As temperatures start to rise, many people are dusting off their patio furniture and getting ready for grill season. And now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s safe to gather outside in small groups without a mask (so long as you’re fully vaccinated), you can safely invite friends and family over for a barbecue and enjoy good food and great company. However, before you can host the ultimate BBQ, you need to know how to make the most of your grill. In addition to having the right grilling accessories, chefs with charcoal grills also need to make sure they’re using the right charcoal for their needs and equipment.
Best charcoal for grilling
Before shopping, it’s important to know that there are two types of charcoal: lump and briquettes.
- Lump charcoal burns hotter but is irregular in shape, which makes it unpredictable. “It is essentially the purest form of charcoal and has recently made a comeback because of the organic living movement, as well as the increasing popularity of the kamado grill and the Big Green Egg,” Thinh Phan of BBQInProgress.com explained.
- Briquettes are more uniform in shape and in how they burn — they’re what most people think of when they talk about charcoal. They’re made from mixing charcoal fines with other additives to help the briquettes bind together, improve ignition and prolong burning, Phan explained. “This is where many people get turned off by briquettes,” he said. “These additives give off an acrid smell when they burn and people are afraid that it can get into their food.” If you’re likewise bothered, wait until the briquette is fully ignited before placing any food atop the grates.
There are a few tools that can help you heat up charcoal faster, too. Angela Davis, a recipe developer at The Kitchenista Diaries, suggests using lighter cubes to start a fire. “Lighter cubes make it super easy to light charcoal quickly,” she said. Weber’s Lighter Cubes are made of paraffin wax — they can light when wet and won’t create ash or add off flavors to whatever you’re grilling.
You can also stack your charcoal inside a Weber Charcoal Starter. The aluminum cylinder helps heat charcoal briquettes faster and lets you distribute the coals evenly on the grill once they’re ready (which typically takes around 15 minutes).
Best lump charcoal for grilling
Best overall lump charcoal: Rockwood
Phan appreciates the quality of this lump charcoal made in Missouri. “The wood they use is mostly oak with some hickory and pecan. It’s all hardwood with no softwood in their charcoal,” he said. “They also carbonize the wood very well. You often don’t find leftover wood inside their charcoal. That’s why Rockwood burns clean with little smoke. It allows you better control of the flavor of your food by adding other smoking woods.”
Best affordable lump charcoal: Royal Oak
Phan recommends this family-owned brand, which sources its wood in the U.S. “Their price is affordable and this is the one I use often,” he said. “I’d say Royal Oak is the best ‘bang for your buck’ type of charcoal. It’s actually great for beginners because it’s not considerably expensive — so they can practice with it.”
Best high-end lump charcoal: Jealous Devil
Dave Anderson, founder of Famous Dave's, has been a fan of this charcoal since the very first time he used it because of how hot it gets and how cleanly it burns. “You can load up your ceramic grill and this charcoal will burn up to four hours, and it’s one of the best lump charcoals for any ceramic grill or even a Weber Kettle type charcoal grill,” he said. “I love this charcoal and highly recommend it.”
Best charcoal briquettes for grilling
Best overall charcoal briquettes: Kingsford
When it comes to briquettes, Phan turns to Kingsford’s blue bag of charcoal briquettes because they provide a reliable and consistent heat source. “Every time I cook, I know exactly how much heat I’m going to get so I don’t have to worry about that variable in my cooking,” he said. “My baby back ribs always come out nice and succulent every time I cook with Kingsford Blue. I’d highly recommend this one for people starting out on their charcoal grilling journey.”
Best high-end briquettes: Royal Oak
This one is for people who might not want to deal with the acrid smell from burning briquettes. They are made with American Oak and Hickory Hardwood and don’t contain any additional ingredients or added chemicals. According to the brand, they also produce less ash than other charcoal on the market.