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What is Charcoal?

By J. Beam
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By mochi — On Jun 04, 2015

White charcoal, also known as Binchotan, is the most advanced type of charcoal invented by the Japanese. Binchotan used in cooking makes food taste better and has no smoke, no smell, no spark, and a long burning time up to three to four hours.

By anon939351 — On Mar 13, 2014

@wavy58: Did you know that vets actually feed dogs activated charcoal to make them vomit when necessary?

They do not give it to them to vomit - but to absorb toxins when necessary (as well as emergency overdoses of drugs so on in hospitals for people). If they vomit it is from the body trying to eliminate the toxin (and there are medications, herbal and homeopathic remedies that will induce vomiting (nux vomita) or one's finger in humans.

By OeKc05 — On Dec 12, 2012

@Oceana – You are not alone. I used to think that charcoal came from mines, too. I didn't learn the truth until I started using it in my art class in college.

We always learned about our medium before using it, and I learned what charcoal actually was before starting to draw with it. Charcoal marks blend so easily, but they also smear, so you have to use fixative spray to keep your drawings from smudging.

I now use charcoal pencils and sticks when drawing pet portraits for people. It's an easy way to create a dark background fast.

The sticks allow me to cover a lot of ground with black, but the pencils allow me to do details. The marks still smudge easily, but when I have a fine tip to work with, I can draw more precisely and spray it before it has a chance to smear.

By giddion — On Dec 11, 2012

I have a large charcoal grill, and I absolutely love the flavor that cooking with charcoal imparts to the food. I have eaten foods grilled on both gas and charcoal grills, and charcoal grilled meat is far superior on flavor.

I was at a friend's house when she grilled hot dogs on a gas grill. They actually tasted a little like propane!

I love hot dogs and hamburgers that have grill marks and are full of that yummy charcoal flavor. There is something so rich and earthy about that taste. Maybe it has something to do with charcoal being made from burnt wood.

By wavy58 — On Dec 10, 2012

Did you know that vets actually feed dogs activated charcoal to make them vomit when necessary? I was surprised to learn this, because I thought that charcoal would be toxic to them.

Of course, they give them the kind without lighter fluid in it. I've heard that ingesting lighter fluid can cause kidney failure.

By Oceana — On Dec 10, 2012

I always thought that charcoal was a type of coal. I had no idea it was made from wood! I actually thought that it was mined like other naturally occurring elements.

By burcidi — On Nov 27, 2012

My friends and I smoke hookah once in a while. For the hookah to burn, they put a piece of charcoal on top of the bowl that holds the tobacco.

I'm curious, is it dangerous to use charcoal this way?

Sometimes I feel like I'm inhaling charcoal along with the tobacco. Will this harm my health?

By discographer — On Nov 26, 2012

@anon37356, @MikeMason-- In many Hindu religious rituals, ash from burned wood charcoal or cow dung is taken and used as a part of the ritual.

Rituals in Hinduism generally require the burning of fire and prayers will be recited around the fire. I've seen this done many times at my house on certain religious days. After the charcoal burns through, they take the ash from it, which is called "holy ash" now because of the prayers. The ash can be applied to the forehead and is believed to protect the person wearing it.

It probably sounds like an unconventional way to use charcoal ash but Hindus have been doing this for thousands of years.

By stoneMason — On Nov 25, 2012

@dudla-- I've heard of that before, that solid waste can be used as fuel. I think there are some city governments that use solid waste for energy. It's a great idea! It's better than chopping down trees and making charcoal from them.

By anon153151 — On Feb 16, 2011

does it have a crystal structure?

By anon37356 — On Jul 19, 2009

The ashes from the charcoal, what is it used for?

By dudla — On Jun 12, 2008

I always thought all charcoal was made from wood. Turns out that other organic materials can be used to create charcoal like plant material (e.g., peat), and, hold your breath, municipal solid waste!

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