcoal samples. Sometimes, a single Fogo lump took up nearly half the chimney space before lighting.
I’ve used Stubb’s and Royal Oak for another year now, and both remain excellent choices for grilling. I was happy to see that Weber Kettle Club had test results similar to ours and also remarked on the incredible longevity of the Stubb’s briquets. One of the benefits I’ve seen from the smaller Stubb’s briquets is that I can fit more of them, volume-wise, into my chimney, which means more charcoal burning for longer when I’m grilling for larger crowds.
You need to keep a few things in mind when using and storing charcoal. First, ensure that your charcoal stays dry by storing it in a cool, dry place. For a detailed look at charcoal storage and the myth surrounding wet-charcoal storage and spontaneous combustion, read The Naked Whiz’s ultra-informative article.
Charcoal is a simple residue—the almost pure carbon remainder of any animal or mineral substance that has had all of its water and its volatile, vaporous elements removed through cooking. Today, briquets and lump wood are the two most common types of charcoal available in the US. And it’s not even that simple—you can now find self-lighting briquets, original briquets, and all-natural briquets along with bags of various types of lump woods, which are either mixed or advertised as a single variety of wood such as mesquite. This bewildering array of options has ignited a white-hot ideological debate at the heart of American grilling. Choosing between lump wood and briquets can send even the most sensible barbecue fanatic into a diatribe.
When it comes to deciding which form of charcoal is “better,” however, it depends on whom you ask. Doug Hanthorn of The Naked Whiz is one of the stauncher champions of lump wood on the Internet, and his site’s forums are home to some 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 I spoke with Hanthorn, he walked me through the various benefits of lump wood, but for him, it all comes down to one thing: “Lump wood is 100 percent pure,” he said, and “there are none of those Kingsford issues,” referring to the additives present in traditional Kingsford Original Charcoal briquets.
On the other side we have John Dawson, competitive barbecue champ, software engineer, maintainer of Patio Daddio BBQ, and staunch briquet 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 time with anything else.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” said Dawson. “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 barbecue 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, Dawson pointed out, lump wood charcoal has a cult following along the lines of organic and gluten-free foods. The draw of lump wood charcoal is the unadulterated purity that it appears to represent. It’s not an accident that the rise in availability of lump wood from store brands such as that of Whole Foods has gone hand in hand with the commercialization of organic food and other “all-natural” movements. “There are world barbecue champions who use 100 percent Kingsford Original ‘blue bag’ all the time,” said Dawson. “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 entirely convinced by Dawson’s write-off of charcoal additives, his point about consistency stands. That’s why we think briquets that attempt to limit the number of additives are better for most people—they bridge the gap between additive-free but irregularly shaped lump wood and consistently formed briquets. You get the best of both worlds (at a slight premium).
The short answer is no. The party line is that despite charcoal’s connection to higher carbon emissions, it comes from a sustainable resource, usually trees. The gas fuel for gas grills, in contrast, emits less carbon but comes from nonrenewable fossil fuels. As articles in Slate and Huffington Post indicate, the available science points to the fact that charcoal grilling has a carbon footprint nearly three times greater than that of gas grilling. (Much of the numbers come from a report in an Elsevier scientific journal by researcher Eric Johnson, summed up here; you can listen to Johnson talk about the research on NPR, as well.)
If you wish to mitigate your impact, the best way is to make sure that your charcoal at least comes from sustainably harvested sources. You can find some wood-alternative charcoals (such as those made of coconut husks) that claim to be more sustainable because they come from a fruit husk rather than from the cutting or harvesting of a whole tree. The thing is, many makers of wood charcoals don’t harvest a whole tree either, but simply prune branches and keep the tree alive. Either way, you have to factor in the energy cost of production and shipping, which could be equivalent for any two types of charcoal. For us, endorsing any wood alternatives is difficult without conducting further research comparing the environmental impact of different types of charcoal.
According to the National Cancer Institute, grilling meats over high heat produces
heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and HCAs and
PAHs have been linked (in lab-animal studies) to increased rates of cancer. However, before you ditch the grill and start eating only boiled meat, remember that scientists in these studies feed the animals exceedingly large amounts of these compounds. For example, this study found that the margin of exposure, which is the ratio of how much of the compound caused cancer in 10 percent of animals to the average human dose, was around 20,000 for prostate cancer and 150,000 for colon cancer. Those big numbers mean that the dose that caused cancer in rats was 150,000 times higher than what humans are exposed to for colon cancer. In addition, scientists don’t know if HCAs and PAHs cause cancer in humans as they do in rats. A few studies (such as this one) show a correlation between people’s consumption of lots of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats and increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer. However, since PAHs in particular are found all throughout the environment, pinpointing where the exposure to these compounds is coming from is difficult.
