It’s not unusual to hear people mistakenly refer to charcoal as coal. In fact, one might think that they are the same. However, they’re not, and interchanging one for another will cause you more harm than good.
Charcoal vs Coal
Coal is a natural mineral that forms over the span of millions of years while charcoal is a manufactured product created from wood. While coal in its natural state is never used alone in a barbeque or smoker, it is commonly added to charcoal briquettes to increase the energy density.
Both of these are used for creating heat, although for different purposes. First, let’s see how each of these types of carbon compounds is created, and then we’ll explain what they’re best used for.
What Is Charcoal?
Charcoal is carbon that is left after water and other volatile compounds are burnt off from wood (or any combustible biomass) in a low oxygen environment. This process known as pyrolysis is usually done in silos or specialised charcoal kiln and can take days to complete.
The lack of oxygen prevents the charcoal for combusting during this process which in turn prevents it from burning to ashes.
This process results in a much more energy dense fuel, charcoal, that is around a quarter of original weight.
Due to the high energy density, lump charcoal burns a lot cleaner with less smoke and much hotter than wood chunks.
Lump Charcoal vs Briquettes
Avid charcoal BBQ fans can be divided into two categories. One uses lumps and the other prefers briquettes. If you’re new to using charcoal, this might be confusing. Here’s a quick explanation of how these two fuel sources differ one from another.
Lump is charcoal in its truest form. It’s created by the previously mentioned process without any additives.
Lump charcoal is often favoured over briquettes because it usually burns hotter and cleaner. This also means that you will likely use them up a lot quicker compared to briquettes.
Due to the irregularity in shape and size of lump charcoal, it’s quite often that it will not fully carbonize when it is made. You will often be able to see bits of pieces that still have some resemblance to the wood. Some people in fact appreciate the extra of wood-fire flavour from this.
Briquettes, on the other hand, are made of sawdust, leftover wood and anthracite. Binders and additives are added during the manufacturing process to hold the material together and make it easier to light. It will then go through a very similar process to lump charcoal, where it is heated to high temperatures in a low oxygen environment.
The nice thing about briquettes is that they are very consistent in size and burn slower too. That also makes them a more affordable fuel source than lumps.
Of course, briquettes are not without downsides. I haven’t noticed this myself, but some people claim that the additives may emanate a specific type of smell when it is first ignited. However, if you let them burn to white ash before cooking, your food will taste the same.
While briquettes will burn a lot more steadier than lump charcoal, don’t expect it to reach temperatures as high as lumps can. Another thing that doesn’t go in favour of briquettes it leaves behind more ash after the cook.
What Is Coal?
Coal is a black sedimentary rock made mostly of carbon. Like other fossil fuels, coal is formed from dead vegetation over a period of millions of years. This extremely long creating process is what makes it a nonrenewable resource.
The creation of coal started during the Carboniferous period, which is late Paleozoic (for all of you science nerds out there).
During that time, most of Earth was covered with dense green forests. As the sea frequently flooded the land, it created mud. Dead plants and algae got buried under the layers of mud, unable to biodegrade or oxidise. The low oxygen environment causes anaerobic bacteria to start decomposing the matter, and converting it into peat.
Deeply buried (we’re talking at least 4 km of depth) the layer of peat eventually starts to transform into lignite, which is the coal of the lowest quality. As this process continues and pressure and temperature increase, higher quality coals form.
Today, coal fuels many power plants that are responsible for the majority of our electricity generation and it plays a vital role in manufacturing steel.
With that said, some types of coal emanate way more heat than charcoal. It is not secret that many barbeque charcoal manufacturers will add anthracite, a pure form of coal with other biomass into their mix to increase the energy density of charcoal briquettes.
What About Hot Coal?
Hot coal is the glowing ember that remains after a charcoal or wood fire dies down. Embers are almost as hot as the fire and can almost always burst back into flames when it gets more airflow.
As they are a much more consistent heat source compared to the open flames, you often want to wait for your wood or charcoal to burn down to ember before cooking on it.
The colour of embers depends on how hot they are. It starts red and as it burns it becomes orange. As the embers burn through, they slowly turn into ashes.
You should always pour the water on them after you are done cooking to prevent any possible fire rekindling.
Both coal and charcoal are carbon compounds, but that’s where the similarity ends. One is created by nature, while the other is made by our hand. Besides that, they differ in purpose, cost and the amount of heat they produce.
For most of us, all we need to remember is the next time you are going to fire up your charcoal grill, make sure you get charcoal and not coal.