For charcoal-grilling fans, there used to be one choice to make: whether or not they wanted their briquettes presoaked in lighter fluid. Now, more and more varieties of fuel are showing up on shelves. So Consumer Reports testers set out to settle a debate: Which is better, classic briquettes or lump charcoal?
Briquettes are primarily made of sawdust, and each piece has a consistent shape so that they all burn more uniformly. Lump charcoal, made of charred-wood pieces, comes in different sizes and shapes. The labels often claim it burns hotter and longer than briquettes.
Consumer Reports testers burned 3 pounds each of briquettes and lump coal in two very different grills, an 18-inch Weber kettle and a Big Green Egg. Then they brought out the “scientific instruments,” placing thermocouples on the grates to collect the precise temperature for each grill. That info went into a computer to create a heat-distribution map.
Overall, the lump charcoal burned about 40 to 50 degrees hotter than the briquettes. In the test for evenness, the lump charcoal in the Weber kettle got only a Fair rating, but it got a Very Good rating when used in the Big Green Egg.
In the duration test, the lump charcoal in the Big Green Egg maintained a low temperature of 250 degrees for 11 hours vs. just 4 hours for the briquettes.
The briquettes got excellent scores for evenness in BOTH grills. And the briquettes burned evenly throughout.
So which should you use? Well, the testers found that lump charcoal is best for when you want a hot sear on a steak and a smoky flavor that comes from real wood. It’s also best for cooking “low and slow.” But briquettes are easier to stack, light, and control. And they’re a whole lot cheaper!
On the subject of heat maps, Consumer Reports uses them for gas grills, too. In fact, there’s a one for every grill tested. We’ve put a few examples on our website for you to check out.