Charcoal: Everything You Need to Know

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 28, 2022

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Charcoal is a light, black residue, consisting of carbon and any remaining ash, obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents from animal and vegetation substances. Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood or other substances in the absence of oxygen.

Charcoal is a material made by heating wood without oxygen, which produces carbon. It’s lightweight and porous, making it perfect for grilling food. It’s also used in many products like toothpaste and cosmetics.

In this article, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about charcoal, including its uses, history, and how it’s made.

What is charcoal

Charcoal: More Than Just a Black Solid Material

Charcoal is a black, lightweight, and solid material that is produced by strongly heating wood in minimal oxygen to remove all water and volatile constituents. The process of producing charcoal involves heating wood to a high temperature, which removes all the moisture and volatile compounds, leaving behind a carbon-rich solid material. This material is then crushed into small pieces to create charcoal.

The Production Process of Charcoal

The production of charcoal begins with picking the right type of wood. The wood is then placed in a clay or brick kiln, which is designed to allow the flow of incoming air. The kiln is then covered with a layer of ash to limit the amount of oxygen that enters the area. The wood is then heated to a high temperature, which causes the volatile compounds to be removed from the wood. The remaining carbon-rich material is then crushed into small pieces to create charcoal.

The Different Forms and Uses of Charcoal

Charcoal comes in a variety of forms, including lump charcoal, briquettes, and activated charcoal. Each type of charcoal has its own unique properties and uses. Some of the most common uses of charcoal include:

  • Cooking: Charcoal is a traditional fuel source for cooking, and it is still used in many restaurants and homes today.
  • Energy: Charcoal can be used as a fuel source for heating homes and powering vehicles.
  • Ground improvement: Charcoal can be added to soil to improve its quality and allow for better water and nutrient flow.
  • Health benefits: Activated charcoal is used in many health products to remove toxins from the body.

The Benefits and Negative Effects of Charcoal

Charcoal has a number of benefits, including:

  • Lightweight: Charcoal is a lightweight material, which makes it easy to transport and use.
  • High energy level: Charcoal has a high energy level, which makes it a good fuel source.
  • Environmental sustainability: Charcoal is a renewable resource, and its production process is less damaging to the environment than other fuel sources.

However, there are also some negative effects of using charcoal, including:

  • Limited material: Charcoal is a limited resource, and its production requires a large amount of wood.
  • Complex production process: The production process of charcoal is complex and requires a lot of work.
  • Possible negative health effects: Charcoal can release harmful chemicals when burned, which can have negative effects on health.

The Importance of Learning and Understanding Charcoal

Learning about charcoal is important for a number of reasons, including:

  • Improving cooking skills: Understanding how to use charcoal for cooking can help improve the quality of food.
  • Environmental sustainability: Learning about charcoal can help individuals make more sustainable choices when it comes to fuel sources.
  • Better understanding of history: Charcoal has been used for thousands of years, and learning about its history can provide a better understanding of the past.

Types of Charcoal Fuel You Should Know

Charcoal smokers rarely differ, except perhaps when it comes to their fuel source. Believe it or not, there are different types of charcoal out there that offer different benefits. The following is a list of different types of charcoal that you can use to power your smoker.

Lump Charcoal

Lump charcoal is commonly referred to as “natural charcoal” because many believe that it’s the first type of charcoal to be discovered by man. It’s made by heating logs in a kiln, which is best described as an enclosed cave. This is arguably the cleanest type of charcoal there is because it’s binder-free. This makes it a favorite among environmentally conscious consumers. It’s worth noting here that lump charcoal has an uneven burn that starts out hot but gets cold again. As a result, it tends to burn out quicker than other types of charcoal, and it requires a lot more attention.


