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Types of Charcoal & Wood

From smoked salmon and pork to grilled pears with brie, using the barbeque to cook exceptional food starts with the right type of fuel. For more traditional cooking, charcoal and wood are often the fuels of choice, elevating flavor and taking your menu to the next, tasty level.

Types of Charcoal

Restaurant Equipment

Natural Lump / Natural Wood Charcoal

There are many benefits to cooking with natural wood charcoal. Natural wood charcoal burns very hot with temperatures reaching between 800 - 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. One pound of natural wood charcoal produces the equivalent heat of two pounds of charcoal briquettes, so it will also save you money.

Features of natural wood charcoal:

  • 100% natural with no additives
  • Made from renewable hardwoods
  • Lights very easily, burns clean, and produces little ash
  • The fire from natural wood charcoal will quickly get to cooking temperature in as little as 7-10 minutes
Restaurant Equipment

Charcoal Briquettes

Another popular method for cooking with charcoal is using charcoal briquettes. This is often viewed as the easiest, most convenient option.

Features of charcoal briquettes:

  • Can be used for heating, cooking, and also adding flavor to foods
  • Burns much longer and more evenly than natural charcoal
  • More consistent in size
  • Takes 20-25 minutes to get to cooking temperature, about twice the time as natural lump charcoal

What is Charcoal Made of?

While natural charcoal is comprised of hardwood, briquettes are made up of several components: hardwood char, coal, nitrates, lime, and starch. Each component serves an important purpose, giving briquettes each of their distinctive qualities. Some cooks favor briquettes because of these qualities; others find that briquettes emit a chemical odor. Their environmental impact is also a concern for some consumers.

Hardwood Char

Hardwood Char: When grilling, you'll want wood char exclusively from hardwoods. Hardwoods do not contain the resins present in soft woods.

Anthracite Coal

Anthracite Coal: High BTU anthracite coal yields a smokeless, odorless, consistent burn.


Lime: Lime facilitates the evenness of the burn. It also yields a clean, white ash as the charcoal burns.


Starch: Charcoal manufacturers use food starch as a binder in the process of making charcoal briquettes.

Sodium Nitrate

Sodium Nitrate: A very small amount of nitrate is necessary to facilitate lighting the briquette.

Lump Charcoal vs. Briquettes

When selecting fuel, it's important to know what you need and what options will deliver the desired results. Below is a quick outline of the advantages of charcoal. Remember that if charcoal doesn't work for you, wood is always an option.

Natural wood charcoal burning in a grill
Natural wood charcoal burning in a grill

Charcoal - Natural Lump / Natural Wood

  • Lights quickly
  • Burns at high heats
  • Allows for easy temperature adjustments
  • Made of all natural materials
  • Burns quickly
  • More expensive
  • Inconsistent in size
Charcoal briquettes burning on a grill
Charcoal briquettes burning on a grill

Charcoal - Briquette

  • Burns for a long time
  • Less expensive
  • Maintains consistent temperatures
  • More consistent in size
  • Lights slowly
  • Emits a chemical odor
  • Produces a lot of ash
  • Contains additives and fillers

Cooking with Charcoal

Before lighting charcoal and starting a flame, it's important to understand how to cook with it. Improper use can ruin food and endanger employees, customers, and the surrounding area.

Restaurant Equipment

How Much Charcoal to Use

How much charcoal you need depends on what temperature you want the fire. Using a charcoal chimney is an easy way to start. A charcoal chimney is a metal container with ventilation holes that's designed to help portion and light charcoal. Most chimneys hold approximately 100 briquettes, which will provide high heat (450 - 550 degrees Fahrenheit) if full. To reduce the heat of the grill, simply use less charcoal. For medium heat (350 - 450 degrees Fahrenheit), try filling half or 3/4 of the chimney. For low heat (250 - 350 degrees Fahrenheit), about 25 briquettes, or a 1/4 full chimney should suffice.

Restaurant Equipment

How to Cook with Charcoal

1. Prepare your grill. Empty any remaining ash from the grill and clean the grates. Preheat the grates to prevent food from sticking, and then light the charcoal. Make sure to oil the grates before adding the food.

2. Light the charcoal. Using a charcoal chimney, portion the charcoal and add a wadded up newspaper to the bottom of the chimney. Light the newspaper as instructed by the chimney manufacturer. Once flames are visible on top of the charcoals, pour them into the grill.

3. Create two cook zones. Move the charcoals to one side of the grill, leaving the other side empty. For high heat cooking, use the side with charcoal. For lower and slower cooking, use the side without charcoal.

How Hot Does Charcoal Burn?

