Fix-It Chick: Choose the right charcoal for your barbecue

Since the invention of fire, man’s love for barbecuing has seldom faltered. The invention of cooking charcoal in the 1920s put a new spin on barbecuing and then almost met its demise when propane grills were invented in the 1950s. Grilling enthusiasts rallied in the late 20th century to bring back a love for charcoal cooking so strong that charcoal has become a boutique-like industry.

Understanding a few differences can help make choosing the right charcoal a bit easier.

l Decide what to grill. Burgers, bratwursts, steaks and fish are best cooked quickly over hot coals. Ribs, brisket and roasts require longer cooking times over a slow-burning, less intense heat. Hardwood lump charcoal burns fast and furious, while traditional briquettes burn slow and steady.

l Charcoal is created when wood is burned without oxygen. The purest form of charcoal is called lump charcoal. Lump charcoal is easy to light and gets very hot within 10-15 minutes. It is great for searing meats and locking flavors in with a smoky taste of wood. After the flash of heat, lump charcoal tends to cool off very quickly. Using lump charcoal for slow cooking requires constant attention as new charcoal needs to be started off to the side and added to the cooking area of the grill throughout the process. Choose lump charcoal for a quick dinner or a day-long cooking project.

l Unlike lump charcoal, which is made from burning hardwood logs, briquettes are made from a mixture of scraps of wood and binding agents, such as borax, limestone and starch. The binding agents burn quickly and produce a lot of ash. What remains burns at a slow, consistent rate. Briquettes labeled “Professional” or “Premium” contain a smaller amount of fillers, or all-natural fillers. These briquettes will burn hotter and longer than traditional briquettes, giving lump charcoal a run for its money. Additionally, the uniform shape of briquettes allows them to stack easily for additional heat control.

l Quick light briquettes are coated with a chemical accelerant that allows the charcoal to be easily lit with just a match. If cooking begins before the briquettes are completely covered with ash, a strong chemical taste can permeate the food. Choose quick light briquettes for an impromptu cookout, when convenience trumps flavor.

l For added grilling flavors, consider specialty hardwood charcoals or seasoned briquettes.

— Have a question? Email Linda Cottin at