If exposure to HCAs and PAHs through grilled meat is a concern for you, reduce the heat, avoid burning your food, or try slow roasting your food near an indirect heat source within a covered grill. You might also consider a study published in the Journal of Food Science and cited by The New York Times that found that a barbecuer could reduce the number of HCAs in the food by adding rosemary extract to both sides of a piece of meat as it cooked on a grill. The scientists state in the paper that they reduced the amount of some HCAs by up to about 92 percent. However, since the typical amount of this particular kind of HCA is at the most about 3 nanograms per gram of meat (a nanogram is one billionth of a gram), that’s going from a tiny amount to a tiny amount.
The simple fact is, you’ll find no “perfect” charcoal product today. Barbecuing involves 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 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,” writes Goldwyn, “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.” Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a charcoal that burns hotter, longer, and more evenly than the competition, all our picks do that without using many of the other additives often found in cheaper briquets.
In our comparisons, Nature-Glo Old Hickory Briquets, by Hickory Specialties, were nearly two-thirds larger than the Stubb’s briquets and had just slightly lower temperature profiles. That bigger size had some disadvantages, namely more ash production: Nature-Glo produced a little more than 3¼ cups of ash versus Stubb’s 1½ cups. The ash buildup created a noticeably larger temperature range for the Nature-Glo charcoal, producing some considerable dead spots across the pile. In taste comparisons, Nature-Glo scored very well. Unfortunately, Hickory Specialties’ Nature-Glo brand has been discontinued ever since Royal Oak bought out the company.
Kingsford Competition Briquets are Kingsford’s entry in the “all-natural” briquet category. This brand answers the growing demand for so-called natural charcoals that lack a long list of additives. Competition Briquets contain only wood char, starch binders, and very small amounts of borax that serve to release the briquets from the briquet mold during manufacturing. In our tests, although this charcoal burned a bit hotter initially than the Kingsford Original formula, it didn’t burn quite as long. Priced at 90 cents a pound, it was simply outclassed by other available “all-natural” briquets.
While Trader Joe’s won’t officially reveal who bags its 100% All Natural Hardwood Briquettes, The Original Charcoal Company has no such qualms and confirmed to us that it is the supplier. The Trader Joe’s briquets burned nearly as well as both the Stubb’s and Royal Oak briquets in our tests, and reportedly they consist of 95 percent pure hardwood with 5 percent vegetable binder and no extra additives. However, you can find this charcoal at Trader Joe’s locations only seasonally, from mid-May to whenever supplies run out (usually around August). If you have a Trader Joe’s near you, this charcoal, priced at 44 cents a pound, is a strong pick.
According to The Original Charcoal Company’s website, its Rancher 100% All-Natural Hardwood Briquette Charcoal is available year-round in several locations in Georgia and South Carolina. The lack of general availability means we couldn’t recommend this charcoal as our overall top pick or even our runner-up. But as Sweethome editor Harry Sawyers pointed out, “If you go see the Gamecocks lose in Athens this month, then you can bet you’ll smell some Rancher near Sanford Stadium.”
Coshell Coconut Charcoal Briquets, a brand of briquets made entirely from coconut shells, burned for an unmatched 85 minutes with temperatures ranging between 1,100°F and 600°F. However, we found that meat cooked over Coshell took much longer than with the other briquets. Despite all of the charcoals’ reaching 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 cooked them only to medium rare. You should expect to nearly double the cooking times for hamburgers or hotdogs. The briquets held up after we knocked them, and they actually seemed to gain extra strength from the reduced ash covering, but they did produce 3 cups of very fine, sandy ash, which was frustrating. More important, however, Coshell briquets have almost zero smell, which might be a turnoff for cooks craving a smoky, grilled taste. Many reviewers on Amazon also cite a lack of traditional grill flavor. This charcoal is also relatively expensive at close to $2 a pound (although it’s currently on sale on Amazon for much less).
Cowboy Charcoal distributes our runner-up, Stubb’s 100% All-Natural Bar-B-Q Charcoal Briquets, but in 2013 we tested both of its own lump wood brands, Cowboy Hardwood Lump Charcoal and Vaquero Mesquite Lump Charcoal. While both were decent, they didn’t compare to Fogo’s Premium Hardwood Charcoal, which burned both hotter and longer than the Cowboy lump woods. Other reviewers seem to agree as well: In a reader poll on The Naked Whiz, Cowboy’s lump wood ranked 74th overall while Fogo’s placed sixth. Though the Cowboy brand is 30 cents a pound cheaper than the Fogo brand, costing about 88 cents a pound, that reduction in price doesn’t make up for the reduction in quality.
