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grilling with homemade lump charcoalMake Charcoal at Home for the Best Barbeque
by Staff Writer

Almost everything tastes better when it is cooked outside over an open flame. I love the convenience of propane, but a wood or charcoal fire imparts an unmistakable touch of smoky flavor. Most Americans are familiar with bags of formed charcoal briquettes, but did you know that lump unprocessed charcoal is an available alternative? To be honest, I can’t detect a difference in taste between food cooked over briquettes or lump charcoal. If there's no detectable difference in taste, why pay a premium for lump charcoal or go through the hassle of making it yourself?

Charcoal briquettes are typically made using finely ground charcoal, sawdust, starches, coal, borax, and petroleum distillates, but ingredients vary by manufacturer. Starch is a binder that holds individual ingredients together and borax is used as a mold release. Sawdust helps the briquettes burn and imparts a smoky flavor. Any other ingredients are added as combustible filler or to simplify ignition. Harmful substances, along with lighter fluid, are said to burn off and not affect the safety or flavor of your food if you wait long enough. I don't intend to paint charcoal as a dangerous product -- but when given the opportunity, don’t we want to keep some of these things out of our food?

glowing homemade charcoal Charcoal is made by heating wood, which drives out moisture and gasses until carbon is the primary element remaining. Some gasses do remain in lump charcoal, but the vast majority have been driven out. Heat can be applied to the wood directly or indirectly; the trick is to stop the combustion process once the moisture and volatile gasses have been driven out but the carbon remains. The direct method is
accomplished by setting the wood on fire and then removing access to all air once the wood has burned sufficiently. In the indirect process, the wood is separated from the flames -- but not the heat -- of a wood or gas fire. The volatile gasses can be captured and circulated back into the flame box to prevent their release into the environment and to make the charring process more efficient.

When using lump charcoal, you will first notice that it doesn’t ignite as quickly or as easily as briquettes; this is because petroleum distillates and other chemicals have not been added. Consider using a wax, gas, or electric fireplace starter to get a few lumps going. Once a sufficient base is aglow, additional charcoal can be added over the top and spread out. Lump charcoal has a tendency to burn hotter and faster than briquettes, but the temperature can be controlled by restricting airflow.

I don’t know that producing natural additive-free lump charcoal is a viable backyard business, but it could be an opportunity for self-employment. While I currently have no plans to increase my production or attempt to market my homemade charcoal, there is something satisfying about making charcoal for family, friends, and myself. After all, when does a guy turn down a chance to ‘play’ with fire?