Ultimate Charcoal Guide: Learn How Charcoal is Made and What’s Really in Your Fuel

Jason Webster
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How charcoal is made

Select wood is wood that is high in cellulose and that has low levels of lignin, which is what gives wood its structural strength. On the industrial level, this would be wood from pinus radiata (the plantation pine tree popular in Australia) or eucalyptus.

Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan both introduced tree-planting programs in the U.S., planting eucalyptus and pine trees on 10 million acres in an effort to reverse the loss of trees to the devastating logging of World War II.

As this practice has gained popularity, the durability of eucalyptus and pine trees has turned them into increasingly popular sources of wood for charcoal production.

The wood is chopped into pieces, soaked in water, and then placed in a kiln, where the wood is placed in small piles and burned in stages. The wood is heated until it is black and produces charcoal.

The base of the kiln is lined with sand and clay to aid in the burning process. The sand and clay act as filters for the forged ash and impurity gases that are produced as a result of the burning wood.

This production method is one of the oldest methods of charcoal production.

After the wood is placed in the kiln, it will burn until the temperature reaches approximately 1500°C.

Types of wood and materials used

When it comes to charcoal, the brand is not as important as the quality of wood used in its production. The inside of the tree, particularly the heartwood, provides the best fuel for making charcoal.

Women often use pieces of heartwood to start fires when cooking. Once the fire dies down, they may put the coals in a pot and then put more wood on to cook more food. The same heartwood would be used over and over, sometimes for up to a week before they went back to the forest to gather more wood.

Many types of wood are used to make charcoal, with the most valued being oak, maple, ash and hickory. One of the most effective ways to figure out what kind of wood is used in making your charcoal is to check the bark on the logs you get at any source.

Briquettes vs lump charcoal

According to the USDA, charcoal is made by burning wood in an environment with limited oxygen. As oxygen is limited, the charcoal does not completely combust.

The result is charcoal, which is nothing more than carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and ash. Nothing else, no matter how much companies may tell you their charcoals are 90% or 99% pure.

How are you supposed to know which charcoal is the best?

Since the charcoal is mostly carbon, the main difference between charcoals is the carbon source. Both briquettes and lump charcoal are derived from wood, but they are produced differently (and briquettes contain additives).

The easiest way to tell the difference between briquettes and lump charcoal if you are buying charcoal from a store:

  • Examine the briquettes. If they are soft and easy to break up, then they are most likely briquettes.
  • Lump charcoal tends to be hard and may have pieces of wood still attached to it.

Lump charcoal is more difficult to light and tends to burn more unevenly than briquettes. So, unless you are a charcoal aficionado, spend the extra dollars and get yourself quality briquettes.

Lump charcoal

Lump charcoal is a popular choice for many BBQ enthusiasts.

It is noted for its long-burning, high heat rating and for being the base of many charcoal briquettes.

Lump charcoal is the result of the burning of wood and other combustible matter by a controlled burning process organised by charcoal burners.

It is made by piling the wood in a pyramid structure into a loose pile and set fire to below. This process ensures that when the pile burns it produces the highest amount of heat possible and that all the fuel is in tact for the final burning process.

After the fuel has been burned, all that is left behind is the remaining charcoal, which is then cooled and pulverized into the uniform pieces of charcoal that we now cook with today.

Crushed charcoal is also available. It is crushed into smaller pieces than the original lump charcoal would be and is favoured by those who enjoy very high heat ratings.

The disadvantage of crushed charcoal is that it burns less slowly than lump charcoal. It can also be potentially dangerous as it can run out of fuel a lot faster and can become red hot.

Adding crushed charcoal into your fire will raise the temperature and speed up the cooking process, but is discouraged by many charcoal enthusiast.

Charcoal briquettes

Are made by heating timber and vegetable matter in large kilns.

In the charring process, wood is converted to charcoal by means of heat. The process starts with brown coal. Brown coal is a hard, low-quality coal with more impurities than higher-quality varieties. Much of the impurities are volatile gases that are released as the coal is heated.

The impurities are eliminated by heating the coal to a temperature of around 900°C, at which point the gases are driven from the coal and the fraction of carbon is converted to liquid hydrocarbons.

This conversion of the black coal into a brown residue (known as coal tar) takes about 7 hours.

The residue left from the coal tar is what we use to make lighter fluid, or charcoal.

In the simplest terms, charcoal is almost pure carbon. With an almost mystical appeal, charcoal is as natural a fuel as you can find.

