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Should You Buy Hardwood Charcoal or Briquettes? 

Hardwood charcoal and briquettes both have their uses for the avid griller. 

The thick, beautifully marbled rib eyes are already in your shopping cart, and you’re ready to hit the checkout except for one thing—the charcoal. Leaning up against the familiar blue and white bags of briquettes are bags of hardwood (or lump) charcoal . . . which should you buy?

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What’s the Difference Between Charcoal Briquettes and Hardwood Charcoal?

Briquettes are made from sawdust and wood scraps bound together into perfectly formed, (dare I say cute) little briquettes. They are uniform in size and shape, and thus it's easy to predict how much heat you’ll get from a set amount (measured in quarts and/or a full, half-full, etc., charcoal chimney starter). 

Hardwood charcoal is actual pieces of scrap wood that are burned while being starved of oxygen, so they never fully combust. This charcoal is irregular—some pieces are as big as a matchbook, others a baseball—and so it is harder to predict how much heat it will throw, and thus how much you should use. It’s also usually more expensive than briquettes. 

Does Hardwood Charcoal Burn Hotter than Briquettes?

This is a hot topic of conversation in the grilling world. Many people believe hardwood charcoal burns hotter. But in our tests, the results were not cut and dried; we found that equal volumes of both types of charcoal hit similar peak temperatures. But the hardwood charcoal started to burn out and wane soon after it peaked, while the briquettes kept breathing fire for a good 2 hours. 

What Type of Charcoal Should You Use for Grilling and Barbecue?

Both briquettes and hardwood charcoal are great for direct, fast grilling (including steaks, chops, burgers, and hot dogs)—use whichever one you prefer. Or if you know you’ll be grilling several items over a period of time, go for briquettes since they stay hot longer. 

For the most consistent results with slow-smoked items such as brisket or pulled pork, we recommend using charcoal briquettes because they burn longer and it’s easier to predict their heat output (which needs to be controlled for slow-cooked meats). In these types of cooks, you typically use a small amount of charcoal set over on one side of the bottom grate; the food sits on the opposite side of the top grate so that it can cook low and slow. 

In sum, whether you buy hardwood charcoal or briquettes depends on your specific needs and what kind of food you're throwing on the fire. Grilling enthusiasts may want to keep both types of charcoal on hand.