- Although you may think that one bag of charcoal is almost identical to another, there are actually many different types of charcoal to choose from and your decision could affect the taste of your food.
- The best charcoal for the average backyard barbecue fan is Royal Oak Ridge Briquettes because it burns hotter and longer than most other charcoal, and doesn't leave much ash behind.
- Read more: The best charcoal grills
Perhaps nothing signals that summer has started quite like grilling. For many of us, cooking outside with friends and family is a time-honored way to celebrate the season. Besides getting everybody together, a good grill gives your food a unique smoky flavor.
There are quite a few different types of grills on the market these days, but the two basic models are gas grills and charcoal grills. The final word on which one is better has been hotly debated by BBQ enthusiasts for years, but if you're in the former camp, you'll want to make sure you load up your grill with high-quality charcoal. If you don't have a charcoal grill yet, these are our top picks.
Charcoal is made by burning wood very slowly without much oxygen so that it turns into carbon. People like to cook with charcoal because it burns hotter than wood and produces less smoke.
There are several different kinds of charcoal, including briquettes, lumps, flavored varieties, and more. The type of charcoal that's best for you depends on your grilling style and personal preferences. We break down which charcoal is ideal for different scenarios in our guide.
Here is the best grilling charcoal:
- Best overall: Royal Oak Ridge Briquettes
- Best all-natural charcoal: Weber Natural Hardwood Briquettes
- Best lump charcoal: Fogo All Natural Premium Hardwood Lump Charcoal
- Best for ceramic grills: Kamado Joe Natural Lump Charcoal
- Best budget: Kingsford's Original Charcoal Briquettes
Prices and links are current as of 7/10/20. We also updated copy to better illustrate why we recommend these types of charcoal.
The best overall
The Royal Oak Ridge Briquettes burn beautifully to grill your dinner to perfection.
Royal Oak Enterprises started as the Bradleyville Charcoal Company in Missouri in 1953 but changed to its current name in 1983. Today, the family-owned company is one of the largest charcoal producers in North America. The popular Royal Oak Ridge Briquettes promise to be hot and ready for grilling in 15 minutes. The special ridge shape (which you'll also find in plenty of other charcoal briquettes) allows for better airflow and peak performance.
According to Wirecutter's testing, this charcoal burns hotter and longer than most of its competitors, and it doesn't leave much ash behind. The charcoal may not be completely additive-free, but it doesn't leave a strange aftertaste on your food, either.
Pros: Burns fast, burns hot, long-lasting, no bad taste imparted to food, affordable
Cons: Contains sawdust
The best all-natural charcoal
Weber's Natural Hardwood Briquettes are made from 100% hardwood, so you won't introduce any foul-tasting or dangerous chemicals into your food.
Since 1952, Weber has been one of the country's preeminent producers of both gas and charcoal grills, as well as grilling accessories. So when Weber introduced its very first charcoal in 2017, the barbecue world buzzed with excitement.
The briquettes are sold in a strong, 20-pound, weather-protected, and re-sealable bag. The hardwood of these all-natural briquettes is ground and pressed to create a super dense structure that is free of binders and chemicals. The most notable thing about these briquettes is their large size. The bigger your briquettes are, the fewer you'll need to use while grilling. This ensures consistent heat, prolongs grilling time, and is cost-effective.
If you don't like additives in your charcoal, Weber's Briquettes are a great choice for your grill. Just know that these are pricier than your average charcoal.
Pros: Burns hot, burns fast, large size
The best lump charcoal
Fogo's All Natural Premium Hardwood Lump Charcoal burns hot and clean to leave your food with the lingering taste of oak wood.
Made from dense Central American hardwood trimmings, only hand-selected pieces make it into every bag of Fogo's All-natural Premium Hardwood Lump Charcoal. This large-sized charcoal is ready to grill within 15 minutes.
Fogo, which means fire in several languages, makes restaurant-quality charcoal that burns very hot and imparts a mild, smoky flavor to your food. Despite the impressive heat, it burns nice and slow, so you get an even cook on your food. It contains no fillers and no chemicals and is perfect for low and slow cooking.
It is a bit harder to light than your grocery store briquettes, but it's worth the effort, and if you want to try lump charcoal, there's none better than Fogo's. Yes, it's a bit more expensive than the other options on our list, but it's a high-quality product, and it's a 35-lb. bag rather than the 20-lb. bags most other brands sell.
Pros: Large lumps, burns hot, burns slowly, all-natural, mellow flavor, low ash
Cons: Difficult to light, takes a while to achieve a high temperature, sometimes the lumps are so large they are hard to get out of the bag or to manage
The best for ceramic grills
The Kamado Joe Natural Lump Charcoal is great for ceramic grills because it produces so little ash.
A growing number of serious barbecue fanatics are eschewing both gas and charcoal grills and turning to a third option — ceramic grills. Basically modern versions of the Indian and Chinese ovens and urns that were used thousands of years ago, ceramic grills allow food to retain its moisture while being cooked at a high temperature. You can vary the temperature, from 225°F to more than 750°F, so a ceramic grill can basically double as an oven or even a smoker. Many of them look like giant eggs. All ceramic grills require lump charcoal, though.
