In the U.S., briquet charcoal is more commonly used than lump charcoal for grilling steak and other food. Lump charcoal is 100% wood and is almost always hardwood, like hickory, mesquite and oak. On the other hand, briquet charcoal is not 100% wood and is made usually with soft wood, so myths and confusion has arisen about the uses and ingredients of briquet charcoal. This blog explains the basics of briquet charcoal.
Kingsford Brand Charcoal Briquets are the best selling briquets in the US, so Kingsford briquet charcoal will be explained.
According to a Kingsford form letter sent in August, 2000, Kingsford contains the following ingredients:
- wood char
- mineral char
- mineral carbon
- sodium borate
- sodium nitrate
There so many ingredients because the addition of each requires another to offset its negative affect. For example, in order to make the briquets easier to light, sodium nitrate is added. Then limestone is added so that, when the briquettes burn, they have the typical light-ash color.
The purpose of each ingredient is as follows:
- wood char: for heat
- mineral char: for heat
- mineral carbon: for heat
- limestone: for the light-ash color
- starch: for binding the ingredients
- sodium borate (borax): for separating from briquet mold
- sodium nitrate: for speeding ignition
- sawdust: for speeding ignition
Most briquets are made of scraps of soft wood that are byproducts from wood and paper processing. They include scraps such as tree branches, tree bark, and sawdust. The most commonly used woods are fir, cedar, alder and other soft woods that are plentiful in the regions where the briquets are manufactured.
Some newer briquet charcoal contains hardwood specks, such as hickory and mesquite. However, these hardwood ingredients are in addition to the basic ingredients, including the soft woods, and are used to provide a hardwood aroma.
Some claim that Kingsford briquets have an unpleasant odor, especially when they are first lit. This has led many to conclude that the briquets may contain petroleum products.
However, an investigation has been determined that neither Kingsford nor any other known commercial brand contains any petroleum products.
Briquet and lump charcoal have different ingredients and different uses.
Briquet charcoal burns at a lower temperature than lump charcoal, and, if properly lit, it imparts no additional layer of flavor to grilled steak or other food. Therefore, briquets should be used when no distinct smoky flavor is desired, so it is ideal for grilling hamburgers, hot dogs and similar food.
Lump charcoal burns at a higher temperature than briquet charcoal, and, if properly lit, it imparts a distinct smoky layer of flavor to grilled stead and other food. Therefore, lump charcoal should be used when a distinct smoky flavor is desired, so it is ideal for grilling high-quality steak and other meats.
No charcoal should be lit with liquid lighter fluid, since it may impart a strong petroleum smell which will ruin the taste of any grilled steak or other food. Instead, charcoal should be lit with a chimney.
Around 1915, Henry Ford was using large amounts of wood to manufacture automobiles. Ford operated a sawmill in the forests around Iron Mountain, Michigan to make the wooden parts, so there were piles of wood scraps.
Ford learned of a process, which had been developed and patented by Orin F. Stafford, which involved chipping wood into small pieces, converting them into charcoal, grinding the charcoal into powder, adding a binder and compressing the mix into the now-familiar, pillow-shaped briquets.
By 1921, a charcoal-making plant was in full operation.
According to the Kingsford website in 2000:
E. G. Kingsford, a lumberman who owned one of Ford's earliest automobile sales agencies and was distantly related, briefly served as manager of the briquette operation. A company town was built nearby and named Kingsford. In 1951, an investment group bought the plant, renamed the business the Kingsford Chemical Company, and took over operations. Its successor, The Kingsford Products Company, was acquired by The Clorox Company of Oakland, California, in 1973.
Today, KINGSFORD charcoal is manufactured from wood charcoal, anthracite coal, mineral charcoal, starch, sodium nitrate, limestone, sawdust, and borax. The wood and other high-carbon materials are heated in special ovens with little or no air. This process removes water, nitrogen and other elements, leaving almost pure carbon.
The briquettes do not contain petroleum or any petroleum by-products. KINGSFORD charcoal briquettes with mesquite contain the same high-quality ingredients as KINGSFORD, but with the addition of real mesquite wood throughout.
Manufacturing briquettes begins with preparing the wood charcoal using one of the following methods:Retort processing -- Waste wood is processed through a large furnace with multiple hearths (called a retort) in a controlled-oxygen atmosphere. The wood is progressively charred as it drops from one hearth to the next.
Kiln processing -- The waste wood is cut into slabs and stacked in batches in a kiln that chars the wood in a controlled-oxygen atmosphere.
Once the wood charcoal is prepared, it is crushed and combined with the other ingredients, formed into pillow-shaped briquettes and dried. The advantage of using charcoal over wood is that charcoal burns hotter with less smoke. [Editor's note: This last sentence is true only when briquets are compared with softwood, but briquets do not burn nearly as hot as lump charcoal.]
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