Briquettes vs Lump Hardwood: A London View
There is some despair it seems, over using Briquettes vs Lump Harwood Charcoal. And I feel the time has come to banish our collective shame, to shed the unnecessary guilt over such things.
So together let’s put our our hands up and say …
“Yes, I use briquettes” …….(errr….and why wouldn’t you?)
I saw a tweet today by @lulgrimes (food anorak) Lifestyle Director at bbcgoodfood.com. And like Lulu, i’m a self confessed food (with added fire) anorak. Lulu’s posts a link to Matt Duckor’s article “Why I’m Over Using Lump Hardwood Charcoal” on the American foodie site Epicureious.com.
It’s a great site along with the likes of EaterNY and Bon Appetit Magazine
‘For the last few years, the only thing the grilling obsessives I know wanted to talk about were the wonders of lump hardwood charcoal. “It burns cleaner” than charcoal briquettes, they’d say. “And it’s hotter too.” Grilling gurus would extol lump hardwood charcoal’s all-natural benefits, painting it as the flame-licked analogue to the meat world’s pricey grass-fed beef. Lump hardwood charcoal, they’d claim, is just plain better than its more manufactured predecessor.
The Best (and Fastest) Way to Fire Up Your Grill
Every time I heard this, I felt a deep shame. You see, I had always used traditional charcoal briquettes—they’re available everywhere and were what I was familiar with. They’re what my dad used to light our Weber when I was growing up, and they seemed to work perfectly fine for him”
It’s a strong article and on a subject over which I’ve pondered for many years. And it has a very valid point, but one which I’d counter by asking “Why one over the other?”
I’m no Gregorian monk and hair shirts just aren’t my thing. And I’m done with all this X vs Y mantra. Togetherness is the way forward, divisions are a no-no here in the U.K. But i’m all good for making things easier!
He goes onto say:
“For the last few years, the only thing the grilling obsessives I know wanted to talk about were the wonders of lump hardwood charcoal. “It burns cleaner” than charcoal briquettes, they’d say. “And it’s hotter too.” Grilling gurus would extol lump hardwood charcoal’s all-natural benefits, painting it as the flame-licked analogue to the meat world’s pricey grass-fed beef. Lump hardwood charcoal, they’d claim, is just plain better than its more manufactured predecessor.”
My thing here is; it’s about what you know of the the ingredients of your fire. The comparison is fine if we’re talking like for like, in that Lump Hardwood Charcoal is made from pure wood, the assumption being that briquettes are (mostly) not. True, but much like sausages, which are all sausage shaped; it’s what’s in them that counts. So as with sausages, there’s also briquettes. It’s about finding the good ones, and when you do, oh the joy. Good and clean, solid and so dependable you could fall asleep in the deck chair and they’d still be there glowing away when you woke up.
Matt further quotes Adam Rapoport: Bon Appétit Editor-in-Chief
“I got the courage to revert back from another briquette sympathizer: Bon Appétit Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport, who switched back last summer.
His tale is similar to mine: seduced by lump’s food-world coolness, only to reject it eventually at the suggestion of another food writer, in this case New York Times food editor Sam Sifton. “He compared briquettes to a steady baseline in music”
And i’m all for the baseline (lord knows of the hours i’d spent back in the day ‘hands in the air” in house-music clubs) But we all know we need a horn section and a little jazz over that baseline, else it all get too gas-like-flat. So let’s mix it up, briquettes (the good ones) underneath and the real woody charcoal on top, between the meat, to create the flavour notes we crave.
Or less it get too serious, then heavens we’re all heading back to the Gregorian chants, where the grill becomes the altar and we the monks around it. I leave that to the real Chefs and the temples of fire restaurants, where they tame-the-flame for a living; it’s their calling, they wear the robes.
Amen to them and that!
Where does this leave us (non-chefs) ?
It leaves us together, out in the yard, the garden and the parks, enjoying the joys of cooking over the flame, convening with nature and having FUN with friends. Cut the guilt and shame, get to know your fire, what’s in it, how’s it made. For what it’s worth (and being the self styled master-of-coals, the Earl of Embers, the one and only “Lord Logs” of London Town)
Here’s my advice:
Seek out the best Lump Harwood Charcoal you can find. And while you’re at it, seek out the best ALL NATURAL Briquettes you can find, my favourites retail ones being made from pure coconut husk by-product. They’ll glow a beautiful sweet lilac with a mauve gas ring around the edge. Make this your “base line” by building a bed of heat and then once it’s there, gently add the Lump Hardwood Charcoal for heat and the most unmatchable flavour.
*Other briquettes contain some fairly nasty mineral coal (the stuff dug from the ground), burn retardants, rock dust, and other material materials. It’s why you get so much DUST, not ash.
Firing Coals: Fast Cook
Steaks, fast meats and grilling. I go for pure Lump Harwood every time. Unmatchable flavours and hot but manageable heat requirement.
Tips: Pile up the Lump Hardwood in the middle of the grill and place ALL NATURAL fire lighters in the TOP surface of the coals, as the best fire burns TOP down, not bottom up. (maybe this is where the fast burn/inferno comes from) Light the firelighters and wait until the white-grey ash appears, the coals underneath glowing solidly, then (and only then) level the fire into the shape required.
Here you’re good to go, fast, hot and maybe just for that one or two fast and hot items.
Firing Coals: Slow Cook
(drawn out for hours over the day/night)
Here’s where the ALL NATURAL briquettes come into their own, allowing that slow and leisurely pace to happen. Around the BBQ and thought the day.
Tips: Fill the Weber Chimney starter (this is what it was actually designed for) with the briquettes (but do avoid the Weber own brand Briquettes) place a little real Lump Hardwood on the top (a little in the bottom is good too) and fire from BELOW again with the all-natural fire lighters. When you get a good glow going right from top to bottom, then tip carefully into your BBQ. From here you can gradually add real Lump Hardwood Charcoal during the cook session as required, so you get all the heat and all the flavours you’re looking for.
Technique and Skills:
No-one is born with the skills of Fire-Craft, though some cultures seem to have the knack. We can learn and once mastered we move along just fine. Take note the next time you’re in a Turkish Grill restaurant, they master the fire each and every day. You’ll see how they set the fire, and it’s not all one flat fired inferno.
The heat will be on one side, or two with a safe space in the middle (that’s what direct and indirect roughly is) and you’ll see ash, and ash is your friend. Save it to go in the middle of the safe zone, it catches fat and retains heat. And if your fire rages too hot, sprinkle a little of the ash on the surface of the coals to reduce the oxygen. Once under control you can ‘riddle’ with a gentle poke about and drop the ash off the surface, making the fire raise the temperature again as required.
And further from Matt Duckor’s article:
To be clear—I’m in no way advocating the use of quick-light briquettes. Those get pre-soaked in lighter fluid, giving food that comes within a 50-yard radius of the stuff an unpleasant, butane-kissed flavour that evokes the Wicked Witch of the West.
But good old, dependable, uncool charcoal briquettes? I’ve stocked up on them for summer, and all is back to normal. Maybe our Dads were right after all
I concur, though i’m a Dad too and this is my way. And the emotion we dig deep into when cooking and living is a strong driver in our choices. For the final word on the love between Parent and child, read here:
The late great Josh Ozersky: saveur.com
(and I weep every time I read this)
Big Love to all,