Kamado Joe, based in China, makes well regarded and affordable ceramic grills and other grilling accessories. The highly-rated, 100% natural Kamado Joe charcoal is sourced from three dense hardwoods in Argentina. Apparently, the wood is so hard it is called an "ax breaker" by the locals. The wood is then roasted in traditional outdoor ovens.
It produces little ash, which ensures excellent airflow, thus keeping your charcoal lit for long cooking sessions at high heat. The large lump pieces are consistently sized, ensuring an even burn.
Pros: Large lumps, burns hot, low ash
Cons: Somewhat pricey
The best on a budget
Kingsford's Original Charcoal Briquettes are a backyard grilling classic because they're cheap, effective, and available everywhere.
Kingsford's Original Briquettes are probably what your dad — and mine — has used for every backyard barbeque he's ever held. Kingsford is classic grilling charcoal that you can buy just about anywhere for a reasonable price.
The charcoal is sold in packs of two 18-lb. bags for cheaper than some of the other picks on our list. That much charcoal should keep you grilling for most of the summer. Although Kingsford's charcoal isn't fancy or innovative like some of our other picks, it's made from natural ingredients and real wood.
Each briquette has the company's Sure Fire Grooves for quick, easy lighting, and Kingsford says you'll be ready to cook in about 15 minutes. The briquettes do create a lot of ash and burn much more quickly than some of our other higher-quality picks. But if you want that signature charcoal-grilled taste and don't want to fiddle around with the fancy stuff, Kingsford has been satisfying backyard grillers for generations. — Malarie Gokey
Pros: Affordable, grills well, classic briquette style, widely available
Cons: Lots of ash, additives, fast-burning
Types of charcoal and how to use them
- Charcoal Briquettes: This is the type of charcoal that Americans are most familiar with. In fact, seared into my mind is the image of a red, white, and blue bag of charcoal that sat by the back door and always accompanied us on our camping trips when I was a child. It was the Kingsford brand, which is still the best-selling charcoal in this country. Briquettes are so popular because they're affordable, easy to use, and readily available. Made of wood, briquettes also contain "binding" ingredients like sawdust, starch, and sodium nitrate, which make them burn better. Compressed into a uniform shape and size, briquettes produce a consistent burn and are ideal for foods that require less cooking time like fish or steak.
- Instant Charcoal Briquettes: You are going to find very few people who advocate for using these briquettes because they have been heavily pre-soaked in lighter fluid. Yes, they are easy to light, but they leave your food with a considerable chemical aftertaste.
- Hardwood Lump Charcoal: Made from real chunks of charred wood, lump charcoal contains none of the additives found in briquettes. In general, lump charcoal costs at least twice as much as briquettes, but it lights easier and burns cleaner, producing the least amount of smoke and ash. As an added bonus, since the chunks are actual wood, they can also impart a nice, smoky flavor to your food. Lump charcoal also burns hotter than briquettes, which is ideal when you want to sear a steak or other meat. One of the downsides is that the heat is not as consistent compared to briquettes, and it may take you a little while to learn to manage your fire. Serious foodies favor lump charcoal for all these reasons and because it is all-natural, it's been growing in popularity over the last decade.
- Flavored Briquettes: Both briquettes and lump charcoal come in flavored versions. The most popular are mesquite, hickory, and applewood. Many BBQ aficionados suggest that if you are craving these flavors, your best bet is to add flavored wood chips in with your non-flavored briquettes.
- Binchotan: Also known as white charcoal, this pure charcoal has been made from hard ubame oak trees found in Japan for hundreds of years. It not only burns at extremely high temperatures and produces virtually no smoke or ash, but it will last for three to five hours. Enjoying a renaissance in recent years, both in Japan and worldwide, binchotan charcoal is also known for its purifying and deodorizing characteristics. Proponents claim hanging a couple of pieces in your bathroom can prevent mold and mildew; it's also thought that it can purify water by absorbing toxins like chlorine and mercury. Binchotan is often more difficult to ignite than both lump charcoal and briquettes. Although the price varies widely, it's almost always more expensive than the other types of charcoal.
- Thai Charcoal: Famed chef Andy Ricker, known for his expertise in northern Thai cuisine, has created his own charcoal that succeds in capturing the high heat of binchotan without the high cost. Created from orchard-grown rambutan fruit wood, it provides a nice, even heat, although it can be difficult to light.
Check out our other grilling guides
The best charcoal grills
Charcoal grills sear meat and veggies to perfection and fill food with that perfect smoky flavor. Here are our top picks for the best charcoal grills.
The best gas grills
The gas grill is the centerpiece of your backyard during summertime barbecues, so you should invest in a great one. These are the best gas grills you can buy.
The best grill brushes and cleaning tools
There's nothing like food cooked up al fresco and served hot off the grill. But only a thoroughly cleaned grill can properly cook smoky, savory meats and veggies that diners will devour. Here are the best grill brushes and cleaning tools.
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