Hardwood lump charcoal or briquettes? It’s fuel for fire, it cooks things, what’s the difference? I grew up with the uniformly shaped briquettes, watching my dad douse them with lighter fluid and then stepping back as the flames whooshed up. But flaming lighter fluid, while entertaining and exciting, doesn’t do much for food.

Regular briquettes contain additives that can give odd chemical smells and flavors to foods. Yet some people prefer them: they burn consistently, last longer, and are cheaper. The hardwood stuff, made out of actual pieces of wood with no additives (more about how charcoal is made here), burns hotter and more quickly, which is sometimes not ideal for things that need a long period of indirect heat (like whole chickens). Still, knowing that it’s more natural and imparts a wonderful woodsy, smoky flavor to food makes it the winner.

Here are a few tips for using hardwood lump charcoal:

Use a chimney as a starter if you have one, otherwise place a few wadded pieces of newspaper under a pyramid of charcoal as your starter—no need for lighter fluid.

If grilling for a long period of time, get a second chimney started about 20 to 30 minutes before you think you’ll need it so that your grill doesn’t cool down too much. A disposable aluminum tray is a great place to hold your lit chimney if your grill is already in use.

Wait until the charcoal is almost all white and ashy in color before grilling.

One of our grilling experts suggests trying both at once.

Last week we tested some recipes using hardwood lump charcoal. Two days later I used it again when grilling on the beach with friends in Point Reyes. Over the course of the week I grilled whole chickens, tri-tip, asparagus, sausages, steak, and even oysters on the half shell. Although it took two showers to get the smoky smell out of my hair, it was well worth it—I’m never going back to traditional briquettes again.

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