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Differences Between Wood and Charcoal Grilling – Ultimate Guide

Where I live, we love to barbeque! But when you go to the grocery store to buy charcoal, you have a lot of choices. So even though I have my favorites, I wondered about the differences between wood and charcoal.

All charcoal, whether wood or briquettes are heated without oxygen so they turn into charcoal without burning up. Char wood is made from natural hardwood or lumber scraps. Charcoal briquettes, on the other hand, are made from a combination of charcoal, coal, corn starch, sawdust & sodium nitrate.

But there’s a lot more to charcoal, BBQ, and grilling than just that, and there’s a lot of opinions out there.

So let’s answer some additional questions that often come up in the world of difference between wood and charcoal.

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What is the main difference between charcoal and wood?

When you go to buy charcoal, as I mentioned above you’ll see LOTS of choices.

Anything labeled charcoal will be either wood chunks that have been heated without oxygen and turned into carbon chunks or manufactured charcoal briquettes which are made, in part, by hardwood treated that same way.

Briquettes just have added fillers as I mentioned above: corn starch to bind it and sodium nitrate to help it burn better.

However, briquettes will leave more ash in the grill than hardwood charcoal due to all the added fillers. Some charcoal wood is sourced from renewable resources, but technically all trees are renewable, so that may not mean a whole lot unless your brand gets specific (ie: for every tree we chop, we plant 5 new ones).

Most hardwood lump charcoal will also say “all natural”, but it’s important to remember that “all natural” has no legal or “official” FDA definition, so it may not mean much.

I know from working at Whole Foods market over 20 years that “all natural” is basically just a marketing phrase and is up to the company what that really means.

Also, as I mentioned above, look for hardwood charcoal not made from lumber scraps (if you can find it).

Lumber scraps may include nails or wood glue, and could even just contain scraps of metal or plastic from the construction site; not what you want in your grill!

What are charcoal briquettes?

Charcoal briquettes, believe it or not, were created as a way to get rid of the sawdust and wood scraps at the Ford Motor Company’s plants in Detroit.

Thus Henry Ford went from paying to get rid of the waste to selling it and making a profit!

Technically the patent for charcoal briquettes was issued in 1897 to Ellsworth Zwoyer, but it was Henry Ford, with Thomas Edison and EB Kingsford who joined together about 100 years ago to get charcoal briquettes off the ground.

To make the briquette, they heat wood scraps, and sawdust without air to turn them into carbon.

They then pulverize them as add binders like corn starch or limestone, additives like sodium nitrate to improve burn, and sometimes add flavor components too.

Then they make a thick batter out of the mix and pour it into the molds and dry them.

Is hardwood charcoal better than charcoal briquettes?

Here you’ll get a lot of debate from grillers.

Those who prefer the all-natural hardwood charcoal will swear it has a less chemical taste and produces a more natural smoke flavor.

But some purists insist that charcoal briquettes cook more evenly and consistently producing better results with less monitoring.

Ultimately both are made from the same thing; wood that has been carbonized by heating without air.

Pros and cons of hardwood charcoal

  • Burns hotter but less consistently
  • You sometimes get a choice of wood type (which can change the flavor)
  • Typically has no additives
  • Could be made from lumber scraps (which could have nails or glue)

Pros and cons of charcoal briquettes

  • Consistent burn
  • Create more ash after burning
  • Added chemicals and additives and possible negative affects on flavor

Can I use wood instead of charcoal?

When looking to buy charcoal, you’ll also just see wood chunks (often labeled by type of wood: hickory, mesquite, etc).

These have not been turned into charcoal and are probably better for smoking meats like brisket than just grilling.

To use for grilling you’ll have to start a fire or use lighter fluid. Plain wood chunks will also burn a little faster than charcoal. But you’ll get better smoke flavor because the wood is still intact.

That being said, charcoal (both natural wood and briquette) burns hotter, cleaner, and more evenly than just chunks of plain wood which is why grillers typically prefer it.