As you may have guessed from the name, this type of charcoal originates from Japan. Its appearance is like that of tree branches and this is due to the fact that it’s made from a type of oak called Ubamegashi. It’s a clean source of energy that burns pure without overpowering the meat with a woody flavor. It’s on the pricey side because it’s expensive to produce and it takes a while to heat up. For best results be sure to use an electric lighter or a blow torch and maybe the coal will light up in 35 minutes. After that, you can leave it to do its thing. This type of charcoal offers a slow and steady heat for a long period of time.

Coconut Shell

Coconut shell charcoal is very popular in Southeast Asia and Polynesia where there’s always been an abundance of coconut trees. It offers a quick and efficient burn but without the exorbitant price tag. Nowadays, it’s mostly used in hibachi restaurants and you need a bunch of coconut shells just to get the fire started.


Briquettes are a type of charcoal that has been treated so that it burns evenly and strongly over a long period of time. To light them up quickly though, you need to ignite them with lighter fluid. These come highly recommended for use on smokers and grills because they’re affordable and easy to access than the other options. However, we’d be remiss to not mention that this type of charcoal has a very powerful aroma that can impart an unusual taste in meat. Some say that it contains harmful chemicals too, which may cause health defects in the body over time. It’s best to do your research here and find out the facts for yourself as we can’t really go into detail on it here.

Also read: these are the best charcoal briquettes to use for the BBQ

The Origins and Evolution of Charcoal Making

  • Charcoal dates back to ancient times when cavemen used it as a pigment for drawing on the walls of caves.
  • Around 4000 BC, people discovered that a piece of ore fell into a charcoal fire and began to ooze metal, marking the beginning of using charcoal as a firing fuel.
  • Charcoal was generally produced by piling wood in a conical shape and covering it with turf to create a central opening or shaft. The pile was then moistened and lit from the bottom, and the operation begun gradually outward.

Medieval Times: Charcoal for Iron Production

  • Charcoal became a major fuel for iron production in the Middle Ages, and kilns were built near mountains to cut down on transportation costs.
  • The process of making charcoal involved piling billets of wood in a conical shape and covering them with turf. The ends of the openings were left to admit air, and the pile was then lit from the bottom.
  • The success of the operation depended on a steady supply of small wood pieces, which were easily obtained from the abundant forests of the time.

Modern Times: Charcoal as a Substitute for Coal

  • With the increasing scarcity of wood and the switch to coal as a fuel, charcoal production began to decline in the 19th century.
  • However, charcoal is still widely considered the best way to provide heat for delicate operations such as cooking and smoking.
  • In the 20th century, charcoal making was popularized as a local industry in the American West, and the process was refined by people like Ellsworth B. Zwoyer, who invented the modern charcoal briquette.
  • Today, charcoal is produced mainly from sawdust and other byproducts, and yields a rapid and steady heat that is popular among grillers and chefs alike.

Why Charcoal is the Preferred Fuel for Grilling

Grillers and chefs love using charcoal because it provides a unique flavor to food that other cooking methods can’t replicate. When grilled over charcoal, food takes on a smoky flavor that adds an authentic touch to any dish. This traditional method of cooking with natural fuel is associated with great taste and is preferred by numerous chefs.

Offers a Variety of Grilling Methods

Charcoal grilling offers a variety of means to cook your food. The two main types of charcoal are lump charcoal and briquettes. Lump charcoal is made from natural wood and produces excellent heat, while briquettes are made from compressed sawdust and offer a more convenient supply. Ultimately, the choice between the two types of charcoal is a personal decision, but both offer a great variety of grilling methods.

Provides Adjustable Heat and Temperature

Charcoal grills are ideal for cooking steak or any other type of meat because they provide adjustable heat and temperature. With a charcoal grill, you can control the temperature by adjusting the amount of charcoal used and the distance between the food and the heat source. This means that you can cook your food to perfection, whether you prefer it rare, medium, or well-done.

Relatively Inexpensive and Convenient

Charcoal grills are relatively inexpensive and convenient to use. Unlike propane tanks or gas grills, charcoal is readily available and can be ted up quickly. Charcoal grills are also easy to light and tend to cook food more quickly than other grilling methods.

