Grillmaster TUCKER HOTTES is still hosting cookouts. Look for your evite soon.
The joys of lump charcoal
Unless you’re new ’round these parts, it’s fairly well known that I’m a grilling enthusiast. I’ve also spilled lots of ink going on and on about the relative merits of charcoal, and how it’s superior even though I occasionally enjoy the convenience of gas. These shouldn’t be new revelations to most of you — but I do have a terrible confession to make: until recently, I’d never had the privilege of cooking with the ultimate king of the grill, lump charcoal. Blasphemy!
So, in case you’re not down with the grilling lingo and various methods of lighting blocks of carbon on fire for the purposes of grilling meat and vegetables, a quick primer is in order. The vast, vast majority of charcoal grilling you’ve ever seen or done in your life happens over compressed charcoal “briquettes.” Depending on the brand and type, there may even be very little actual “charcoal” inside a briquette — they can be made from sawdust and chemicals. Some of them are pre-soaked with even more chemicals either before leaving the factory (brands like Kingsford’s Match Light) or after (by dousing with lighter fluid) to help get them prepped for cooking. If you’re doing either of those things, stop right now and get yourself a chimney starter — that’s a subject for another column, but do yourself a favor and eliminate as many chemicals from your grilling as possible.
Lump charcoal, on the other hand, is actual, charred hard woods (like oak or hickory). Scraps of lumber are heated in an oven so they char and have that flaky, make-your-hands-black texture without actually burning and consuming too much of the wood itself. The result is a carbonized lump of wood not unlike what you’d find at the remnants of a good camp fire.
Because there are no additives in (most) lump charcoals, they can be more expensive. There are even specialty boutique lump charcoals, like those made from old, charred oak whiskey barrels. However, even basic, store-brand lump charcoal produces a much smokier, more natural smell and flavor than the industrially produced briquettes. It also has a tendency to burn hotter than most briquettes, so if you’ve been disappointed with the sear on your steaks from your regular briquettes, lump coal might be your answer.
Why it took me this long to experience the joy of lump charcoal, I have no idea. I didn’t cook anything elaborate — just some steaks and corn — but it was like switching from gas to briquettes by comparison. It was a whole new level. I’ll never be able to go back. It was most noticeable with the corn, which took on a delightfully smoky flavor that I’ve not achieved even by throwing soaked hickory chips on a briquette or gas fire.
In short, for all my big talk about charcoal grilling, I will fully admit I’ve been doing it wrong. Feel free to recall any of my tips, tricks, or recipes, but for the love of god, please do it with a big ol’ bag of lump charcoal!