Food & Drink

Is lump charcoal any better?

Q. What's the deal with grilling over lump charcoal? Where can I find the stuff?

Charcoal comes in all kinds of forms – briquettes, natural lump, processed lump, even an “instant” lighter-fluid-soaked abomination.

Natural lump charcoal is created by heating chunks of wood in retort ovens that restrict oxygen flow. Since oxygen is required for combustion, the wood doesn't burn. Instead, various volatile compounds boil off, leaving a dry, hard, black lump.

Processed lump charcoal is made from amalgamated wood scraps, is treated in much the same way, and doesn't contain coal or other additives. It burns faster than natural lump charcoal, but at the same temperature.

Charcoal briquettes are made from what amounts to sawdust and various additives – cornstarch, borax and lime are common ingredients. This mixture is dried in much the same way as natural charcoal, and then stamped into the familiar briquette shape.

Briquettes burn very evenly – they're essentially training wheels for your grill because they give you consistent heat over a long period of time.

You'll often hear that lump charcoal burns hotter than briquettes, but this isn't always the case. Lump charcoal and briquettes burn at the same temperature. But lump charcoal's heat production drops sharply after about 30 minutes, while briquettes will put out face-charring heat for nearly an hour.

You can find lump charcoal at many stores, such as Blackhawk Hardware, Lowe's, Home Depot and Barbeques Galore, which has several stores in Charlotte.