Charcoal will ignite very quickly to produce a hot, clean blaze that will give you consistent cooking temperatures.

Just like many other green fuels, charcoal is kinder to the environment than fossil-fuel derived barbecues.

It is also easy to transport as it burns at a very high temperature and it provides a very long, continuous heat source.

How was charcoal first made?

The history of charcoal is rich and interesting.

In fact, it’s been around since prehistoric times (the Stone Age).

For centuries, people have used charcoal for fuel, to prepare food (smoking and grilling), for stone masonry, and for blackening of certain foods (think barbecue).

Charcoal was first made by the pyrolysis of vegetable matter in a low oxygen environment.

The result was a black substance that had high carbon content.

Today, the process of charcoal heating or pyrolysis doesn’t change much. ›

Charcoal is made in factories, using new technologies geared towards mass production, with the use of organic material being introduced into the production environment.

Several changes have also been introduced for the convenience of users and for better product quality.

For example, the introduction of kiln sheds, rotary kilns with conveyor belts, and rockbeds to allow for better charcoal heating and greater productivity.

The process starts at the harvesting and processing of the raw materials.

This is done by forestry companies who own land that is suited for creating charcoal.

The next step is either to manufacture the charcoal briquettes or to manufacture the lumpized charcoal kernels, both by the manufacturing facilities themselves.

What’s really in your charcoal?

There is a lot of information out there about charcoal.

Commercial charcoal is made up of three major elements:

Supplemental materials (e.g., ash and sand)

Supplemental Materials

When a piece of wood is turned into charcoal, it can be made into small chunks, chips, or dust.

This method is known as the process of pulverizing or screen-firing. The supplemental materials add material for a stronger structure and bind the filament materials together.

They also can decrease the wood’s porosity and make it easier to burn.

Combustible Solids

As trees, plants, and other carbon-containing substances are burned, their energy is released and stored as heat energy. This heat energy is released as radiant or infrared energy when it is combined with oxygen.

This is where charcoal comes in. Charcoal is fired at temperatures greater than 1,000 degrees Celsius. Once it reaches this temperature, the wood is charred and carbonized and is then transformed into charcoal.

The process of charring wood may take several hours. If you want to make charcoal yourself, it takes about 45 minutes.

How to make your own charcoal

There are a variety of ways that you can go about making your own charcoal.

You can make it by sealing wood in a pit of embers or just cook the wood in an airtight container over low heat.

You should collect the coals in a metal container (this can be a steel pot with some holes punched in it with a nail). Make sure it is large enough to hold about 10 pounds of charcoal.

Then you put the coals in a slightly bigger metal container. This is for the forging period.

Fill the forging container with water until there are just a few holes left uncovered by water.

The container should be placed in a location away from the house. It is hot, can topple over, and contain poisonous gases.

After about one week, your charcoal is ready.

To make sure it burns hot and long, keep coals wet until ready to use.

Equipment

Charlot, also called charcoal kiln, is a piece of equipment that is used in charcoal making. It is very similar to a kiln.

The main purpose of this tool is to extract black char from wood. Black charcoal is used in a variety of industries, such as foundries, tanneries, chemical and sugar mills.

It is also used in the production of various household items: for example, certain types of grills, gas stoves and fireplaces.

Charlot is a cost-effective alternative to coal. Charcoal kilns are composed of the following parts:

Preheating chamber: this part is used to heat wood to 350 to 400 degrees Celsius (662 to 752 degrees Fahrenheit). The wood is gradually fed into the kiln.

Arc chamber: the wood is burned here and the obtained extract is further heated. The temperature in the arc chamber reaches 700 to 900 degrees Celsius (1,292 to 1,652 degrees Fahrenheit).

Burning chamber: heat is removed at this stage of the process. The extracted char is cooled and transferred into storage bins.

The process of char extraction is a complex one that takes months to complete. There are two types of char making process:

Getting started

While wood has been used for thousands of years in cooking, it’s not the only choice for getting a fire started. The use of activated charcoal as an ingredient for cooking has been used by man for thousands of years, and its benefits include a wide range of applications in food safety, in cooking, and in fire starting.

Activated charcoal is made by combining activated carbon with the use of chemicals like sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. Because it is a special type of carbon that has a high surface area and that is made by a very specific type of activation process, it has a much higher storage capacity per particle. However, it does not ignite.

Activated charcoal is made specifically for its adsorption properties, which can really be put to use in a variety of ways, and many of them offer other benefits on top of of their primary purpose.