Environmentally Sustainable

Using charcoal for grilling is an environmentally sustainable option. Unlike propane or gas grills, charcoal is made from natural wood and produces less carbon emissions. Additionally, charcoal is entirely biodegradable and can be disposed of easily.

Grilling with Charcoal: A Beginner’s Guide to Mastering the Art

When it comes to grilling with charcoal, the type of charcoal you use can make all the difference. Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing your charcoal:

  • Natural lump charcoal is made from pure wood and produces less ash than briquettes. It’s worth the extra cost if you want a pure grilling experience.
  • Briquettes are made from compressed charcoal and other materials, like sawdust and coal. They burn longer and more evenly than natural lump charcoal, but they also produce more ash.
  • Charcoal sticks are great for quick grilling sessions, but they burn faster and require more control to prevent burning your food.

Preparing Your Charcoal

Before you start grilling, you need to prepare your charcoal. Here are some methods to consider:

  • The direct method involves pouring your charcoal into a pile and lighting it. This is great for hot and fast cooking, like burgers and hot dogs.
  • The indirect method involves placing your charcoal on one side of the grill and your food on the other. This is great for longer cooking times, like ribs and brisket.
  • The chimney method involves using a wire chimney to light your charcoal. This is a quick and easy way to get your charcoal hot and ready to grill.

Grilling Techniques

Grilling with charcoal requires different techniques than grilling with gas. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Use the right amount of charcoal. Too little and your food won’t cook evenly, too much and your food will burn.
  • Control the heat by adjusting the air vents on your grill. More air means hotter coals, less air means cooler coals.
  • Turn your food only once. Flipping it too much can cause it to become tough.
  • Use different shapes of charcoal to find what works best for you. Round charcoal is great for direct grilling, while rectangular charcoal is great for indirect grilling.

Grilling Different Foods

Grilling with charcoal can produce great results for all types of foods. Here are some tips for grilling different types of foods:

  • For tough cuts of meat, like brisket, use the indirect method and cook low and slow.
  • For delicate foods, like fish, use the direct method and cook quickly over hot coals.
  • For vegetables, use the indirect method and cook until they are tender and lightly charred.

Learning to Grill with Charcoal

Grilling with charcoal takes practice, but with the right equipment and techniques, anyone can master it. Here are some tips for learning to grill with charcoal:

  • Invest in a good quality grill that is equipped for charcoal grilling.
  • Start with simple recipes and work your way up to more complex ones.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with different types of charcoal and grilling methods.
  • Join a community of charcoal grilling fans to learn from others and share your own experiences.

From Wood to Charcoal: The Art of Production

  • Charcoal production has been around for centuries, and traditional methods involve using kilns made of brick or soil.
  • Wood is placed inside the kiln and set on fire, then the kiln is plugged to prevent air from entering.
  • The wood transforms into charcoal as it gets heated in the absence of oxygen.
  • This method requires a good supply of wood and is highly inefficient, producing low output and a lot of ash.

Modern Methods

  • Modern charcoal production involves the use of steel kilns equipped with additional parts for better control of the process.
  • The main difference between traditional and modern methods is the use of metal kilns, which allows for a more efficient and quick production process.
  • The starting material is usually small pieces of wood, and the kiln is designed in a way that allows for a good flow of air and water to control the temperature and prevent the production of low-quality charcoal.
  • The output is higher, and the product is of better quality, containing higher energy and releasing less ash.

Types of Charcoal Production

  • The two main types of charcoal production are partial and complete pyrolysis.
  • Partial pyrolysis involves heating the wood to a temperature of around 300-400°C, resulting in the production of charcoal and other by-products like tar and gas.
  • Complete pyrolysis involves heating the wood to a temperature of around 700-800°C, resulting in the production of entirely charcoal.
  • The type of charcoal produced depends on the starting material and the temperature used during the process.