If you’re going to burn plain wood in your BBQ, stick to hardwoods.

Many softer kinds of wood, like pine, have a resin gets released when cooking and imparts a bad flavor to your food. Wood from fruit trees such as cherry adds just a hint of sweetness (great for lamb or pork).

Pecan or walnut is perfect for a rich, deep flavor. But mesquite, hickory, or oak are the common cooking woods. They too create a great flavor.

The downside to just cooking with wood is that you just want a little smokiness.  Too much smoke and the smoke flavor will overpower everything else.

That’s why smoke masters like Aaron Franklin often recommend smoking for 4 hours and then continue cooking with just low heat.

Thus you may find the best method is adding some wood chunks or chips to your charcoal.

What is Binchōtan?

Bintochotan, or binchō-tan, is a type of charcoal that has been used in Japan for hundreds of years.

It is sometimes labeled as white charcoal. Binchōtan is made from oak trees and is a type of lump charcoal or hardwood charcoal and not a manufactured briquette.

It is harder than traditional black charcoal and is preferred by many grillers who can find it, because it produces virtually no flame or smoke but delivers incredibly consistent high heat.

It can burn up to a whopping 2,200° and can burn for hours. Thus if you plan to use bintochotan, a pit in the ground would be your best bet to contain the heat.

Grilling with coconut charcoal

Since the almighty coconut is everywhere these days (oil, coffee creamer, water, etc), it may as well get in on barbeque too.

Coconut charcoal is BBQ briquettes made from coconut shells that have been compressed. Many brands claim to be GMO-free and organic, but then most trees used to make lump hardwood charcoal are not likely to be genetically modified (but could be sprayed with pesticides).

However, the real benefits are that it burns up to 3 times longer and hotter than standard charcoal.

Because of that, manufacturers of coconut charcoal recommend using a lot less charcoal to BBQ with than you would other types of charcoal. They also have a nice balance between not enough smoke and too much.

Cocourth, Coco Ala, Green Eco, and Coshell are some of the better-known brands, but as they gain popularity, you can expect to see the big brands (Cowboy, which is really Duraflame, or Kingsford get in on the action).

Is cooking with wood healthier than charcoal?

Unfortunately, there are some downsides to grilling, and purely from a health standpoint, using a propane grill is probably better.

When excess fat the meat you’re grilling drips onto the hot coals below, smoke gets released.

That smoke contains a chemical called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). In addition, the outside of the meat gets blackened with a chemical called heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

Both PAHs and HCAs are known carcinogens.

In a study by the National Institutes of Health, they found that a “weekly consumption of . . . 1 or more servings of grilled red meat” were “associated with an approximately 50% increased risk of developing advanced prostate cancer”.

But they also point out the risk is also the same for well-done red meat and processed meat in general.

One question a lot of people have is how safe propane grills are.

Because really, you’re at a grill with an open flame with a huge gas tank nearby! I decided to check out the safety concerns and see how legit they were, and I wrote a quick article which explores that question in detail, including the 2 most common issues that could lead to a propane tank exploding.

So just click the link to check it out!

Does charcoal burn longer than wood?

Charcoal briquettes, because of their nature of being made from sawdust and other fillers, tend to burn faster than wood. Thus typically with briquettes, you have to add more briquettes more frequently than cooking with wood.

Which is hotter charcoal or wood?

Charcoal definitely burns hotter than plain wood.

In fact, charcoal briquettes typically burn almost twice as hot as regular wood. Lump hardwood charcoal, however, tends to burn hotter than charcoal briquettes.

Lump hardwood charcoal typically burns around 1000°, whereas briquettes burn between 700-800°.

What about grilling with wood pellets?

Pellets have come into fashion for grilling and smoking over the past few years.

In a way, they offer the best of all worlds, the convenience of turn-the-knob propane grills and genuine wood smoke and flavor.