One of the most common ways that charcoal is used, even today, is in the process of filtering drinking water. Because it is naturally charged, this means that it is naturally attracted to certain molecules, and that means that it can be put to use as a filter.

A common activated charcoal filter is the Brita water filter, which allows you to filter out lead, steroids, chlorine, and even naturally occurring chemicals that can cause flavored tap water.

Making charcoal

Charcoal is a solid form of carbon that is usually made by heating wood (traditionally in are pits) with little or no oxygen present to stop it getting completely burnt.

This is really an important process because when the wood burns, the pollutants are only a small percentage of the total wood. When you make charcoal, the pollutants are concentrated and are easy to filter out.

This charcoal filtering goes on and on and that's why only 56% of the total wood is used for commercial purposes for making charcoal and 44% is left as a waste product.

The burning of wood produces a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO).

The production of charcoal is a good way of disposing of these two gases and reducing the pollution in the environment.

What is the best charcoal for grilling?

The best type of charcoal for your outdoor cooking is the charcoal that you like to use. I enjoy lump charcoal due to the fact that I don't have to deal with messy briquettes. However, weighing the other factors may be more in-depth for some than others. Briquettes have a reputation for being messy and getting all over you while lighting, but some of the higher end briquettes have come a long way in that field.

For example, Kingsford now makes briquettes that have a protective exterior casing around the briquette that keeps it together during lighting. They also stay together while on the grill, and clean up easier. So, this is something you may want to look into.

Several studies have shown that it doesn't make much of a difference as to what type of charcoal you use, but some other factors to consider may include temperature control, availability and cost.

I personally recommend lump charcoal due to the fact that it burns hotter, easier, and has a longer burn time than briquettes. You don't have to weigh anything, you can just pour the charcoal in and light it up. It is also available at most stores that carry any type of grilling related products.

Kingsford

If you are a charcoal enthusiast, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Kingsford charcoal. It’s the original and still the best-selling brand name in charcoal briquettes.

The company has been around since 1924 when it was founded by the Kingsford family and has been producing charcoal since the 60’s.

As a consumer, you’re probably under the assumption that you’re getting 100% pure charcoal briquettes. Well here’s a little something you should know that you probably didn’t know about Kingsford Charcoal.

The company has changed its original recipe and may not be using all-natural or 100% pure charcoal as it advertises. The company uses propane to speed up the production process and create a more consistent product.

But what’s more important here is whether this is harmful to you and your BBQ.

Well, the answer to this question depends on the amount of propane used and the type of wood used. If the company uses less propane, you should be fine.

Weber

Royal Oak

Fogo

If you’re wondering how charcoal is made or interested to know what’s really in charcoal, we have compiled some useful information you definitely need to know in this article.

If you had asked me recently what charcoal was, I’d have assumed that it was made out of sawdust and other wood based refuse from a lumber mill. And while that’s not really an incorrect answer, it’s not the real one either.

Natural charcoal is only made from natural hardwood. Sorry to burst the bubble, but no one uses driftwood or any other biomasses. And don’t let the word “natural” confuse you as charcoal is definitely not a very natural product. Charcoal is created through a process of burning. The darker the color of charcoal, the more compounds from the wood have been imbibed into the charcoal. The word “imbi ib ed” or “in-hah-bed” might seem appropriately used here because it was from my wood-loving husband that I first heard this term.

Kamado Joe

Here are some pros and cons of using this grill:

Pros:

The Kamado Joe is well-made with a solid design. It comes with a durable ceramic body and a stainless steel cooking grate.

It is built with a patented “gravity latch” lid. You can easily lift and close the lid and the latch will hold it in place until you are ready to open it.

It is weather-resistant to ensure reliable operation on a continuous basis outside. While it is indeed built to be used by anyone, it works best with an experienced grill master.

The grill is a 100% ceramic model with a dual-layered aluminum design. It has a high heat retention capability that allows it to heat up quickly and keep the cooking temperature consistent throughout.

It has an airflow regulator that allows you to control the temperature without the need to constantly re-adjust the vents. This gives you the convenience of being able to cook during bad weather too.

You can find a variety of accessories and components for the Kamado Joe, including a pizza stone, griddle, and awning.

Cons:

The Kamado Joe is heavy. This makes it difficult for some users to move it around when not in use.

Charcoal FAQs

How is charcoal made?

During the production of charcoal, wood is heated in low oxygen environments of around 25% to 32% oxygen level. For this reason, the length of time that it takes to transform wood into charcoal depends on the amount of oxygen in the kiln.

Pure charcoal is almost pure carbon. It is almost completely made up of carbon and has no sulfur or additives.

