Blog - How to Light & Use a Charcoal Starter

What is Charcoal and Where Does It Come From?

Charcoal is fascinating. Okay, maybe you don’t think so right at this moment, but when you finish reading, you will agree it is. Whether you are a seasoned grill master, or someone new to the world of barbecue, you should know what charcoal is. In this article, What is Charcoal And Where Does it Come From, we will find out how charcoal is made and why it’s better than using wood when grilling. Are you an avid Charcoal user or do you stick to your gas grill? Understanding what Charcoal is and how it is made will help you understand the intricacies of grilling helping you to become a better barbecue-er.


What is Charcoal?

Charcoal is (in the case of lump charcoal) wood that has been placed inside a low oxygen environment like a steel or clay box and heated to over 1000°F. The lack of oxygen is important because that means the wood can’t actually combust, or catch fire. Instead, the other things that make up wood – the water, tar, and gases like methane, - will melt or evaporate, be leaving only pure carbon and ash. When lit, charcoal produces intense heat with very little smoke, perfect for high heat searing or low and slow grilling. Due to its irregular shape, no two pieces of charcoal are the same. Smaller chunks will be nearly all carbon, while larger ones can have inclusions of unburned wood, water, tar, and lignens (which we talked about in The Science of Barbecue – Smoking Meat) that will produce that smoked-char-broiled flavor that you love.



WAIT a minute! You said it doesn’t smoke! Why does charcoal smoke when you light it? When initially lit, charcoal does smoke. Using any form of ignition assistance like newspaper or lighter cubes will produce smoke because they’re not pure carbon. Charcoal is also coated in residue that isn’t pure carbon either, that will need to burn off before the charcoal can light.


It seems like a lot of work to make charcoal when you could just burn wood or light a gas grill. Why go through the trouble to make charcoal? Well, if you’re a purist and love the unique texture and flavor that charcoal provides, then you know that you just can’t get that from wood that hasn’t been through the charcoal-i-zation process. Wood is filled with water among other things (yes even seasoned wood) and isn’t nearly as efficient at burning as something that has no water in it. Think about it like this; it’s the difference between using a candle or LED lights to illuminate a room. Burning wood also produces smoke from the volatile hydrocarbons, and while it will produce delicious flavor in your food, (which is why we add it to the charcoal when smoking), wood can get overpowering when not used in the correct manner.


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