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Why I Prefer Lump Wood Charcoal

Feb 1, 2008
The history and tradition of charcoal burning goes back thousands of years and there's something magical about cooking on a charcoal barbecue grill.

Charcoal is the traditional fuel for barbecues because it produces a hot, long-lasting fire that is virtually smokeless. The fundamentals of charcoal manufacture is the burning of wood in a low-oxygen atmosphere, a process that drives out the moisture and volatile gases present in the original fuel. The elimination of the moisture reduces the weight of the fuel by up to 70% and the resulting charred material also burns for much longer than the original piece of wood.

Charcoal has been manufactured since pre-historic times and we know this following the discovery of a ancient body in a melting glacier in the Tyrolean Alps. Scientists dated the remains of the man back approximately 5,000 years and they also found that he had been carrying a small box of charred wood wrapped in leaves. The scientists deduced that the charred wood was probably smouldering and what the man would use to start a fire because apart from this box, he was not carrying any other fire starting materials such as a flint.

Even 6,000 years ago, charcoal was the preferred fuel for smelting copper and this continued to be the case for iron as well even as late as the 17th century when charcoal was superseded by coke. Charcoal also remained popular in many other industries much later primarily because of the abundance of forests in many areas and the process of coppicing made it a sustainable resource. Something that we should consider in this age of global warming - many environmentalists see wood and charcoal as carbon neutral because of the ability of trees to grow and absorb the greenhouse gasses. Charcoal has been used for domestic heating and maybe we should start to use it more in chimineas rather than the gas powered patio heater?

The ultimate transition of charcoal from a heating and industrial fuel to a recreational cooking material took place around 1920 when Henry Ford created the charcoal briquette. The business proved extremely profitable for Ford because the charcoal briquettes were manufactured out of waste wood from the car plants and his sideline business also encouraged recreational use of cars for picnic outings - great link selling! In fact BBQ grills and Ford Charcoal were sold at Ford dealerships as well.

The retort method is used to produce charcoal briquettes and it involves passing wood through a series of hearths or ovens and the major revolution is that it is a continuous process rather than having to be made in discrete batches as with traditional lump wood charcoal. The traditional method of charcoal production was by piling wood in a pyramid and covering it with dirt, turf, or ashes, leaving air vents around the base and a chimney at the top. The wood was then set alight and allowed to burn slowly and once complete the air vents were then covered up so the pyramid would cool.

I guess the benefits of briquette manufacture are attractive to the manufacturing business man but there's something magical about the batch production of lump wood charcoal. Different stages in the process are indicated by different colors of smoke as the moisture is driven off and there's an element of skills being passed from father to son. Maybe I'm being too sentimental but whenever I'm cooking on charcoal I always feel safe in the knowledge that a traditional industry is propagating.
About the Author
The Barbecue Smoker Recipe Man writes free barbecue recipes & outdoor smoker recipes on gas, charcoal or electric. Outdoor grilling tips, easy fire pit menus, healthy rotisserie suggestions and best homemade bbq sauce recipes are all available at Barbeque Smoker Recipes
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