Charcoal has the ability to burn at a higher temperature than wood because the kiln removes moisture. This then creates a more complete combustion and more complete burn of the wood, which only leaves charcoal and thus a smokeless flame.

Depending on the production process, there are a few charcoal types:

  • Ammomatic: made by burning wood in an oxygen-reduced environment
  • Condensate: made by adding steam or water to the soaking pit to produce charcoal from wood
  • Torrefied: made by adding steam to the soaking pit during the fire to produce charcoal from wood
  • Molten: made by burning wood under high pressure in a kiln to produce charcoal from wood… so called “engineered charcoal”

How is charcoal made?

The process of charcoal refining falls into four steps:

Feeding the oven (the wood is placed in the kiln)

How long does charcoal last?

About 300 years on average, but that’s not what you’re interested in. How long will your bag of charcoal last for a cookout? What can you do to make it last longer?

The amount of energy a charcoal briquette packs into its tiny space is astounding. One pound of charcoal contains about 7,000 joules of potential chemical energy. As for the burned briquette, it’s pretty close to ash. While the ash must be disposed of properly, the actual unburned charcoal can be used again and again.

By stacking and storing using this stacking method, you can ensure that your charcoal will be ready when you need it for cooking.

Why is there so much dust left after burning charcoal?

Every charcoal user has had the problem of a charcoal left with a lot of ash after burning.

Why does one piece of charcoal have a lot more ash than another piece burned at the same time?

Let me explain. When burning wood or charcoal, you need oxygen.

If there is not enough oxygen in the wood and charcoal, the wood or charcoal will not burn completely, some of the carbon in the fuel doesn’t get transformed into carbon dioxide gas and the remaining charcoal will consist more of carbon than in complete combustion.

There are several things you can try to achieve proper air flow around the burning charcoal, like you can buy or build a chimney from metal or brick.

But probably the easiest thing to do to avoid having a lot of leftover charcoal after burning it is to use a charcoal grill with a lid.

Can you use charcoal that has got wet?

Yes, you can, if your charcoal briquettes are well wrapped and stored in a container or a bucket.

The cellulose component of the charcoal will most likely be affected by getting wet. But that does not necessarily mean that the quality of the charcoal is compromised.

It is best to keep the charcoal dry. In order to successfully rejuvenate the dry charcoal briquettes, one needs to heat them up above its ignition temperature before tossing them into the barbecue.

This will further assist in removing the water from the briquettes and making them good with no moisture left in the end.

Is charcoal bad for the environment?

In my opinion, people throw around the term “the environment” a little too easily these days. A lot of people use this terminology to help promote certain passions and concerns.

I tend to be a little uneasy when people throw around this term, without truly understanding what it means.

To be fair, charcoal is a natural product, and it got its environmental halo because of its purifying effect on the air.

But let’s get back to basics. In its raw form, charcoal is simply a fossil fuel. It burns inefficiently, giving off a lot of by-products that are harmful to the environment.

It also gives off a lot of pollutants such as CO2. Some studies even suggest that charcoal-burning BBQs are contributing to the global warming crisis.

Besides, a lot of charcoal products contain chemicals and other additives that also do more harm than good.

On the bright side, charcoal’s producers have started to introduce new varieties of charcoal that contain less chemicals and additives.

For example, the Bio-Char from the EcoLogic company is a “green” type of charcoal that can be used for several applications, including composting, waste water treatment, and cooking.

Wrapping it up

The key to this chapter is how to establish a daily exercise routine. The concept of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break The Chain” practice is something that any one can start and benefit from.

It is a simple and easy system that you can thank Jerry for.

10 Essential Grill and Smoker Accessories

In the course of researching almost 100 grills and smokers (all of which are backed by my limited-time money-back guarantee), I’m constantly surprised at how many of them come complete with inferior accessories.

I’m talking about all those flimsy grilling tools that wobble in that drawer with last year’s Christmas lights…and will be there until you clean out your storage shed.

Often (but not always) they are part of an over-inflated price for a skimp-sized grill that seems to have everything but the quality materials that make a grill great.

Let’s face it: It’s a small grill. It’s not a cabinet maker and there are only so many things you can include with a grill. So why is the list of goodies sometimes laughably short?

I advise my readers to skip the disposable spatulas, foil packet holders, useless potholders and other junky stuff and consider investing in a real set of barbecue tools.

We’ve put together 10 of the most essential items you’ll want to have at your disposal this summer (or whenever you fire up the grill).