A charcoal fire can technically reach 700 degrees Fahrenheit; however, when used for cooking, charcoal usually burns up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. To easily modulate heat when cooking, adjust the oxygen level. With more oxygen, coals burn hotter and faster.

How Long Does Charcoal Burn?

Charcoal usually burns for 40 to 45 minutes on an open grill. It can burn for several hours in a closed smoker due to the limited oxygen.

Best Wood for Cooking

As the second consideration when choosing wood for cooking, the type of wood determines the flavor transferred to the cooking food. This means that pairing the wood with the ingredient is an integral part to creating the desired flavor profile. Examples include apple, cherry, and hickory.

Restaurant Equipment

Hickory Wood

Deep, bacon-like flavor and strong aroma

  • Favored for hot, smoke fire cooking, barbeque, wood burning ovens, smoking, and grilling
  • Ideal for meat, especially ribs and pork
  • Commonly used in the South and Midwest, including the Carolinas
Restaurant Equipment

Mesquite Wood

Rich, earthy flavor with a zesty twist

  • Performs similarly to hickory
  • Ideal for meat, especially dark cuts and red meat
  • Commonly used for Texas-style barbecue
Restaurant Equipment

Pecan Wood

Milder than hickory and mesquite, but richer than fruity woods

  • Not to be used in excess, as doing so imparts a bitter taste
  • Ideal for chicken, ribs, pork, fish, lamb, and turkey
  • Commonly used in the Southwest and in Central Texas
Restaurant Equipment

Apple Wood

Mild, fruity flavor with a hint of sweetness

  • Great for use with other woods for multi-dimensional flavor
  • Ideal for chicken, ribs, pork, fish, game, lamb, turkey, and vegetable
  • Commonly used in the Midwest
Restaurant Equipment

Cherry Wood

Mild, versatile flavor with a sweet undertone

  • Its smoke can deepen the color of meat to a rich mahogany for visual appeal
  • Ideal for chicken, ribs, pork, fish, game, lamb, and turkey
  • Commonly used in the Pacific Northwest

Wood for a Charcoal Grill

Once the type and flavor of wood are selected, make sure to use it properly. When cooking, the form of wood used determines how it's used. Wood chips and wood planks, for instance, are used very differently.

Restaurant Equipment

Cooking with Wood Chips

Wood chips are small, irregular pieces of wood that have been hand selected, graded, and fully seasoned to ensure you are getting the maximum flavor and the most consistent burning wood.

Gas and electric grills: Soak wood chips in water, drain, and place in a wood chip smoker box. If you do not have a smoker box, you can wrap the chips in aluminum foil, poke holes in the foil, and place them directly on the heat source underneath the cooking grid.

Charcoal grills: Soak wood chips in water, remove the cooking grid, stack charcoal in a pyramid, and light. Drain chips and scatter over hot coals when the charcoal is ashed over. Once the chips begin to smoke, replace the cooking grid and start grilling.

Restaurant Equipment

Cooking with Wood Logs

Wood logs are ideal for use in large, wood-fired grills, barbecuing pits, smokehouses, and large smokers. When cooking in a firepit or with a grate or spit, it's common to arrange the logs into a teepee or log cabin shape. Whichever shape you choose will require the use of tinder and kindling.

Restaurant Equipment

Cooking with Wood Planks

Wood grilling planks are cut from high-quality, clear-grade western red cedar. To use, first soak the plank in warm water for 15 minutes and season your protein. Place the plank directly on the grill, and flip it after 2 minutes. After it begins to crackle, add the meat to the plank. Then begin grilling; avoid flipping the food. Use the plank as a serving piece for enhanced food presentation.

Are Wood Planks Reusable?

If properly cared for, wood planks can be used 3 or 4 times. It is recommended, however, that they be designated for a particular type of food. For example, if using a plank for salmon, designate that plank for cooking fish.

Advantages of Cooking with Wood

While the answer to the question, "which is better, charcoal or wood?" is still hotly contested, it ultimately comes down to what you need and what results you want. It's on the operator or head chef to choose which option is right for the business. Below is a recap of the advantages and disadvantages of cooking with wood.
Restaurant Equipment
  • Strong aroma and flavor
  • Allows for easy temperature adjustments
  • Allows for consistent temperatures
  • Made of all natural materials
  • May burn faster than charcoal
  • Requires more effort to light
  • Smoke can overpower food's natural flavor

Expert Tip

Use a combination of charcoal and natural wood for the convenience of charcoal and the flavor of wood smoke. A mixture of the two fuel sources also promotes efficient heat transfer.

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. Please refer to our Content Policy for more details.

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