Why does coal vary so much? It's processed, burnt wood. I mean, seriously.
Well, there are a lot of reasons that you may find different prices on bags of coals, and different actual types of coals. Aside from the obvious explanation (different types of wood), there are two distinctly different shapes of coals: briquettes and lump charcoal.
Briquettes are what most of us use (and chances are, the brand most of us use begins with a K). These are compacted into a square shape, and tend to burn with a fairly high ash rate. Ash isn't exactly preferable, but the long burn time from briquettes is what makes them popular. They are also generally less expensive than lump chacoal.
Charcoal briquettes are, however, made with additives, not only wood. Some of these additives do not burn as easily as the bulk of the coals, therefore contributing no heat. For some of us, this is fine, as serious barbecuers aren't necessarily looking for high heat.
For serious barbecuing, avoid the "quick light" charcoal briquettes. These burn way too quickly. Barbecuing is not a fast paced hobby, so allow yourself time to light real coals.
Lump coals tend to be a bit more expensive, and they look much more rough and rustic. Lump coals literally look like burnt chunks of wood, and leave enough black on your hands that you could draw a mural with them. They tend to burn hotter and cleaner, allowing a more pure flavor to be infused in your barbecue from your wood chips or chunks rather than from the coals themselves.
These coals are also more expensive than briquettes, depending on the brand. The problem with buying cheap brands is that some types of lump coals, while they burn hot, burn fast and die out quickly. It is best to seek out lump coals that are thick, but not too thick... if each chunk is about half the size of your fist, you're probably in business. Still, this is no guarantee. Try different brands and see what you like.
What are your experiences with briquettes vs. lump charcoal? Got a preference? Let us know your thoughts. Send inquiries or comments to email@example.com. We'd also love to see your recipes, pictures, and other barbecuing tips.
(Photos licensed by Creative Commons)