Charcoal & Chips
Today, we have many different types of fuel to use. Back in the really old days, folks used
sticks and larger pieces of wood to keep warm, frighten off wild animals and perhaps most
importantly to us today, cook their food.
You might find it interesting that charcoal is used for such things as making gunpowder,
curing tobacco, manufacturing glass, used as an additive to poultry and stock feed and as a
Charcoal is a black, brittle substance use most importantly for great outdoor cooking
events. Many times charcoal is use to start a good fire and wood chips are introduced to
specific flavor to the meats. See the Specialty wood section for more information on
flavoring of specific types of wood.
The Old Days: Years ago, charcoal was prepared by placing pieces of wood
piled on end
in rows in a shape like a cone. This pile was then covered with dirt or moist ashes with
holes left in the top for a chimney and at the bottom for air to enter. The wood was then
allowed to burn very slowly. When completely burned, the holes were then covered and
the pile of wood
was allowed to cool. This method was not as effective as is today and only yielded about
20% pure charcoal.
Charcoal consists primarily of amorphous carbon and ash. This carbon consists of tiny,
irregularly arranged particles of graphite, which is almost pure carbon. It also has some
other impurities consisting of sulfur and hydrogen compounds. It is partially burned or
charred wood thus the name charcoal.
Charcoal consists of carbon full of porous, or many tiny holes, which assist in complete
thorough burning of the substance.
Charcoal consists of wood which has been heated to high temperatures in ovens while
restricting the available amount of air. If oxygen was available, the wood would naturally
burn up and that would be the end of this story. But, such is not the case.
When the wood is heated, the wood chemically decomposes and releases gases and tars
which are saved as by-products. The resulting product is charcoal which is almost a pure
form of carbon. The charcoal when burned releases an even hot flame, no smoke and
almost completely. The only residue is a little ash. No smoke. It takes approximately 4
pounds of wood to make a little more than 1 pound of charcoal.
So far, we have been talking about pure charcoal. Some of the more popular "charcoal"
manufactures do not use exclusively charcoal. The blend their charcoal with by-products
(which we will refer to as "extenders") thus extending the amount of appeared charcoal.
can tell the difference quite easily. Most briquettes consist of extenders. After the fire has
been burned, take a look at the ashes. If there is a heaviness when cleaning out the ashes,
then you are probably removing clay and other particles called extenders. If on the other
hand, the ashes are light and almost want to float away when disturbed, then you have
burning true charcoal.
Look at the packaging. If it does not state 100% hardwood charcoal, pass it up. You will
much happier with the results of using real charcoal. It burns cleaner, hotter and more
than the products using extenders. Why would you want to burn clay in your pit or
As mentioned above, wood was probably the first and most important fuel used by man
(generic). Our ancestors would both keep warm and cook food using the most plentiful
around - wood. We still use wood to heat our homes, cook our food and maybe they did
curl up with someone you want to get romantic with. While once plentiful, wood has
more scarce as our population increases and forests decrease. As a result, costs have gone
Unless you have a forest next to your house, there will be inherent expenses incurred in
obtaining your cooking wood. If you had all the wood you needed, the ideal method of
cooking with even and consistent temperatures would be to have a second fire located
your smoke-cooker. This fire would be your source for coals. You would burn the actual
wood in this second fire and, when needed, take a shovel, scoop up the required hot coals
and add them to the grill or smoker. This method would all but eliminate flare ups and out
control fires while at the same time, insure even cooking temperatures.
Since this is not possible in most cases, many folks have resorted to using smaller pieces of
wood to add the flavor without necessarily focusing on creating the heat. For example
use small wood chips, soak them in water and place them on the fire. As the water
evaporates and the wood begins to burn slowly, the smoke flavoring from the burning
flavors the meat.
There are many different sizes of wood chips, but for the sake of convenience, we will be
discussing the three basic sizes as shown in the photograph:
Large - really too large to be called "chips"; rough cut and about the size of a
Medium - again rough cut and about the size of a rubber stamp
Small - Shavings really, larger than sawdust.
The large size (on the left side of the picture), in addition to creating smoke, is large
to also create heat. We would not necessarily soak these in water before using. Instead,
simply place one on the fire as needed to keep the source of heat active. You must,
have a sufficient source of heat already established before using these wood "chips".
Of the three, the medium chips (on the right side of the picture) are the most common and
usually available at the grocery store in the charcoal section. They are not really large
enough to be a source of heat, however are sufficient to create the necessary smoke to
the meat. We suggest soaking these pieces of wood for 2 to 4 hours prior to use. After
have created the heat source in the grill or smoker, place a handful of these wood chips on
the coals. They will hiss and simmer and as they slowly begin to dry and smolder, will
create the needed smoke. Some folks will wrap the chips in heavy duty aluminum foil and
puncture holes in the foil. After which they will place this bundle on the fire. The chips
also smolder and create the smoke needed.
Chips (on the bottom center of the picture above) are best used for making smoke
in the gas grills. These chips are placed in a smoker box (as shown to the left) and the box
is then placed over the
gas burners. The smoker box is a cast iron box with a removable lid. (See photo) The lid
several slits in the top to allow the smoke to escape. The wood chips smolder inside the
and you then have your smoke! The box could, I guess be used in wood grills and
but the thing is somewhat heavy and would have a tendency to settle into the coals. It
then be difficult to add more wood/coals to the fire without having to take out the box
We hope this has helped you assess the various uses of charcoal and wood chips. As you
have seen, there are direct uses for each and as such, will deliver different and unique
grilling and smoke-cooking opportunities. Good luck and most importantly, don't hurry
be sure to have fun!