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That Old Black Magic is up to New Tricks

By Lisa Readie Mayer
Published: April 1, 2006
Photo by Jon Helgason/Agency: Dreamstime.com
Charcoal barbequing is making a comeback. As convenient as gas grilling is, there’s no substitute for the aromas, involvement, flavor and nostalgia that grilling over charcoal brings.
Remember the pillow-shaped briquettes you cooked over years ago? They are still the most common and least expensive type of charcoal fuel available today.
These uniform, compressed briquettes are made from charred hardwoods, and various fillers and binders to hold them together. They burn evenly, but the quality can vary greatly, so look for a high content of charred hardwood. Briquettes can be lit with lighter fluid, solid lighter cubes, electric charcoal starters or chimney starters.
In addition to this old standard, there is a whole new range of cooking fuels worth checking out. Here’s a sampling:

Instant-Lighting Briquettes
Instant-lighting briquettes are traditional charcoal briquettes that have been pre-treated with lighter fluid. They can be lit with a match and are convenient, quick and reliable. They are more expensive than regular charcoal, but do save time, effort and mess.

Single-Use, Light-the-Bag Charcoal
A pre-measured amount of instant-lighting briquettes – just enough for one cookout – is sealed inside a special paper bag. The entire, unopened bag is placed in the base of the grill and its corners are lit with a match. Premium priced for the great convenience it offers, this product is ideal for camping, tailgating, or even backyard chefs who don’t want to get their hands dirty.

Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal
The fastest growing type of charcoal, natural hardwood lump charcoal consists of chunks of pure hardwood that have been charred in a kiln. Lump charcoals are all natural, with no petroleum or other additives included. Not uniform like briquettes, natural lump charcoal comes in jagged, irregular-shaped pieces. These charcoal chunks burn hotter than traditional briquettes and they generate less ash, so clean-up is minimal. They light easily with newspaper in a chimney starter or with solid lighter cubes, and manufacturers are beginning to offer instant-lighting lump charcoal coated with paraffin wax rather than petroleum. Pricier than regular briquettes, fans say they’re worth it for the pure smoke flavor they impart.

Cooking Wood Chunks
These chunks of dried hardwoods, approximately two-inches square, are pure wood in its natural state. Wood chunks are used most often in smokers, but are really catching on for grills, too, where they’re used as a flavor-enhancer in addition to charcoal or gas. Remember, a little goes a long way. Too much wood smoke can cause a bitter taste in food. Mesquite and hickory are the most popular varieties.

Wood Chips
Wood chips are also used to add a boost of wood smoke flavor to a charcoal or gas barbeque.  Not a primary fuel, they are presoaked first and generally used a handful at a time. Chips are available in a multitude of flavors, including apple, cherry, pecan, oak, alder, hickory, mesquite, orangewood, grapevine, wine barrel staves, whiskey barrel chips and more.
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