One of the fundamentals of good cooking is heat management. Transferring energy in the form of heat into food changes its chemical makeup, and done right you’ll get food that’s safer to eat, more nutritious and digestible, and with enhanced flavors, juiciness and composition. Done wrong, you’ll either burn your food or end up in hospital with food poisoning because of raw meat. So choosing the right heat source is clearly very important and that’s the reason I’ll give you a list of the best charcoal briquettes along with some other helpful tips and information on this great cooking heat source.
- 1 Top 5 Charcoal Briquettes
- 2 What are briquettes?
- 3 Lump charcoal vs briquettes
- 4 Don’t Buy Instant Light Charcoal Briquettes
- 5 How long do briquettes burn for?
- 6 Briquette cooking methods
- 7 Charcoal briquette ingredients
Top 5 Charcoal Briquettes
Companies that are in the briquette business aren’t in it for one quick sale where they are happy to hoodwink you with gimmicks or marketing as long as they make a sale. It’s a repeat purchase marketplace and therefore they understand the product has to be of a good enough quality for the price point they sell it. All it takes is one bad batch and loads of customers will switch brand, so all companies will try their best which normally means any pack of briquettes you buy will be decent. But which charcoal briquette is the best?
1. Weber Briquettes
As with many BBQ related products, Weber gets my vote for best charcoal briquette. Right from the very start, Weber was at the forefront of BBQ innovation and quality products such as George Stephen’s (the founder of Weber) Kettle grill. Although there have been many competitors with the intention of knocking Weber off top spot, Weber have refused to relinquish their mantle of top dog. This is especially the case in terms of who makes the best charcoal briquette.
2. Kingsford Briquettes
America’s best-selling briquette. Kingsford makes an original briquette, which I recommend, but also a more expensive professional briquette and competition briquette. Although these other two briquettes are better than the original, I think for the price and intended use, then buying the original is the best value for money briquette.
3. Heat beads
Often called Aussie heat beads due to their origin (they are made in Australia) these briquettes aren’t the easiest to find in the States, but if you come across them, definitely give them a try.
4. Royal Oak Ridge Briquettes
5. Coshell Charcoal
What are briquettes?
Briquettes used for BBQing are essentially a block of compressed charcoal with a few other elements thrown in to help keep them together and to make them look nice. Briquettes (sometimes called briquet) came about in order to use up small lumps or fine shards of coal that were no good on their own for the purposes of burning. The name has French origins as briquet means lighter in French and brique means brick.
Lump charcoal vs briquettes
For me, and it seems for many other regular BBQers, the choice is simple. Briquettes are better for low and slow grilling and lump charcoal is better for hot and fast. Why? Without getting too technical, the simple reason is that lump charcoal burns hotter than briquettes (this is due to the amount of oxygen needed for each). If I could only choose one, it’d be a close call but I’d likely pick charcoal briquettes. The reason being that you have better heat control as all blocks should be roughly the same size and weight, and because you can still easily get them hot enough to sear a steak – any extra heat is just a waste. Also, good briquettes are cheaper to buy than lump charcoal which is a big plus.
Don’t Buy Instant Light Charcoal Briquettes
With the number of written resources and the popularity of BBQ I am surprised this still has to be said. As anybody that’s grilled more than a couple of times knows, you shouldn’t use instant or fast lighting charcoal – I am just as surprised that there is a marketplace for such charcoal briquettes. These briquettes smell disgusting, make your food taste revolting and have chemicals in them that surely can’t be good for your health. It doesn’t take that long to fire up your good quality briquettes if you use the right charcoal lighter or a chimney starter; so please go down this route, your belly and your guests will thank you for it.
How long do briquettes burn for?
The quick answer is between 1.5 and 2 hours. But this all depends on the brand you buy, the amount of filler used in it, the temperature you are burning at and whether you have an open fire or a grill where the oxygen is regulated by vents.
I’d always recommend using more briquettes than you think you’ll need. This isn’t to be wasteful as you can normally use any coals that haven’t fully burned out in a future cook. It’s just that adding coals mid-cook can be messy and difficult. You can also extend your grills total burn time by using the methods explained in the section below.
