I love grilling with charcoal. It sears beautifully. Charcoal burns hot enough that it is cooking primarily with infrared radiation; gas grills can't generate that much heat, so they cook food by heating the air inside the grill, resulting in less browning.
Thank you, Harold McGee, for explaining that.
A $89 Weber kettle has as much searing power as even the most expensive gas grill. Now, don't get me wrong, I own a gas grill, and love it. Gas is easy and convenient. Charcoal is temperamental, with a short window before it starts to burn down and lose heat, but the results…oh, the results…
And, don't get me started about trying to use smoking wood in a gas grill. You can do it…but the smoke flavor is anemic. A fist-sized lump of oak or hickory, nestled in charcoal, is the best way to add smoke to grilling.
What kind of charcoal do I use? Kingsford. The stuff in the red, white and blue bag. It's cheap, consistent, burns hot and long; I have about a half an hour of high heat to sear with, and an hour for indirect cooking before I have to add some more coals.
Now, I'm a grilling fanatic. I should be using lump charcoal, right? Lump is pure wood charcoal. It has no binders. It burns hotter. It is recommended by my grilling heroes. Well, here's where I confess my secret shame.
I never have any luck with lump charcoal.
I tried to use it. Oh how I tried. I kept failing. It would always burn up too quickly. A blaze of lump would pour out of my chimney, leaving the grill extra-extra-hot. I had to flip the food early to keep it from burning. And then…the heat would be gone. After I flipped the food, the lump would suddenly be medium-low heat and fading fast. I fought this for years. I would start out the summer determined to master lump charcoal. Occasionally I would turn out a perfectly seared steak, just often enough to get my hopes up. Mostly I would be microwaving grilled chicken to get it to cook all the way through. Or serve steaks that were black on the outside, but so rare they went "mooo!" when poked with a fork.
Every year I turned back to my old friend, Kingsford. Suddenly, I was in charge of the fire again, not the other way around. Sure, it has a burn-down time, but unlike lump, it gave me a peak of heat followed by a slow, gradual descent. I had an hour of heat before I had to add more coals. And, I use that burn down to my advantage. I sear protein right away, while the coals are blazing hot. Later I cook easily burned vegetables, once the temperature has eased down.
Finally, I realized that lump was just not for me. I stuck with Kingsford, and never looked back. Why should I? Kingsford is cheap* and widely available.
I watch for memorial day sales, and stock up for the summer. Big-box hardware stores use Kingsford as a loss leader, so I start each summer by loading the back of my van with bags of charcoal.
I've heard that lump has a "cleaner" taste, due to the lack of additives. Kingsford has a funny smell to it when it lights, but once it is burning, I've never noticed a difference in the taste of the food that cooks on it.
Unlike lighter fluid, or (shudder) match-light coals, which give food a hint of gasoline flavor.
It is consistent, too. Every bag works the same. (Unlike some bags of lump, full of large coals, and others, full of tiny shards). A chimney full of Kingsford is high heat for direct grilling, every time. Half a chimney, set to one side of the grill and replenished with twelve coals every hour, gives me low and slow for barbecue.
Sure, they have some fancier versions of Kingsford now. I've tried Kingsford competition briquettes, and the hickory and mesquite impregnated coals. The wood-impregnated coals were too smoky for my tastes, and the competition briquettes seemed just like regular Kingsford. I'll stick with my old friend in the red, white and blue bag.
*PS: Please, whatever you do, don't use match-light coals. They are soaked through with lighter fluid. Guess what the food will taste like? I wouldn't use lighter fluid either, for similar reasons. In theory, you can burn off all the lighter fluid; in practice, I can still taste it. A charcoal chimney lights coals quicker and doesn't leave a funny taste in the food.
What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Passionate defenses of lump charcoal or match-light briquettes? Leave them in the comments section below.
Special thanks to Chris Allingham over at VirtualWeberBullet.com for inspiring this post. Looking for more charcoal information? Check out his All About Charcoal, and read about his trip to Kingsford's R and D Lab.
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Ugly Bag of Mostly Water says
It's hard to beat Kingsford, especially considering the price. I use it *pretty much* exclusively. There are occasions when I'll turn to lump when I want hotter fire or when ash content is a consideration, but generally I just dump in a load of K and go.
Brian Thomas says
Kingsford charcoal is the only charcoal I use now. The stuff is so consistent from bag to bag, there's really no reason to use anything else.
I take advantage of the summer holiday sales and this makes it even more affordable. I stock up for the summer during the Memorial Day weekend sale and then stock up for the fall-winter-spring months during the Labor Day weekend sales.
I couldn't agree with you more. Kingsford is the best that I have found for the money. My friends give me a hard time when they go in my garage and see stacks and stacks of Kingsford charcoal against the wall. For years I used a gas grill which does an admirable job BUT when I had a char-grilled steak at my friend's house I never looked back. Now my almost brand new gasser just sits under a grill cover and only gets used when I want something grilled in a pinch (which thankfully, isn't very often).
I don't use a Weber but have a cheapie Aussie grill. Is there really any difference between the two?? I would love an excuse to go buy a new Weber.
MikeV @ DadCooksDinner says
Thanks for the tips on Wicked Good and Redneck lump - I'll try to track them down.
My uncle has an Aussie grill, and if you have the same one, there are some definite advantages to the Weber.
The big advantage is the Weber kettle is larger - that extra grilling surface makes indirect grilling possible. Also, the lid is higher off the grilling surface - I can fit a whole (12 pound) turkey in the Weber; as I recall, I couldn't fit an entire chicken in the Aussie without it bumping on the lid.
Also, if you spring for the $150 Weber gold kettle, it has their great "one touch" ash catching system - you sweep the ashes out into a catch pan, which makes cleaning up the grill easier.
And, of course, there's my favorite add-on, the Weber Kettle Rotisserie...but that's another $150.
Patrick Smith says
I use a lot of Kingsford charcoal. Its my "go to" coal when I'm cooking on my Weber kettle or my WSM. I also use Royal Oak, Duraflame and Trader Joes, from time to time, but if you look in my basement, you will think I am a satellite warehouse for Kingsford.
However, I also love my Kamado Joe and Big Green Egg cookers, and those require lump charcoal. I've found that some brands of lump perform just as you described - a flash in the grill so to speak - but others, notably Wicked Good Weekend Warrior Lump and Redneck Lump, are dense and heavy and give a much more consistent burn time and temperature, particularly in the well-controlled environment of the Kamado Joe or BGE.
So, to your ode to Kingsford, let me add a second verse - to every purpose under grilling, there is a charcoal!