Pellets are typically made from sawdust-like briquettes, but most often are sourced from recycled hardwood, so they are seen as more environmentally friendly than conventional briquettes.

They most often don’t have any of the additives typically found in charcoal briquettes.

They do not, however, work in just any grills, so to use pellets for your barbeque setup, you’ll need to buy a pellet grill or smoker.

These pellet grills typically allow you to set specific temperatures in 5-degree increments. They just plug into the wall for power and then heat the pellets. They cook incredibly evenly and the preheat fast; in as little as 15 minutes.

Pellets come in many different flavors:

  • Hickory
  • Pecan
  • Apple
  • Alder
  • Cherry
  • Mesquite
  • Maple

Pellet flavors can be mixed or swapped out in just a few minutes.

A 20-pound bag will last several meals, using about 1/2 pound of pellets an hour as a smoker or about 2-1/2 pounds an hour as a grill.

How does propane grilling compare to wood or charcoal?

This is where the debate really heats up.

Make no mistake, there’s plenty of debate between BBQers on lump hardwood, pellet, or briquette. But the real debate is often between gas and everything else.

The pros of propane?

  • Heats up quickly
  • Easy to set and maintain a specific temperature
  • Easy to throw a few things on the grill for a quick meal

The downsides are most propane grills don’t get as hot as wood or charcoal briquettes. Most propane grills get around 600°, a relatively low temperature compared to wood charcoal getting up to around 1000° or briquettes getting up around 700-800°.

They also don’t impart any smoke flavor whatsoever.

With charcoal or wood, you can also get the fire going and then spread the briquettes or chunks around creating a lot of space where the food will get that direct heat. With propane grills, the heat is largely over the burners.

Personally, I have a 3-stage grill that I love.

One compartment is propane, one is for charcoal and then there’s a smoker attachment to the side of the charcoal grill. That gives me all the flexibility I need depending on what I’m cooking and how much time I have.

So let’s review the . . .

11 Important Differences Between Wood and Charcoal

1. Charcoal briquettes are made mostly from sawdust and fillers like borax, limestone, or cornstarch

2. Lump hardwood charcoal burns hotter than charcoal briquettes

3. Lump hardwood burns longer than charcoal briquettes

4. Charcoal briquettes create significantly more ash than wood and require more frequent cleanups

5. Japanese binchō-tan (white charcoal) burns hotter than anything else; up to 2000°

6. Charcoal briquettes burn more consistently and evenly than wood

7. Charcoal briquettes are typically made with chemical additives like sodium nitrate

8. Some lump hardwood charcoal, however, is made from lumber scraps which could be treated or even contain glue or nails

9. Henry Ford, in conjunction with Thomas Edison and EB Kingsford, popularized what we know today as charcoal briquettes.

10. Both briquette and lump hardwood charcoal are made by heating wood without oxygen in a process that turns the wood into carbon.

11. Cooking exclusively with plain wood often imparts too much smoke flavor into the food. Thus, many grill-masters, prefer to add wood chunks or chips to lump hardwood charcoal or charcoal briquettes to balance heat and smoke.

Final Thoughts

There are some definite advantages to using charcoal (either briquettes or lump wood charcoal) when barbequing at your grill.

Charcoal reaches a high temperature and burns for an extended amount of time.

Because charcoal is compressed, it also releases steam as it heats up. Then as the meat starts to char and the fat renders and then drips on the charcoal, steam (and possible carcinogens as I got into above) gets released and flavors the food.

Generally speaking, the char on the outside of your meat is superior to plain wood or propane grilling too.

But charcoal generates a lot more ash requiring frequent cleaning of your grill.

You also have hot embers burning for a long time delaying cleanup or making it a bit hazardous.

Compared to propane, grilling with wood or charcoal also makes temperature control a lot harder to maintain.

Get ALL my Top Recommendations on Grills, Smokers, and BBQ Accessories with descriptions and direct links for easy browsing!

Jeff Campbell