A lot of things about grilling can ignite a fight, including the meaning of "barbecue." And with the proliferation of fancy equipment — from gas grills to pellet smokers to ceramic charcoal cookers — amateur cooks are growing more knowledgeable, and opinionated, about how to best cook food outdoors.
To a newbie, the world of charcoal can be overwhelming, especially since the charcoal aisle of big box and hardware stores seems to be getting more crowded, with alluring chips and lumps of apple, cherry and even coconut wood. But the first hurdle is navigating the question: Do you use charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal, also known as "natural" hardwood charcoal?
Most people with an opinion on the matter can agree that there are advantages and disadvantages to each one: Briquettes burn more consistently, but they contain additives and generate more ash. Lump charcoal can burn hotter (handy if you're searing meat) and can be made with specific woods that leave a trace of their essence on the food. But the lumps come in a jumble of different sizes, some of which may not be evenly charred. And bags can contain excess dust that may block the flow of oxygen in a grill.
If sales figures settle a debate, then briquettes and instant light charcoal are still the favorites by far (they made up 94 percent of the charcoal shipped in 2012, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association).
Still, lump charcoal is attracting fans, especially among backyard cooks easily sold on the word "natural," which adorns nearly all of the dark brown bags filled with lump charcoal for sale. There are now more than 75 brands on the market. And there's even a small community for DIY lump charcoal.
Craig Goldwyn (aka Meathead), who runs the authoritative Amazingribs.com: The Science of BBQ & Grilling, says he sees lump charcoal "as just an extension of the organic movement. It's still a tiny sliver of the market, but it reflects on the public's desire to have less stuff in their food and their cooking."
All charcoal is made of the same thing: wood burned with little oxygen so that all that's left is essentially carbon. But makers of lump charcoal claim it's superior because of its purity — it contains no additives like regular briquettes or lighter fluid like instant-light ones.
Indeed, while lump charcoal and briquettes both originate as scrap lumber, the uniform round shape of the briquette is a result of an industrial process that depends on other materials, too. (Kingsford, the biggest maker of charcoal in the U.S., is a little vague about what exactly is in its briquettes, but its website mentions coal, limestone, borax and cornstarch.)
While breathing in too much smoke may cause adverse health effects, there isn't much evidence that the additives in the briquettes have any impact on food. What they do impact, says Meathead, is control over the cooking process.
"I'm trying to teach people how to cook, and so I preach temperature. That means controlling heat is really vital, and briquettes are just a rock-solid heat source," he says.
And when it comes to flavor with smoke, Meathead writes, adding small amounts of hardwood in the form of chips, chunks, pellets, logs or sawdust on top of the charcoal matters more than the charcoal itself. In other words, mesquite or hickory wood will add much more smoke flavor than mesquite or hickory charcoal.
Some serious grillers actually prefer cooking with logs instead of charcoal, but it's a far more challenging undertaking. That's because raw, burning wood still gives off a lot of volatile gases (that are gone once it has been reduced to charcoal).
"You have a lot of die-hards who prefer the hardwood, and the thing about hardwood is that it can have a regional, cultural aspect," Jeff Allen, executive director of the National Barbecue Association, tells The Salt.
Allen notes that people from Georgia or Alabama are likely to prefer pecan wood because that's one of the best hardwoods they've got. Over in Kansas City, another motherland of barbecue, the forests are rich with hickory, as well as oak and apple.
"When you look at the famous iconic restaurants, they're all using wood," says Allen. For example, Black's Barbecue in Lockhart, Texas, slow-cooks its meat over 60-year-old-pits, using local oak wood.
Grillers with access to good local wood may also be intrigued by the nascent DIY charcoal movement. Virginia Tech and the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office have been promoting homemade charcoal made with small kilns as a way to add value to wood scraps or firewood. The "local fuel for local food" idea has caught on at a few farmers markets in the state. (Check out this YouTube video series to see how it's done.)
According to Adam Downing, a Virginia extension officer, it's important to choose the right wood for the kind of cooking you want to do.
"If you use pine, that would burn fast and hot — good for searing a steak," he says. "But if you want a slower cook, you'll want charcoal made from a higher density wood like oak or hickory."
Downing makes his charcoal out of Ailanthus altissima, a non-native weed tree that has invaded his property in Madison, Va. "It's the bane of people who have it on their property, but it makes great charcoal," he says.
For the lump charcoal-obsessed who prefer to buy it, there's The Naked Whiz's Lump Charcoal Database, which features detailed reviews of dozens of lump charcoal products.