Charcoal Cooking - Be Your Best Campfire Chef

Lump charcoal vs. briquettes - when and how you should use each of these varieties of charcoal.

Charcoal grilling, at one time, was restricted to picnics and campsites.  However, grilling became a popular backyard activity after World War II in the 1940s.  The woody smell of burning charcoal means dinnertime, summertime, parties, and delicious meals.  Cooking with charcoal isn't limited to one season or meal.  Charcoal serves as a heat source for both the grill and Dutch oven.  The type of charcoal and cooking vessel make a difference in your cooking experience.  Over time, I have improved my charcoal cooking methods to make grilled meals and Dutch Oven cooking easy and full of flavor.

Charcoal Cooking - Be Your Best Campfire Chef

First, start with the right charcoal.  We use two different kinds of charcoal at our house.  Regardless of charcoal choice, avoid lighter fluid.  This includes dousing your charcoal with lighter fluid or buying instant light varieties.  Lighter fluid will taint the flavor of your food and deliver a chemical smell while cooking.  Both are unpleasant and spoil the whole process.  I would also avoid "flavored" charcoals.  If you want mesquite or other smoked wood flavor added to your food, you can infuse these flavors with wood chips or pellets.  Charcoal should be just that.  Don't try to get double duty products from your heat source.

Briquettes vs. Lump Charcoal

Charcoal cooking comes down to briquettes or lump charcoal.  We use both kinds but for different purposes.  Some grill enthusiasts will say that lump charcoal burns hotter and is the better product.  I'm not doing to debate this theory.  I'm not a chemist or food scientist, but I do know the results that we have gotten while cooking over time.  And I do have a method to our culinary madness.

Lump charcoal does burn very hot and can burn out quickly.  I prefer lump charcoal for grilling foods both at home and at the campground.  If you want to grill steaks, burgers, hot dogs or other items, I think lump charcoal is the way to go.  Charcoal briquettes have fillers and other additives.  So I like lump charcoal just for the pure, unadulterated nature of the product itself.  Overall, it is my preference.

Charcoal briquettes also have their place.  We use these for Dutch Oven Cooking.  Dutch oven cooking is based on having a certain number of briquettes under and over your vessel.  While you can use hardwood coals from your campfire for this process, I feel more certain about using briquettes to heat our Dutch Oven.  I use an app on my phone that helps me produce the right temperature based on the briquettes being used.

We use charcoal briquettes for Dutch oven cooking.

Depending on the type of cooking you plan to actually do should determine if you want to use charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal.  Both will provide an adequate heat source for cooking.  Grilled foods are more affected by the flavors of the heat source.  Therefore, I prefer lump charcoal for grilling.  Charcoal briquettes used with my Dutch Oven affect the flavor far less.  So, I am not as concerned about additives and fillers with the exception of lighter fluids.

Reliable Charcoal Brands

I prefer basic brands of briquettes for Dutch Oven Cooking.  I have experienced good results with Royal Oak and Kingsford.  I have also found that these brands work well for grilling too.  Also, if you want to streamline your camping gear for cooking, don't feel like you need multiple kinds of charcoal to get the job done.  If you are a basic cook, briquettes will work fine regardless of the job you are trying to do.

Jealous Devis is a premium brand of lump charcoal that I recommend trying.

If you want to try something new, there are lots of lump charcoals available.  This is also where grilling snobs have all kinds of brands that they test and are loyal to for cooking.  I have researched several brands.

Jealous Devil's charcoal is larger and burns consistently hot.

Jealous Devil is a lump charcoal that we have tried.  It burns clean and hot without the sparks and pops of competitors.  I have seen this first hand.  The wood is dense and provides a superior cooking heat.  All lump charcoal brands are not the same, I really encourage you to try a great brand.  You will notice the difference immediately.  I could tell as soon as I lit the charcoal that it was different.  The smell was clean, and it kept my grill at a consistent 500+ degree heat.  Jealous Devil compared to an inexpensive variety is completely different.  Once you try this brand, you will never go back to cheap lump charcoal.

One thing that sets restaurant steaks apart from home-cooked steaks is the high temperatures at which a restaurant chef can cook.  High temperatures create the ultimate sear with a pink middle.  Lump charcoal is one way to recreate that high quality, restaurant version of steak at home.  For this reason alone, it is worth the time to seek out great lump charcoal.

Lighting Your Coals

You need two additional pieces of gear to get your grilling going.
  1. Charcoal Chimney
  2. Charcoal Lighter
Place your charcoal into the chimney.  We use an electric fire starter from Home Right for our charcoal.  This tool looks like a curling iron.  You plug it in and point it down toward your charcoal.  The heat and air will force the charcoal to light quickly.  This eliminates the need for additional lighter tools and matches.  I use this method for lighting both lump charcoal and briquettes.

The Home Right Electro-Torch Charcoal Starter makes grilling and Dutch Oven easy.

Once your coals begin to ash, you can dump your coals into the grill or place under and over your Dutch Oven.  It is important to give your coals enough time to heat properly before using them.  Without enough time to heat, your food won't cook properly.  And this can yield disappointing results.  Patience is key when starting your coals.

Finally, note that you may have to heat more than one chimney of coals to get the job done.  If you are braising or stewing in a Dutch Oven, it is not uncommon to need more than one chimney of coals for a consistently maintained heat source.  I also recommend having your food ready to go over the grill once the coals are ready and the grill grates are hot.  Otherwise, you will lose valuable cooking time.

If you purchase the right charcoal and lighting tools, you will have flavorful food with minimal effort.  Grilling should be a joy instead of a chore.  While the actual flame and heat are only part of the task, it can take your cut of meat and seasoning of choice to the next level.  The herbs, spices and charcoal grill will create a symphony of flavors that cannot compare to other cooking methods.  It is primal and satisfying like none other.

Depending on the type of cooking you do and how much you use charcoal, allow these factors to determine the charcoal that you need.
  1. Basic Campground Cook - If you are doing some grilling and cooking in your Dutch oven but not in large quantities, you could easily stick to a basic charcoal briquette to do both jobs.
  2. Beyond the Basics - You are the campground cook that enjoys cooking and would like to branch out and try a few more things.  Ensure that you have a good briquette.  Look for a lump brand to try out and see how you like it for grilling.
  3. Campground Chef - If you have been grilling for years and want to expand your horizons, purchase a really good brand of lump charcoal and try your hand at new cooking methods on the grill.  I think you will be pleased with the results.  I was amazed at the difference this has made in grilling for me!
I've created a video that demonstrates me using the HomeRight Charcoal and Fire Starter with the Jealous Devil Charcoal.  If you are still wondering how this all works, this video gives a good real-time illustration of a very handy tool that I think you will love. 

If you are grilling or cooking in a Dutch Oven, the proper tools will make this an enjoyable task both as you prepare the food and as a dining experience. Be sure to keep your charcoal nice and dry.  Stick to plain charcoal that will provide the cleanest burning fuel.  The results will be happy campers every time!

Until next time...

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