The UK charcoal ecosystem is teeming with products. However true actionable knowledge is a little harder to come by. In other words the ‘sale’ dominates the landscape. We want to bring things back to the charcoal basics: think facts, info, useful tips. Basically we want to empower the Big K Fam with all the deets to raise your UK charcoal IQ – so you can make better charcoal choices. Let’s get straight to it with a quick-fire charcoal FAQ. All facts, no filler peeps!
What is charcoal?
Ah yes this is indeed the pace to start. Essentially charcoal is a lightweight black carbon residue. When we burn this carbon residue, we obtain heat for cooking. Ok if you want to get a little more technical and show off your BBQ wisdom, charcoal is an amorphous carbon in the form of highly porous microcrystalline graphite. Pub quiz on smash!
How is charcoal made?
No need to get lost in the minutia here, so we’ll keep it brief. Charcoal is made by burning wood in a low-oxygen environment to remove impurities such as water. Once the process is complete we are left with pure char AKA charcoal.
Which woods are used to make charcoal?
The go-to woods are usually denser hardwoods, as denser wood produces higher carbon density in the charcoal. And a higher carbon density means a longer, hotter burn. The usual suspects are beech, birch, maple, oak, walnut and ash. You can also find more exotic options such as white quebracho and marabu. All the best bbq charcoal in the UK follows this formula more or less.
What kinds of bbq charcoal bags are there?
Again let’s strip away the fluff and give you the real. There are all kinds of Uk charcoals out there. However they usually fall under two main categories: lumpwood charcoal and charcoal briquettes.
What’s the difference between lumpwood charcoal and briquettes?
It all boils down to the production process. Charcoal briquettes are manufactured hard ‘blocks’ of charcoal fines or sawdust – technically any combustible biomass but ket’s keep things simple. Charcoal briquettes are made by either compressing a powder at high pressure, or by adding a liquid mixture to a mould and letting it dry. The latter usually contains binders such as vegetable starch or water. All charcoal briquettes have a uniform shape (determined by the type of mould) and a uniform density.
Lumpwood charcoal available in the UK is made by simply burning wood at high temperatures in an oxygen deprived environment. The pieces of charcoal form ‘naturally’ rather than being made in a mould. They have irregular shapes and varying carbon densities.
What is better – lumpwood or charcoal briquettes?
Stop thinking about best. So many people obsess on Google typing in ‘ best charcoal BBQ UK’ or ‘best BBQ charcoal UK’. But best is just a marketing myth. The reality is that it’s all about which charcoal better suits your needs. In other words best is a subjective concept.
Now, speaking generally here: bbq lumpwood charcoal lights easily and quickly, burning with a high temperature. However they usually burn down quicker than briquettes. So lumpwoods are perfect for quicker cooks such as steaks and burgers.
Briquettes often deliver a longer cook time than lumpwood charcoal. Plus they produce a cooler heat. This means that charcoal briquettes are super for indirect “low and slow” cooking, or closed appliance barbecues, Briquettes also give you more control over temperature and burn due to their uniform size and density. It’s also worth noting that bags of charcoal briquettes often take longer to light than lumpwood.
What is restaurant grade charcoal?
Another paragraph and another charcoal bag to explore. To cut to the chase, restaurant grade charcoal is simply charcoal that has been graded to meet a particular set of higher quality criteria. Think piece size and the carbon density of individual pieces. Basically it’s common sense that restaurants would prefer to use higher quality (and therefore performing) charcoal, hence the name.
How to light charcoal?
There are countless ways to light your charcoal, however the basic principles remain the same. Forget chewing the fat, let’s get the meat of the matter. You should be looking to create a pyramid or mound of charcoal. Basically stack you pieces on top of each other, leaving spaces where possible to help air circulate through the stack. More oxygen equals better combustion. Once completed, slip some natural firelighters or scrunched up balls of newspaper into the gaps. Then simply light the firelighters or news paper and let the flames do the rest.
How much charcoal should I use in my barbecue?
There’s no precise mathematical formula for this. Some people go by weight, others go by the volume. As we are trying to hit the broadest of generalisations, we will be going by piece number. As a general rule of thumb, the more charcoal used, the hotter your fire. Getting little more specific, you should be aiming for about 30 pieces of charcoal for small/ portable grills and about 55 to 80 pieces for large Kettleman and barrel grills. Also if the weather is cold and windy, you will need a little extra to compensate for the heat lost to the elements.
How should I arrange my charcoal?
What? You mean you just don’t plonk it in a pile? Well you can do that if you want. However there are few arrangements you should know. Ultimately your arrangement should vary depending on your cooking objectives. This is because your charcoal arrangement affects heat and how the letters behaves. Here are the two most basic arrangements that you need to know.
Direct heat cooking – simply spread your glowing hot charcoal in a flat and even pile across the base of your bbq. This flat uniform pile creates a constant source of direct heat. Then you simply cook your food directly above the pile.
Indirect heat cooking (2 zone) – just push all your hot charcoal to one side of your grill. This creates 2 zones for cooking. The space above the pile of charcoal is for hotter direct cooking. The space above the empty part of the grill is for lower temperature indirect heat cooking.
How to dispose of charcoal in the UK?
You have a few options depending on the type of charcoal used and the type of remnants left in your barbecue after you are finished . If you have used 100% natural lumpwood charcoal, you can use the ashes as a plant fertiliser. This is because charcoal ash improves the pH levels of the soil, attract microorganisms whilst simultaneously adding nutrients to the soil. Charcoal ash can also get rid of certain annoying pests on your plants! You can add leftover bigger pieces of 100% natural lumpwood charcoal to your compost heap. You can follow the points above for 100% natural compressed charcoal briquettes too. If you have used any instant light charcoals, or briquettes containing accelerants, you can dispose of the wastage by wrapping everything up in aluminium foil and pacing the wrapped packet in a non-combustible outdoor rubbish bin.
Can I burn charcoal is smoke control areas?
You can’t burn just any charcoal in smoke control areas. In fact, you can only burn charcoal that is specifically authorised for use in smoke control areas. This is usually indicated on the packaging of the charcoal itself or in the product description online. We have some amazing charcoal that is good to go in any smoke control area. Find out more about smoke control areas here.
Can I burn charcoal indoors?
Noooooooooooooooo! Please for the love of ribs, do not burn charcoal indoors, in vehicles, tents or campers – even if you have ventilation. Burning charcoal produces CO fumes that become harmful if they cannot escape into a large volume of open air.
Where to buy charcoal in the UK?
As the UK Charcoal scene is buzzing, you can find bbq charcoal bags all over the shop….literally. We’re talking local grocery stores, garden centres, DIY warehouses and food retailers. Now this is all awesome stuff, but perhaps you don’t have the time to pound the pavement. What is you had a cornucopia of charcoal at your fingertips without having to get up off the sofa? Now you do! Just head to bigkproducts.co.uk to find all the charcoal and BBQ goodies you could ever need. Big K is the authority on barbecue charcoal in the UK and our site proves it. It’s organised, easy to use and you can check out with all your charcoal with a few simple taps. We also offer free 48 hour delivery on all orders over £30 – no biggie. Just how we roll!
Can I find British Charcoal?
While many charcoals are still sourced from hardwoods overseas, the British charcoal scene is growing. There are many local producers and suppliers offering artisanal charcoals. Just get your Google on to find out more about bbq charcoal UK style.
Ok you amazing lot. We have fires to light and charcoal products to refine! We really hope this little FAQ has been useful and we’re sure that you will put your knowledge to the test on your next grill.
Take it easy!