Many purists insist that grilling using any other method only offers a pale imitation of cooking with charcoal.
Here at Madiba, we feel you should use whatever type of grill best suits. If that happens to be an electric smoker or a propane gas grill, don’t let the opinions of others put you off.
Assuming you embrace the benefits of charcoal, though, you might be wondering how to make charcoal from wood, sidestepping expensive store-bought briquettes and eliminating all those additives from the mix.
Now, while it’s perfectly possible to whip up your own charcoal at home – and we’ll show you how directly below – there is one important factor to bear in mind. Homemade charcoal burn greener and cleaner than store-bought charcoal, and as such it won’t burn for as long as charcoal picked up in the store.
Before we show you how to make charcoal the easy way, a few pointers on how charcoal is made in general.
I. How Charcoal is Made
You produce charcoal by burning wood or any other organic matter in an environment with low oxygen levels. This process serves to remove the water along with any volatile elements, which allows the charcoal to burn at very high temperatures without giving off too much smoke.
You can achieve this using a variety of methods, including:
- Pit kiln: This traditional method yields pretty low-quality charcoal
- Industrial equipment: When charcoal is produced industrially, the fixed carbon content is typically above 82% and the quality much higher
Regardless of the technology and equipment involved, the fundamental process of making charcoal is broadly similar. The difference lies in both the time it takes and the quality of the finished product.
Charcoal can easily be made from all types of wood, as well as other organic matter like:
- Dry leaves
- Ground nut shells
- Coconut shells
If you plan to make lump charcoal – more on the difference between lumps and briquettes right below – you’ll need to use real wood, ideally hardwood like beech, cherry, oak, or hickory.
These hardwoods will usually burn hotter, so they work wonderfully for making lump charcoal.
You also find sawdust pressed with other fine organic matter to create charcoal briquettes. These usually contain a range of different woods. Briquettes are typically produced from offcuts of timber, with the bark of inexpensive hardwoods and softwoods.
II. Lump Charcoal vs Charcoal Briquettes
While both briquettes and lumps are classified as charcoal, you should be aware of some key differences between these different types of charcoal.
- Typically consists of pieces of pure hardwood
- Irregularly shapes make stacking and controlling airflow more difficult than when you’re using briquettes
- Lump charcoal has a shorter burn time as the lumps are smaller
- Unless explicitly stated otherwise, lump charcoal will not contain any additives. The same cannot be said for briquettes
- Lump charcoal often burns unevenly due to the irregular shape and size. This also means not all lump charcoal will be completely carbonized in the center, something that can lead to sparks or smoke
- Made from a mixture of charcoal, sawdust, coal dust, and wood chips, briquettes contain a variety of combustible materials
- Easy to stack, briquettes come in uniform shapes and sizes. This also streamlines controlling airflow and leads to a consistent, reliable burn
- Charcoal briquettes typically contain additives to promote a steady burn
III. What is Charcoal Made Of?
Aside from 100% hardwood briquettes or pure hardwood charcoal in lumps, most store-bought charcoal will contain additives.
The reason additives are included is to improve burning performance. Additives also help charcoal briquettes to bind together effectively.
Here is a breakdown of what to expect in charcoal:
- Materials for heat fuel: Typically made from wood, charcoal can also include a variety of other materials included coconut shells, nut shells, tree bark, paper, and peat
- Binding agents: Binders are required to give charcoal briquettes their shape and structure. Starch, sodium silicate, and molasses are common binding agents
- Sodium nitrate: Some charcoal has sodium nitrate added to further improve burning. This occurs as nitrates are oxidants that kick out oxygen when heated up. This, in turn, accelerates the rate at which your charcoal burns
- Limestone: Some charcoal briquettes contain limestone. This is used to color the ash
- Borax: Sodium borate or borax is sometimes added to charcoal briquettes so they can be more easily removed from their molds without breaking
OK, with those basics in place, it’s time for the main event.
IV. How To Make Lump Charcoal From Wood
While making your own homemade charcoal from wood is a little messy and time-consuming, it’s straightforward once you know how.
What You Need
- Pieces of hardwood
- A lidded metal barrel
- Twigs or paper for kindling
- Metal poker
- Bucket of water
What To Do
- Gather your kindling and star a fire in the bottom of your barrel. Add some very small pieces of wood. Ensure the fire is properly started and the flames are becoming strong before you start throwing on your pieces of pre-cut hardwood
- With the flames licking up, start adding pieces of hardwood. Only add these a few layers at a time. Doing this will allow the fire to spread more efficiently from one layer to the next. Initially, the process is more fussy, but you’ll save time overall
- Add your hardwood until it reaches the top of the barrel. Let the flames work their way across all layers. When you see the hardwood beginning to turn black, it’s time for the next phase
- With all the hardwood burning and blackening, pop on the lid so the oxygen supply to the barrel is restricted
- Let the wood smolder gently in the barrel for at least 24 hours, longer if required
- At this stage, you can remove the lid to check if the wood has finished smoldering. Don’t rush things here. If it’s not quite ready, pop the lid back on and wait for several hours before testing it again
- Make certain the wood has all finished burning and that all flames are extinguished before you take it out of the barrel. Unless you need your barrel for a second load of charcoal, you can leave it standing with the lid on so it stays protected from moisture until it’s time for charcoal duty again
You’re now equipped with a supply of homemade and additive-free charcoal for your next cookout. Aside from needing to wait for 24 hours or more once the wood is burning, you won’t need too much effort to generate great all-natural charcoal.
OK, we’ll round out today with the answers to a trio of the most frequently asked questions concerning charcoal.
1) How bad is charcoal for the environment?
You’ll find that charcoal grilling leaves roughly triple the carbon footprint of liquid propane gas grilling. While it’s not possible to claim that grilling with charcoal is eco-friendly, you can console yourself with the fact it comes from a completely renewable energy source, unlike gas. You could try buying charcoal that’s sourced responsibly and supports tree replanting. These new trees will ultimately reabsorb carbon from the environment.
2) Why can I see so much dust when charcoal is burned?
All charcoal breaks down when it burns. Already brittle by nature, all the water is removed during the production process, resulting in an abundance of black dust after cooking. Make certain that dust doesn’t accumulate in your grill as this will interfere with the airflow between lumps of charcoal. You can take advantage of this charcoal dust by pressing it into homemade briquettes. Alternatively, you could broadcast the charcoal dust over the soil in your garden.
3) How long can charcoal last?
Many variables impact how long charcoal lasts, including the type of grill, the airflow, and overall fire management. As a guideline, charcoal briquettes burn for anywhere from 8 to 10 hours. Smaller lump charcoal burns for an average of 4 to 6 hours. You can store charcoal indefinitely, although additives can break down over time, meaning the charcoal will become harder to light with age.
If you arrived here today at Madiba without the first idea about how to make charcoal from wood, you should now have a clear understanding of how to make home-made fuel for your charcoal grill.
So, if you want a greener method of fueling your cookouts, and you want to eliminate the additives present in store-bought charcoal, get creative and make your own.
Before you go today, take a second to bookmark our blog. We bring you fresh content on all aspects of grilling like a pitmaster daily, and we cater for complete beginners as well as more advanced grillers. We’ll see you soon!