Royal Oak 100% All Natural Hardwood Lump Wood Charcoal, costing about $2.20 a pound, is a lot like other lump woods we tested, and we didn’t find anything particularly wrong with Royal Oak lump wood. It burned well, had a nice variety of lump wood sizes, and gave off a moderate amount of ash (not the worst offender out of all the lump wood brands we tested but not the best either). Although Royal Oak’s lump wood is more widely available than Fogo’s, the (slightly) cheaper, hotter, and longer-burning Fogo lump wood merely outclassed it.
Ono Charcoal lump wood, made from the sustainably trimmed wood of the kiawe tree from the western side of Maui, has a loyal following. Kiawe is in the mesquite family of woods, and Ono Charcoal imparts a combination of sweet and smoky flavors similar to what you might expect from mesquite. Unfortunately, Ono Charcoal is difficult to source across the US, so we dismissed it. Ono Charcoal costs roughly 83 cents a pound.
Real Montana Hardwood Lump Charcoal is the product of an old-school collier in Montana named Randy Schwehr. Real Montana distinguishes itself through the quality of its charcoal and the sheer variety of hardwood stocks it has, including alder, apple, and black hawthorne, to name a few. Reinforcing Real Montana’s high-end status is its pricing, which ranges between $1.25 and $1.50 a pound. We were impressed with the box of lump charcoal we received in 2013, but the specialty of the wood requires some decent barbecuing ability to truly bring out each wood’s unique flavor. In the end, this is a good high-end charcoal for anyone looking to experiment with added flavors.
Charcos is another charcoal alternative made of coconut husk, similar to Coshell charcoal, though it costs a bit less (about 91 cents a pound). While Charcos has a decent review from The Naked Whiz and comes in convenient packaging due to its cubic brick shape, we weren’t that impressed with coconut-shell alternatives. Charcoal made from the shells of fruits, such as Charcos, tends to produce too much ash, which reduces overall heat and creates dead spots in the pile as it cooks. Overall, Charcos didn’t compare well in our testing to either Coshell or traditional-wood charcoals.
We also dismissed extruded charcoals like those sold by Pok Pok and Komodo Kamado. Usually made from the shells or husks of fruits like coconut or rambutan fruit, extruded charcoal is big in Southeast Asia. This kind of charcoal is perfect if you’re cooking with a ceramic oven or ceramic grill such as the Komodo Kamado ceramic grill or the Big Green Egg; in fact, it was originally designed for the ceramic ovens that are popular in Southeast Asia. In a ceramic grill, extruded charcoal has a long burn time, even temperature, and low smoke production—but it’s terrible in an open grill like a Weber. Due to the extrusion process, which subjects coconut husk char to intense pressure and binds it into a log, these logs burn quickly in an open setting and leave behind a veritable mountain of ash when compared with traditional wood charcoal. This ash production also reduces the charcoal’s overall heat during use in a conventional grill. In short, extruded charcoal is great for ceramic ovens but bad for grills.
We also tested and dismissed a traditional Japanese charcoal (its origin stretches back 1,200 years) called binchotan charcoal and its cousin, sumi charcoal. Made from white oak, binchotan charcoal results from a specially designed process that produces very dense, very pure charcoal; knocking together two pieces of binchotan elicits a uniquely hollow sound similar to that of striking two hollow metal rods together. Because binchotan burns at a lower temperature and for long periods of time with very little smoke, it traditionally served to heat indoor yaki grills or tea for the ritualized tea ceremony during the Edo period. It’s fascinating stuff but totally impractical for modern kettle-style grilling, and it’s 10 to 20 times more expensive than standard briquet or lump wood charcoal.
Every year many new “in-house” charcoal brands, including Target’s Fire & Flavor Oak & Hickory Briquets and Walmart’s Backyard Grill Charcoal Briquets, seem to crop up in store patio sections. Considering their low price and wide availability, we’re very interested in both the Target and Walmart offerings. Additionally, Cowboy Charcoal, the distributor of the Stubb’s charcoal, our runner-up, has begun to sell a new hardwood briquet, which we’re also excited about. If Cowboy can keep up the already proven quality of its Stubb’s product, this new charcoal could be a contender for our top-pick spot. We also like the sound of a charcoal briquet made from coffee grounds; though we’ve been let down by alternatives to wood charcoal in the past, maybe Coffee Coals has figured out a better way. Right now we’re looking into all our testing options, and we’ll update this article with our next steps as soon as we know what they are.
Originally published: September 24, 2015