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Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes – Which Works Better?

The question of lump charcoal vs briquettes is one barbecue fans love to argue about. Let’s take a closer look and decide which is really better. The answer might surprise you.

Piles of lump charcoal vs briquettes demonstrating the difference in shape
Which is better? Lump charcoal or briquettes?

Key Takeaways

  • Lump charcoal and briquettes are very similar, but briquettes have some additives while lump should be all natural.
  • Lump charcoal has a bigger learning curve than briquettes. It can be inconsistent and it burns more quickly so you’ll need to add more to the fire during long cooking sessions.
  • Charcoal briquettes burn more uniformly. They’re very consistent and burn longer than lump.
  • Charcoal briquettes are less expensive than lump and are easier to find in stores.

Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes – Worth Fighting Over?

A few years ago, I was at a friend’s house for a backyard barbecue when two dads from the neighborhood starting arguing over which was better: lump charcoal or briquettes.

It started as a simple disagreement but things escalated quickly. Before long they were in each other’s face and daring each other to take the first punch.

Fortunately we were able to break them up and cooler heads prevailed. But it just goes to show how seriously guys take their barbecue.

Personally, I don’t think its worth fighting about. I’ve used both lump charcoal and briquettes many times and both work really well. I’m fine using whichever is handy, but given the choice I prefer briquettes simply because they’re consistent and make it easier to maintain temperature for longer cooks.

What Is Lump Charcoal?

Lump charcoal is made from natural hardwoods. It’s made from scrap wood from saw mills as well logs, branches, and twigs. The wood is charred at very high temperatures with very little oxygen until it is carbonized.

Lump charcoal tends to burn hotter than briquettes and the temperature can get too high if you’re not keeping an eye on it. Lump burns a lot quicker. You’ll need to use more lump than briquettes to get the same amount of cooking time.

An advantage of lump charcoal is that it’s all natural and doesn’t contain the additives or binders that are in briquettes. At least you hope that’s the case. It call comes down to how the manufacturer sourced their wood. If the trees they used were treated with any kind of pesticides or fungicides those could be in your lump charcoal whether you realize it or not.

Lump charcoal has become increasingly popular in recent years as consumers look for more natural and organic options in all aspects of life. There’s also a segment of grillers who prefer lump simply because it looks cool.

Lump charcoal comes in irregular sizes and shapes and will vary not just from one manufacturer to another, but even within the same bag.

The image below is two pieces of lump charcoal I pulled out of the exact same bag. One is a smallish chink and the other is a charred branch about the size of my forearm.

Do you think these two pieces are going to burn at the same rate?

Two pieces of lump charcoal demonstrating the wild inconsistency in size.

Here’s something else about lump charcoal that I don’t love. It’s not uncommon to find rocks, metal, pieces of unburnt wood (even lumber or floor scraps), or other random items in a bag of lump charcoal.

The weirdest thing I’ve ever heard someone finding in a bag of lump charcoal was a badly burned size D battery. That is NOT something I want to using to cook my ribs or pork butt!

What Are Charcoal Briquettes?

Charcoal briquettes are made from wood scraps, chips, and sawdust from mills that is dried and then placed in an oven with very low oxygen until it burns down char.

It’s then crushed and mixed with additives like anthracite coal, lime, and corn starch. These additives act as binders, improve ignition, and promote a steady and efficient burn.

They then get pressed into their familiar shape, dried, bagged, and shipped to stores.

Here’s a neat video that shows how briquettes are made in detail if you’re interested…

The biggest advantage to briquettes is consistency. Whether your searing a steak or slowly smoking a ham, you need to get the right temperature.

In my experience it’s just easier to maintain a proper temperature for an extended period of time by using briquettes and that’s why I think they’re the best option for most barbecue fanatics.

Instant Light Charcoal Briquettes

Instant light briquettes are treated with a flammable polymer that makes them easier to light. I’ve tried them and they give off a faint but unpleasant chemical smell when burned. While they may be harmless I find the smell off-putting and don’t like the idea that it could affect the food. I also don’t like using lighter fluid for the same reasons.

Besides, lighting charcoal really isn’t that hard if you have the right tools like one of these excellent chimney starters.

When To Use Lump Charcoal Or Briquettes

Since lump charcoal is known to burn hot and fast, it’s best used for shorter cooking sessions where you need a hot temperature. So if you’re using a Weber kettle to quickly cook up some burgers or get a perfect sear on a steak, lump charcoal will do a great job.

But if you’re slowly smoking a big brisket or pork shoulder you’ll need to maintain a steady temperature for hours at a time. Briquettes are more predictable and they burn more uniformly and consistently. They’ll also burn longer so there’s well-suited for those longer cooking sessions.

Lump Charcoal Pros And Cons

Let’s quickly sum up the advantages and disadvantages of lump charcoal.

Pros

  • All natural, no additives or binders
  • Burns clean and produces less ash
  • Can provide a very subtle smoky flavor

Cons

  • More expensive
  • Inconsistent in size and may contain foreign objects
  • Burns quickly and harder to maintain temperature
  • Harder to find in stores

Charcoal Briquettes Pros And Cons

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of charcoal briquettes.

Pros

  • Consistent size and shape, burns uniformly
  • Less expensive option

Cons

  • May contain additives that aid in binding and ignition
  • Produces more ash

The Final Word

So when it comes to lump charcoal vs briquettes, it largely comes down to preference. Both will get the job done but lump sum is less expensive, more consistent, and easier to use which makes it the best option for most backyard grillers.

Woot!