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Cooking with charcoal

Carlton Boyce / 19 July 2016 ( 18 June 2021 )

Briquettes or lumpwood? Lid or no lid? Read our tips for cooking with charcoal for the perfect barbecue.

Man barbecuing
Host a memorable barbecue with these tips for cooking with charcoal

The gas versus charcoal barbecue debate is a fierce one, with advocates for both sides arguing that their preferred heat source is superior.

The reality is that both have their benefits: gas is a fire-and-forget fuel that is both instantaneous and clean. Charcoal, on the other hand, takes a bit more time and effort to get going but it then gives a lovely smoky flavour that is hard to replicate. I use both, firing up the gas barbie when I’m in a hurry, reserving the charcoal Weber for low-and-slow smoking or when I’m happy to amble through an afternoon and evening of cooking with friends and a refreshing drink close at hand.

Here are some top tips to help you make the most of your charcoal!

Find out how to clean your barbecue

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Briquettes or lumpwood charcoal?

Lumpwood charcoal is the connoisseurs’ choice, burning cleanly and leaving very little ash residue when it’s gone. It looks like chunks of black wood because that is exactly what it is. Sizes vary, from big chunks through to small twigs because that’s how nature makes wood.

Lumpwood charcoal is made by burning solid pieces of wood in an airtight environment called a clamp. It burns very slowly over several days to drive off the volatile gases leaving solid carbon behind in the form of lumpwood charcoal.

Briquettes, on the other hand, are uniform in size and shape and are made by binding together charcoal with a binder and (usually) coal. They can also contain limestone, which adds a white ash, and an accelerant to make them burn better. They usually burn for about one hour at a steady temperature.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather cook over something clean and natural than something that has been cobbled together in a laboratory to give a cheaper approximation of the real thing.

Read our tips for barbecuing fish

Lighting a charcoal barbecue

Yes, you can squirt some BBQ lighter fluid on to create a satisfyingly instant burn but do you really want to season your food with petrochemicals?

It’s far better to light the charcoal with screwed-up newspaper. If you use a chimney starter as well, then it won’t take much longer than using lighter fluid and your food will taste much better. Starter chimneys are inexpensive and will last forever.

Starter chimney

Use a starter chimney to make the charcoal burn more quickly


Charcoal takes a while to settle down, and you shouldn’t even consider placing food on the grill until the flames have died down and the charcoal – lumpwood or briquette – is an even white or grey colour.

Create a heat gradient

You can create a temperature gradient by piling up a thick layer of burning charcoal at one end of the barbecue, sloping it away to a fine layer at the other end. This lets you cook food quickly at one end to seal it before moving it to a cooler section to cook through properly. This is how you avoid poisoning your guests with sausages that are charcoal-black on the outside yet raw on the inside.

Read our tips for barbecuing vegetables

Lid or no lid: what's best for a barbecue?

A rough guide is that any food that can be cooked in under 30 minutes can be cooked over coals with the lid of the barbeque left off.

If the food takes longer than 30 minutes you are better off cooking it slowly with the lid on if you have one, as it will help keep the food moist and to retain heat.


If you want to add a flavour-layer of smoke, then you can use almost any hardwood; simple add a few chunks to the burning charcoal where it will burn and create smoke to infuse the food.

If you don’t have access to small chunks of hardwood (softwood like pine will make the food taste horrible as it contains a lot more bitter resins, so should be avoided) you can buy small bags in any large supermarket. You only need a small handful, so even a small bag will probably last you the whole summer.

Woods good for smoking include oak, maple, pecan, hickory, apple, cherry and alder.

Disposing of the barbecue ash

Lumpwood charcoal ash is a tree in constituent form, so you can spread the ashes at the base of your fruit trees or bushes, where it will slowly decompose and fertilize the surrounding soil. Be careful not to let it sit against the bark though, as it can cause chemical burns. It shouldn't be added to acid-loving such as blueberries, azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. 

Briquette ash, of which there will be much more thanks to all that binder and coal, will not do your soil any good at all. So you’ll have to wait until it’s properly cold (I’d leave it for two or three days at least to cool down properly; bin fires are very easy to start) before putting it in the bin to get rid of it.

Visit our barbecue section for delicious recipes

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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