Before propane gas powered stoves became popular for outdoor grilling, charcoal briquettes were one of the main means of heating and barbecuing food. They’re still used by many, and even those who enjoy grilling over gas can’t argue that the wood smoke taste produce by charcoal briquettes is often better or more authentic “barbecue.”
Charcoal has a long history in our world, and is believed to have been discovered at least 5000 years ago. Yet people would have to wait until the 1920s for charcoal briquettes, when Henry Ford developed the process of making them.
Ford, better known for his automobile manufacturing, used wood scraps from his automobile company, along with dirt and ashes to create charred wood in large pits. The wood would burn slowly and cool slowly, leaving charcoal, which quickly caught fire when used in barbecue pits. A continuous burning method developed by Orin Stafford helped Ford transform basic charcoal into charcoal briquettes. This method took the wood through various ovens, producing much larger batches.
Favored woods for charcoal are some of the harder woods, like oak or hickory, and the briquette is essentially 90% char. The other main ingredient in briquettes is coal, which can come in various types and differs depending upon manufacturer. To keep their form, charcoal briquettes may contain small amounts of binding agents like starch, and they may be treated with an accelerant like nitrate, for quicker lighting and burning. The mixed ingredients are usually placed in molds, where high temperature and pressure help to form the briquettes.
Charcoal briquettes from one standpoint are environmentally friendly. They’re usually made from wood scraps, and in most cases, trees are not cut down to make charcoal. On the other hand, gasses given off while using charcoal briquettes or preparing them may not be so sound. When countries or cities have “spare the air” days, they ask people not to use barbecues.
Lighting charcoal can be a bit of a challenge for the novice cook. First, only use them in outdoor and well-ventilated settings. Many people coat the briquettes with lighter fluid, which really does affect end taste, and some people find it especially unpleasant. Instead, you can start a small fire using a bit of paper and scrap wood and then layer the briquettes on. Another great invention is an electric charcoal lighter. With access to a plug, you can use a heating element to light the charcoal briquettes quite easily. Just use these with care around kids since they do get very hot.
Sometimes you’ll find instant briquettes, where you simply light the bag on fire to start heating the charcoal. In most cases, when you’re cooking with charcoal, you want to wait until the coals turn from black, to red and then to white before you start grilling. Red coals are usually too hot and may burn the exterior of meat without cooking it in the middle.