In the world of charcoal grilling, there's no more fundamental and fiercely debated topic than lump charcoal vs. briquettes. Being the building block for everything you grill, it's no wonder that grill masters around the world will defend their choice with extreme passion. So, you might ask, "Which is the reigning champ?" Well, there really is no easy answer, but there are some charcoal essentials you should know that will help you make the right choice.
Charcoal is made by burning wood in the absence of oxygen, and lump charcoal is the product of that. Since lump is charcoal in its most natural form, it's no wonder purists will almost always prefer it. Beyond that, lump charcoal has a lot of attractive qualities; it lights faster, burns hotter, and leaves very little ash compared to briquettes. Lump charcoal is also more responsive to oxygen, making it easier to control the fire's temperature if your grill has adjustable air vents.
Pros: Lights quickly, burns hotter, little ash production, easier temperature adjustment, all natural
Cons: Burns faster, more expensive, less consistent (bags can contain unusably small pieces of charcoal)
Briquettes are kind of like the fast food of charcoal; they're cheap, reliable, can be found on almost every corner, but you really don't want to know what's in them. Unlike the pure lump charcoal, briquettes are manufactured wood by-products compressed with additives that help them light and burn consistently. These additives do give off a chemical smell when lit, but allowing them to burn until covered with white ash before starting to cook should avoid any off-putting smells transferring to your food. Although they may not sound attractive, there are some good advantages to briquettes. They provide a more stable burn, maintaining a steady temperature for a longer period of time with less hand holding then lump charcoal.
Pros: Burns longer, easier to maintain consistent temperature, cheaper
Cons: Longer to light, chemical smell, large ash production
This is all just the tip of the iceberg. There are excellent resources out there to further fuel us charcoal nerds, but after many years manning the grill, I still can't pick a clear side in this epic battle. I've found lump charcoal superior when grilling, getting me cooking faster and letting me control the heat more easily, not to mention barely leaving any ashy mess to deal with at the end of the day. Briquettes have been my saving grace when smoking, allowing me to set it and forget it, burning for hours on end at the same temperature during the long cooks required for barbecue. If I find myself with one on hand and not the other, I don't sweat it, because at the end of the day they will both lead to great grilling or barbecue. So the ultimate champion is relative, but I'm betting a lot of you have your own two cents to throw into the ring, so by all means, go at it!