The Importance of Efficiency and Sustainability

  • Charcoal production requires a good supply of wood, which can be difficult to come by in some parts of the world.
  • It’s important to consider the efficiency and sustainability of the production process to ensure a steady supply of charcoal without harming the environment.
  • Modern production methods allow for a more efficient use of wood and a better control of the process, resulting in a more sustainable output.
  • Some producers also employ the use of waste materials like coconut shells or sawdust to produce charcoal, making it a highly sustainable and eco-friendly product.

Charcoal: More Than Just a Fuel

Charcoal comes in a variety of types, each with its own unique properties and uses. Here are some of the most common types of charcoal and their uses:

  • Lump Charcoal: This natural charcoal is made by burning wood in the absence of oxygen. It burns hotter and faster than briquettes and is ideal for grilling burgers and other meats.
  • Briquettes: These are made from compressed sawdust and other wood byproducts. They burn longer and more consistently than lump charcoal and are great for slow-cooking.
  • Activated Charcoal: This type of charcoal has been treated with oxygen to open up millions of tiny pores between the carbon atoms. It is used to improve the quality of air and water and is also used in medicine to treat poisoning.

Multiple Applications of Charcoal

Charcoal has multiple applications beyond just fuel. Here are some of the different uses of charcoal:

  • Cooking: Charcoal is a popular fuel for outdoor cooking, especially for grilling burgers and other meats.
  • Water Filtration: Activated charcoal is used to filter impurities from water, making it safe to drink.
  • Air Purification: Charcoal is used in air purifiers to remove pollutants and improve indoor air quality.
  • Art: Charcoal is a popular medium for drawing and sketching.

Charcoal: An Environmentally Friendly Choice

Charcoal is a type of fuel that is produced by burning wood in the absence of oxygen. This process, known as pyrolysis, produces a natural and excellent source of energy that is commonly used for barbecues and grilling.

How is Charcoal Produced?

Charcoal is produced by burning wood in a controlled environment. The wood is burned at a high temperature, which causes it to break down into its basic compounds. The resulting charcoal is then cooled and packaged for use.

Traditional Charcoal vs. Lump Charcoal

There are two types of charcoal commonly found on the market: traditional charcoal and lump charcoal. Traditional charcoal is produced by burning wood in a controlled environment, while lump charcoal is produced by burning wood in a completely natural and uncontrolled environment. Lump charcoal is considered to be the superior choice, as it emits fewer emissions and is more environmentally friendly.

Charcoal vs. Gas Grills

When it comes to grilling, there is a lot of debate about whether charcoal or gas is the better choice. While gas grills are convenient and require less preparation time, charcoal grills offer a unique and legendary flavor that cannot be replicated. Additionally, charcoal grills are more environmentally friendly, as they emit fewer carbon emissions than propane.

The Environmental Sustainability of Charcoal

Contrary to popular belief, charcoal can be an environmentally sustainable choice. When companies harvest trees from an area they manage sustainably, they’ll replenish the area with new trees after producing the charcoal. This means that growing new trees offsets the carbon emissions that come from burning charcoal. Additionally, lump charcoal emits fewer emissions than traditional charcoal, making it an even better choice for those who want to be environmentally neutral.

The Good News About Charcoal

There is plenty of good news when it comes to charcoal. Here are some of the benefits of using charcoal for grilling:

  • Charcoal emits fewer carbon emissions than propane
  • Lump charcoal emits fewer emissions than traditional charcoal
  • Charcoal grills offer a unique and legendary flavor
  • Charcoal is produced from trees, which can be sustainably managed


So, charcoal is a black solid material produced by burning wood without much oxygen. It’s used for cooking, heating, and improving soil quality. It’s a renewable resource, but it’s a complex production process that involves burning wood and removing water and volatile compounds. So, don’t be afraid to try it – you might just like it!

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.