The Hampton Smoker

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Red Hots: Which Charcoal Burns Hottest?

Cooks Illustrated have done the head to head to determine which charcoal burns hottest. Interesting results.......

What's the Hottest Charcoal?

Conventional wisdom dictates that hardwood (or "lump") charcoal flames up fast and furious, while charcoal briquettes burn low and slow. For that reason, most of the outdoor-cooking guides in our library (including our own) recommend briquettes for barbecue (cooking ribs and briskets) and hardwood for quick, direct-heat grilling (cooking burgers, steaks, and chops). Two dozen grilling gurus couldn't be wrong, right? We headed to the test kitchen's back alley to find out.

We filled 6-quart chimneys with either hardwood charcoal or briquettes. Just before lighting the match, we outfitted the cooking grate with seven thermocouples -- wire probes that feed temperature data to an attached console -- and set about recording heat levels at five-minute intervals. We ran the tests a dozen times and then analyzed our data.

The results were startling. In every test, the briquettes burned as hot, or hotter, than the hardwood. In the grilling tests, the fires produce nearly identical heat for about 30 minutes-enough time for most quick grilling tasks. From there on, the hardwood coals quickly turn into piles of ash, while the briquettes slowly lost heat.

As we've always contested, slow-cooking a pork shoulder for eight hours would be a high-maintenance affair with hardwood. Our briquettes took nearly three hours to fall below the 250 degree mark; in that time we'd have to refuel the hardwood fire twice. The slow, steady descent of the briquettes is perfect for this job.

So what about our old assumptions? Hardwood is, in fact, the hotter-burning charcoal, at least when comparing charcoal pound for pound. But most outdoor cooks measure out charcoal by volume (filling a chimney), and a 6-quart chimneyful of briquettes weighs more than twice as much as the same volume of hardwood.

And briquettes are cheaper: Filling a chimney with lump charcoal costs about $2 compared with just $1.37 for briquettes.


Blogger WhiteTrashBBQ said...

Do you have any info on what brands of charcoal and hardwood they used? It makes a huge difference.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Backyard Chef said...

They don't list the brands that they used, but there are definite differences in quality amongst brands of charcoal. I also think that using different types of grills will produce different results-- meaning, although Wicked Good Charcoal gives fantastic results and burn time in a ceramic cooker of insulated backwoods, it may not perform with identical results in a kettle or an offset. The same is true for a briquette like Kingsford.

I think the article was just an excuse to get the bottom line about density and comparable burn times and btus....Without naming brands and testing them in multiple applications or environmental conditions and cookers, there's no one answer....

2:04 PM  
Blogger Backyard Chef said...

I meant ceramic cooker OR insultated backwoods....

2:05 PM  
Blogger Terry said...

Hey Backyard, Lump (Cowboy Lump) burns clean and hot. But me, I prefer charcoal, it last longer.

Lump will light quick, and puts out some major heat, but charcoal last longer.(slow burn)

Yes it is true, lump will make less ash than charcoal, so your firebox won't ash out as quick on a long cook, but charcoal is more even in temp. When wood is added, it is more stable than lump.

Everybody has their own thing and cooking style, but for cooking shoulders, we use charcoal, no spike in temps. when adding fuel to the firebox.


10:13 PM  

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