When it comes to charcoal grills, you need the best wood and briquettes for barbecuing. But how do you choose them in the sea of options? Lucky for you, we came up with a handy guide.
Back in the day, timber logs (e.g. natural wood) were our primary source of heat and smoke. Fast forward to the present day; there are now lots of recommendations for grilling and smoking meats.
This has resulted in endless debates and questions about ‘what’s the best wood for barbecuing?’
As many BBQ lovers get more serious about their passion for outdoor cookouts, they want to know more about the type of timber and fuel they’re using. So if you’re a budding grillmaster – here’s a guide on everything you need to know about BBQ briquettes and BBQ wood.
- The smoke produced from the timber is what gives the smoky flavour to your food.
- Changing up the type of wood you’re using can enhance the overall taste, especially when smoking.
- There are dozens of kinds of wood to choose from. From wood chips, charcoal briquettes to pellets and whole logs, you might feel overwhelmed by choice.
- There are recommendations for meat/timber combinations when smoking. Matching wood to what you are cooking really does the trick.
Grilling With Wood, Charcoal Briquettes and Pellets
Grilling is pretty much the simplest form of outdoor cooking. Light up the fire, put the food on top, wait for it to cook, and it’s done.
But once you get more serious about it, things can get more complicated. This is particularly true if you’re going the charcoal route.
Unlike gas grills with only tank propane as the fuel source, with grill charcoal BBQs, you have more options. The more choices you have, the more decisions.
For one, you have to choose the type of charcoal. Do you go for charcoal briquettes? Lumpwood charcoal? Binchotan?
After you select which charcoal family you want to use, you’ll realise there are also timber choices, such as:
- Wood pellets
- Hickory wood
- Mesquite wood
- Apple wood
- Pecan wood
- Cherry wood
Before you decide which one you think works best for you, start with the basics first. By this, let us teach you about charcoal.
Background: How Is Charcoal Made?
Charcoal produces a hot, long-lasting, largely smokeless fire. This makes it a desirable fuel for cooking, especially for barbecues. In fact, it’s popularly used for outdoor cookouts around the world, including in the UK.
Charcoal is produced by burning a carbon-rich material such as wood in an oxygen-poor environment. With little or insufficient air, wood can’t catch on fire.
In return, everything in the timber (except the carbon) melts away into liquid or gas. Then you’re left with a high-carbon chunk of the good stuff, a.k.a. charcoal.
From there, charcoal splits into two main categories:
- Charcoal briquettes
- Lump hardwood charcoal
Charcoal briquettes aren’t actual charcoal. They’re a combination of charcoal and other ingredients moulded into easy-to-light lumps.
One of the primary ingredients is the char (traditional charcoal). It’s responsible for the briquette’s ability to light easily and produce the desired wood-smoky flavour.
The other primary ingredient used is coal. This is to achieve and produce a high-temperature, long-lasting fire. Minor ingredients include:
- Binding agents (e.g. starch made from corn or wheat)
- Nitrate as an accelerant
- Lime as an ash-whitening agent
With this mixture, charcoal briquettes offer an even, predictable, and long-burning heat. They make a great option as fuel for cooking or grilling large cuts of meat, which takes a long time to cook through.
Note: Considering that briquettes aren’t 100% wood, they’re not natural yet they’re ideal for grilling all day long!
Lump hardwood charcoal
As the name implies, lumpwood charcoal is charcoal made from chunks of natural hardwood. With no fillers to burn down, hardwood lumps produce less ash than charcoal briquettes.
By weight, they burn for about 20 minutes long and more quickly than briquettes. Hardwood lumps impart a smoky flavour because they’re an ingredient in itself.
Different kinds of hardwood lump include:
- Mesquite wood. When it comes to barbecue, mesquite wood chips are famous for smoking. They have a solid and earthy flavour, ideal for most red and dark meats. This type of hardwood lump is actually one of the hottest burning woods.
- Applewood. Applewood chips also make excellent fuel for grilling or smoking poultry, salmon or other kinds of meat/fish. Once lit, the apple BBQ smoking chips will release smoke, injecting the food with a semi-sweet, apple-like flavour.
- Pecan wood. Pecan is a type of hickory wood known for its rich, buttery, nutty flavour. When chopped into chunks and chips, it’s a hardwood that’s perfect for smoking meat, briskets, roasts, and ribs.
Lumpwood charcoal is ideal for quick, hot-and-fast grilling/smoking.
Top tip: Throw hardwood lumps (e.g. hickory wood chips) on top of burning briquettes if you want to create aromatic wood smoke.
The bottom line: Charcoal briquettes vs Lumpwood charcoal
Three things separate charcoal briquettes from lumpwood charcoal.
First, briquettes are more consistent in their burn since they’re uniform in size. Second, they have no distinct flavour of their own, unlike lumpwood.
Lastly, the binders and additives added in briquettes result in a much ashier burn. What this means for cooking is that charcoal briquettes top out at a lower heat than hardwood lumps.
Ash aside, what makes hardwood lumps competitive is that ‘real wood’ smoke. Compared to basic charcoal, which is almost entirely carbon and won’t produce as much smoke when lit.
What makes charcoal briquettes smoke (and gives off that smoky flavour) are the bits of real hardwood in the mix, such as:
- Hickory smoking chips
- Maple BBQ smoking chips
- Apple BBQ smoking chips
- Cherry BBQ smoking chips
- Other BBQ wood chips
The winner? You decide; this depends on your personal preference.
If you don’t mind dealing with too many ashes and smoking or grilling all afternoon, charcoal briquettes are your best bet. But if you like a real wood smoke with a hint of smoky flavour, we recommend lumpwood charcoal.
