Charcoal is a black substance that resembles coal and is used as a source of fuel. It is generally made from wood that has been burnt, or charred, while being deprived of oxygen so that what's left is an impure carbon residue. While charcoal is used in the manufacture of various objects from crayons to filters, its most common use is as a fuel.
One of charcoal's most common fuel uses is for cooking. It produces a heat that is hotter and burns cleaner than wood, making it ideal for cooking. Though it has been used a heat source for centuries, Henry Ford is credited with cornering the US market for mass produced charcoal for backyard grilling.
Many people debate the use of gas versus charcoal heat for grilling foods, but many people prefer charcoal. Commercially, when it is made for grilling, it comes most frequently in the form of briquettes, which are small pre-formed blocks. These are made cheaply, often from sawdust bound together with a type of glue and then charred in ovens. More expensive grilling charcoal can be found, made of hardwood without the glue, and some people prefer it to avoid a flavoring they believe comes from the glue residue that remains in the cheaper made forms. Some is also self-lighting, meaning it is already infused with lighter fluid, which some grilling gurus say also affects the flavor of food.
The type of charcoal a person cooks with should depend largely on his or her preference. Some people prefer the convenience and cost effectiveness of the cheaper, self-lighting briquettes, while others prefer natural hardwood charcoal made from hickory or another flavor-enhancing wood. The key to cooking this way is to get the coals hot before adding the food, and then to cook the food to temperature fast to avoid losing precious juices and drying it out. Experimenting with different types of charcoal will eventually lead to mastering the art of the backyard barbecue.