Briquette cooking methods
I’ll only give a quick explanation of cooking methods with briquettes as you should read an article dedicated to each of these techniques (beyond the scope of this article).
Zonal Grilling – This will normally be 2-zone grilling and is when you push all your briquettes to one side of the grill, giving you a hot zone and a cooler zone.
Snake Method – This is when you run a row of briquettes along the outer wall of your grill and light one end – letting the fire travel slowly along the length of the “snake”.
Minion Method – When you have a large pile of unlit coals and you add several lit coals to the top. This is used to give a nice long burn as the coals on top slowly light the ones under it.
Charcoal briquette ingredients
The ingredients that major companies use in making briquettes vary considerably. As well as this you also have your small one-man band briquette makers that use a whole different set of ingredients (normally based on what they can source locally). In general though, all ingredients fall into one of the following six categories.
- Heat fuel – Wood charcoal, charcoal fines, mineral carbon, coal, biomass, etc.
- Binder – All types of starch, cement, kaolin, and clay.
- Accelerants – Sodium nitrate, waxes, and sawdust.
- Colorant – Limestone, calcium carbonate, and lime.
- Filler – Silica, clay, soil, etc.
- Release agent – Borax.
This is what provides the energy needed for cooking. It is, or at least should be, the main ingredient of any briquette – up at around 90% of the total material. The reason for not using 100% heat fuel, which would be ideal, is that charcoal has no plasticity. This means that when it is crushed and pressed into shape it cannot hold together. Therefore a binding agent needs to be added.
You can generally tell the quality of a charcoal briquette by the amount of ash left behind after it has burned out. Using good quality wood charcoal or charcoal fines is best. If you find lots of ash after your cook, it probably means the maker has used very fine charcoal fines from leaves that pick up lots of dust or soil which doesn’t burn to give heat for your cooking. The ash might also mean lots of filler has been used to pad out the briquette, a common trick used to bring down costs.
Binding agents used to form Briquettes
As I’ve already mentioned, charcoal is a material with plasticity and therefore needs a binding agent to form nicely uniformed briquette blocks. Without a binding agent your briquettes will likely just fall apart. Starch is the standard binding agent and any type of starch will do, so this will normally be cassava starch – the cheapest starch. The starch needs to be gelatinized before being used. This simply involves adding the starch to hot water until it forms a thick paste that will stick the charcoal together.
I’m not talking about the sort of accelerants used in easy light charcoal briquettes here, I’d advise never to buy these. The accelerants used in good commercial briquettes will be sodium nitrate or even sawdust that is needed to help the briquette burn faster. Briquettes burn differently to lump charcoal due to the compression during the forming process of the briquette. This compression means the briquette is unable to absorb enough oxygen for fast combustion. All nitrates, including sodium nitrate, are oxidants. So when heated they give the briquette the oxygen it needs for fast combustion. If your briquette is very smokey it normally means the maker has used sawdust without fermenting it or carbonizing the briquettes after it is formed.
Colorant used in Briquettes
Why colorant is added seems strange to me but it seems people really like to see that nice white ash color coat their briquette once it’s fired up. So manufacturers add a small percentage of white colorant to their ingredients – usually less than 3% limestone, lime or calcium carbonate. The effect of adding a white ash color agent isn’t solely for looks though, it also changes the way the briquette burns. As these colorants aren’t heat fuel they slow the burn rate which means the briquette lasts longer but at a reduced heat. As briquettes are normally used for long low and slow cooks this is actually a benefit.
Filler used to pad out Briquettes
I’d say you don’t want any filler in your briquette as it has zero heat energy value. If I was to be unkind to manufacturers that use filler, I’d say they use it to pump up the weight of the product to con buyers into thinking they are getting a good deal. Being kind, I’d say they add fillers to prolong the life of the briquette while burning – but I’m not buying that as the filler is always something incredibly cheap like sandy soil (there are better materials to add if the sole goal is to increase the briquette life).
Briquette releasing agents
A release agent is what is used when a briquette is made in a high pressure press to release the block from the press, which makes sure it doesn’t get stuck and break apart. Sodium borate is what is normally used for this function as it’s used in many products including cosmetics, insecticides and as texturing in cooking. Therefore it is food safe and good to be used for barbecuing.