Many of us run to the store and buy a bag of charcoal without even thinking about what they buy.
Buying the right charcoal can make a difference in the quality of your cooking.
The most sold charcoal is charcoal briquettes and to be totally honest the Kingsford brand is the top-selling brand. I use them most of the time myself.
History of Charcoal Briquettes
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The history of charcoal did not start with briquettes because they did not exist yet.
Briquettes were invented when Henry ford invited his wife’s cousin Edward Kingsford for a camping trip.
This trip also included Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison.
This camping trip also brought some business deals like thousands of acres timberland and a sawmill that produced wood for the cars Ford made.
Like any other mill, it produced a lot of waste material like stumps, branches, and a lot of sawdust.
Mr. ford who was always on the lookout to make money and not losing it tried to come up with a solution for all the waste.
Charcoal briquettes ingredients
He found a chemist by the name of Orin Stafford who invented a way to make fuel from sawdust and mill waste by combining it with tar and cornstarch. These are basically still the charcoal briquettes ingredients, although I am not sure about the tar. That is probably replaced with Sodium Nitrate.
Thomas Edison designed a factory for briquettes, next to the sawmill and this facility was run by Mr. Kingsford.
The production was larger than what they could sell to smokehouses for meat and fish, so they needed a new product that would use the charcoal briquettes.
In the mid-’30s of last century, Ford was selling a picnic kit that came with a portable grill and charcoal, but it was not the right time for that kind of outdoor recreation because of the recession.
BBQ at home in your backyard did not take of until after world war 2 and the economy picked up.
This was also thanks to the Weber grills that were invented in that era.
This leads to renaming the product to Kingsford Charcoal and it was sold in all the major supermarkets.
Briquettes are not charcoal
I can only conclude after doing all this reading that Briquettes are not actual charcoal.
They are a combination of some charcoal and ingredients like starch, sawdust and a chemical know as sodium nitrate to make them burn better.
I have to bring some nuances to my statement because some of the top pit-masters use charcoal briquettes to cook some killer meats
Manufacturing process of briquettes
Now its time to go get into how the briquettes are made. I guess you have been waiting for that.
Here is a video of “how its made”(link to channel) that explains it probably better than I can.
The charcoal and the other ingredients are thrown into a big paddle mixer and blended till it is a nice consistent blend.
At this time the moisture content is about 30-35%, something like your garden-soil.
Now it is time to add it to the press that looks like a rolling cupcake form.
This ensures that all briquettes are the same size.
The final step is to dry them in an oven that is about 275 degrees Fahrenheit for a few hours.
This sounds strange but is needed for the production process.
This brings back the moisture to about 5%.
Now they are heading to a bagging station or to a silo for bagging them later.
Naturally, this process is done under strict environmental regulations.
Why use briquettes
Briquettes are easy to use and burn very constant. This makes them great for longer cooking sessions in combination with wood-chips.
For grilling instead of slow cooking use a little more and wait till they are nice and grey colored for the optimum grill temperature.
Lump charcoal burns faster and hotter and has fewer ashes, but the temperature is harder to control at a steady temperature.
Please stay away from the so-called instant lighting briquettes!. Lighting charcoal is very easy to do and not exactly rocket science.
A few pieces of newspaper and a charcoal starter (or an electric one like these) will do the trick.
If you have a large enough charcoal grill use the two-zone grill setup to have a hot and a cooler zone on your grill.
This will give you a lot more options to grill your meat or veggies.
Eddie van Aken
Eddie van Aken has run his own full-service restaurant for many years. Before that, he worked as a grill and buffet cook in some of the mainstream restaurants. With his experience using professional kitchen equipment, he is able to write expert reviews. You can read more about Eddie van Aken here.