The first, and perhaps most important question you can ask yourself when you're thinking about grilling with charcoal is: Do I use hardwood lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes?
There are two main differences between hardwood lump (which I’ll call lump from now on) and briquettes (briqs from now on): burn time and heat output. Here's some useful info to help you decide between the two...
Lump is made the old fashioned way – by slowly exposing pieces of hardwood to high heat in a low oxygen environment (that's technical jargon for a big, covered pit in the ground or metal or masonary chamber/kiln) until all the moisture, sap, and natural chemicals are driven out and you’re left with little more than carbon. It burns hotter, but has shorter burn time. I feel that lump charcoal also responds to changes in your air flow more quickly (more about that in the cooking sections). It also contains no additives or fillers and leaves less ash.
Briqs are made from left over wood and saw dust that’s burnt down (just like lump), but somewhere in the process binders (normally a starch, but not always) are added to hold everything together into those neat little roundish-squarish blocks.
Briqs burn longer than but not has hot as lump. Briqs may include other chunky bits too, like various wood chips or other flavor enhancers. Many briqs also have lighter fluid and other chemicals added to them to make starting easier, so that plus binders means your burning more than just wood or flavor enhancing bits. Mind you the binders are not going to poison you, but you taste what you burn. So remember that when you choose your briqs.
I personally prefer lump. I find I get better heat control and more smoke (and hence more smokey flavors) from lump, it's also generally cheaper than briqs. Since most briqs have ignition and burning aids added in, I can smell the additives as I cook and sometimes even taste it in lighter foods like fish or chicken. But I'm also not averse to using a quick briq at a picnic at a State Park or the like. There's something to be said for easy lighting sometimes.
The best advice I can give is consider three things when making your choice:
- What you're going to grill
- Where you're going to be grilling, and...
- How long you have to cook it
The answers to these questions should make it clear with type of charcoal would be the best pick for your for your next round of grilling.