What Are Smoking Pellets?
A wood pellet is a unique form of natural timber. When used as a heat source for BBQ, food grade pellets give off more intense smoke than other wood flavour enhancers.
Pellets also help to seal the food at once, locking in natural moisture while adding smoky flavour. They’re made into long, pencil-thick rods and broken into chunks.
Most wood pellet pieces are about a half-inch long. But how are smoking pellets made?
Food grade pellets are mostly processed from sawdust by pressure which generates heat. They’re made from highly-concentrated wood fibre, then dried and compressed with heat.
A great example of this is logs, branches, and excess timber which are run through a timber chipper. Then the wood is fine-grained into wood fibre.
Any impurities in the timber are then eliminated. Hence, making wood pellets an energy-efficient heat source.
Moreover, food grade pellets are easy to use; no need to soak them in water before use. It’s also easy to blend wood flavours with pellets, resulting in a successful outdoor cookout.
Other advantages of smoking pellets include:
- Clean burning as there’s no bark or scrap timber
- Produces less than 1% ash (easy to clean up)
- Low moisture
- High BTU or British Thermal Unit (the measurement of the total heat output and fuel consumption of grill per hour)
- Lower carbon dioxide production
- Easier to maintain consistent temperatures
- More energy efficient compared to other fuel sources
The flavour profile of wood pellets
Wood pellets come in a variety of mixtures of oak along with hardwoods or fruitwoods. Each gives different flavour profiles to meats.
Each flavour might also pairs better with some meats over others. So when you use one type of wood pellet while smoking, it might add a unique taste to one dish and something completely different (perhaps even not great!) to another.
To pick the best type of wood pellet for your smoking, use the meat you’re cooking as your starting point. Then decide how intense you want the flavour to pair with that meat.
Listed below are the most common variations of timber pellets:
- Mesquite. This gives off a strong flavour, producing an intense aroma and a more savoury, spicy flavour. As mentioned earlier, mesquite pairs well with beef and other strong-flavoured meats.
- Oak. Post-Oakwood is medium-flavoured and versatile when pairing with meats, including lamb, beef, brisket, and sausages. This type of timber is also stable-burning.
- Hickory. For hickory smoking chips, they’re richer and emit bold flavour but aren’t as potent as mesquite. Thanks to its savoury flavour, it pairs well with different types of meat. This includes larger cuts of ribs and pork shoulders, and almost all red meat and poultry.
- Alder. This releases a great light, sweet flavour profile. The smoke it gives off is subtle and slightly sweet, making alder wood a perfect go-to smoke flavour for BBQs. It’s a staple smoke flavour, especially for fish, like salmon and other Pacific North-western types.
- Maple. Maple BBQ smoking chips have a milder, smooth flavour. Maple is a great pair with pork.
- Pecan. This has a robust flavour, smoother than mesquite and hickory. It works well with chicken and pork.
- Cherry. This type of wood is a milder fruitwood, giving a rather sweet flavour. Cherry wood chips also pair well with pork and chicken and beef, turkey, lamb, and ham.
- Apple. Another type of fruitwood, Apple, provides a stronger yet sweet flavour. Like pecan and cherry, it pairs well with pork, chicken, and wildfowl.
Wood pellets are a very clean and versatile way to add that great smoky and bold flavour from natural wood to your meat. No wonder why they’re becoming a favourite option for many BBQ enthusiasts!
Wrapping It All Up
Charcoal, be it briquettes, hardwood lumps or wood pellets provide an opportunity to experiment with different flavours. From strong, spicy flavours to smooth, sweet flavours and everything in-between.
One thing is sure when it comes to cooking with charcoal: it burns hotter than gas. This is why many prefer the smokey flavour a charcoal BBQ provides.
As for grilling/smoking with pellets, you’ll want to make sure you’re using food grade pellets. Opting for cheaper versions can alter the flavour of your meat and create chaos on your grill or smoker.
If you’re grilling thin-cut pork chops or smaller veggies like asparagus, the strong heat of hardwood is the best contender. But if you’re going for low and slow cooking on a whole chicken or larger steaks, briquettes are your best companion.
Have you found the best wood for your smoking and grilling needs? Great, now all you need to do is shop for the perfect BBQ grill via the button below!Shop BBQs
Charcoal briquettes burn more consistently, but they contain additives and generate more ash. But lumpwood burns a lot faster than briquettes (approx 20-30 minutes).
If you don’t mind dealing with ash, go for briquettes. If you want something that burns faster and hotter, lumpwood is a better choice.
Hickory is the most popular type of timber for smoking all kinds of meat. For one, it adds a hearty taste to venison. It’s also favoured for larger cuts of meat and wild pig due to its long-lasting burn.
Another one is apple wood. It gives the ideal smoke for adding a light, sweet, and slightly fruity flavour to the meat.
Avoid using wood from conifers such as redwood, pine, spruce, cedar, fir, or cypress. They contain high levels of sap and terpenes, which can result in anything from a funny taste to stomach ache.
Cedar planks can be used for cooking salmon, though, as long as you don’t burn the timber itself for smoke.
Yes, you can mix your pellets with charcoal. But you need to make sure you’re using the best pellets for barbecue, such as the ones we’ve provided above.
This ensures that heat levels stay high enough while leaving a good amount of flavour on the food.
A pellet grill may be the best option for you if:
- You like the added flavour of smoke from natural woods
- You want to cook with fire without managing a real fire
- Smoking meat at a lower temperature is your forte
A charcoal grill, in contrast, is an excellent choice for you if:
- You love to play with fire; building, and maintaining your fire
- You want to achieve and get the added benefit of that smokey flavour
- Searing meat at higher temperatures is your speciality