Nothing screams summer more than the smell of a backyard barbecue wafting from the best charcoal grills. It’s a form of cooking dating back to the Stone Age—at least the charcoal part. But a lot has changed. Today, it’s overwhelming how many different brands and styles of charcoal are available: There are even briquettes made from coconut shells from Vietnam and hardwood lumps of wood from Missouri.
To determine which charcoal is the best for the average griller who wants to cook up some brats and burgers on the weekend, we gathered up nine highly recommended brands and put them to the test.
We judged each charcoal on a variety of metrics, including how much they cost, how well they cooked, and how well they burned. After weeks of testing, we think the Royal Oak Lump Charcoal(available at Amazon for $29.53) will serve most people the best. We really like the smell this charcoal produced, its wide availability, and the distribution of the lump sizes.
Here are the best charcoals we tested ranked, in order.
Royal Oak Lump Charcoal
Rockwood Lump Charcoal
Jealous Devil Lump Charcoal
Kingsford Original Briquettes
Fogo Super Premium
Royal Oak Briquettes
Weber 100 Percent Hardwood Briquettes
Carbon de Coco Briquettes
Cowboy Brand Lump Charcoal
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Royal Oak Lump Charcoal ended up being our favorite. While it didn't win hands-down in every category, we think it's the best for the average griller. When you open the bag, you'll find a fine assortment of chunks. For casual grillers, this is a good thing because you want a mixture of easy-to-light pieces and ones that burn for a long time. Royal Oak Lumps strike a balance between being easy to light and longevity in the kettle.
After lighting the Royal Oak, a sweet and smoky scent greeted us. It was strong enough to be distinct but subtle enough not to overwhelm what we were cooking. From the time of placing the burger on the grill, it took seven minutes until the center burger reached 130°F. That's on point for only using two pounds of charcoal.
Compared to other lump charcoals, the Royal Oak burned an average amount of time. We found a lower percentage of large chunks, so as time goes, you may find that it burns up real quick, which isn't a problem if you're making a meal for your family. Also of note, Royal Oak Lump Charcoal is designed for smokers, so it imparts food with a smoky sweetness that we liked. If you're planning on grilling for more than a few hours at a time, there are better options.
Overall, the price, the well-distributed chunks, and pleasant smell impressed us enough to pick Royal Oak Charcoal Lumps as what we'd want in our grills.
There's a reason that Kingsford has stayed in business for over 100 years. Over the past century, Kingsford has had time to refine their formula. The briquettes have become smaller and more compact. If you're returning to grilling after a long hiatus, you'll find that Kingsford briquettes burn hotter and longer due to the denser material.
When the briquettes started to glow inside our chimney, the air filled with a campfire aroma. We found that the average cook time for some quarter-pound beef patties was around nine minutes. Amongst the briquettes we tested, that places it in second place. Kingsford Original was outclassed by the Weber Briquettes in terms of longevity and heat.
However, Kingsford Original always seems to be in stock everywhere and we can't argue with how affordable it is. Kingsford is a known quantity with a fairly high degree of quality control.
Hello, I'm Jon Chan. I'm the senior lab technician at Reviewed, which means I test everything from compact washers to pocket knives. I should also point out that I'm not a pit master or an expert griller. However, I do enjoy a spot of outdoor cooking and have a background in designing experiments. When it came to testing charcoals, I had a casual griller in mind. People who cook hot dogs and burgers for an occasional summer meal have different concerns than someone who smokes their own meat and has multiple dual-channel probes.
Upon opening each bag, we placed enough chunks or briquettes to cover the charcoal grate of a Weber Original Kettle. We then placed the charcoal into a chimney, taking care to place in as much as possible. In the instances not all the charcoal could fit, we set the extra charcoal aside and placed it into the grill on the edges. We used four sheets of newspaper to light our chimney and left to heat up for no more than 10 minutes. If a contender failed to light properly, we gave it a second chance but made sure to reduce its ranking.
After we poured the red-hot coals into our grill, we gave ourselves no more than 10 seconds to even out the coals a bit. During this time we made note of the smell each charcoal produced while burning.
To test the overall temperature and heating evenness, we placed three, quarter-pound beef burgers across the fire grate. We inserted a ThermoWorks Pro-Series temperature probe attached to a smoke monitor in each patty. ThermoWorks is a well-regarded brand when it comes to outdoor cooking, so we trusted it for accurate readings. After placing the probes, we measured how long it took each burger to get to 130°F—the temperature for medium-rare beef.
Weather plays a role in how a charcoal briquette burns. We made note of the ambient conditions and factored it into our results. The tests took place on days that were between 42°F and 56°F. There were days of high winds, up to 22 miles per hour. In the event of rain, charcoals were given a mulligan and tested again.
When the burger test finished, we replaced the fire grate and waited. We checked the grill periodically to see if it was still hot. Eventually, when the grills cooled, we measured how much ash they produced.
The final tests revolved around checking out each bag for distribution of the chunk sizes, looking for any defects in the product, and inspecting the bags themselves. A good bag should be easy to store and be durable enough to survive a summer in the garage.
What is Charcoal?
Charcoal is wood that's been heated up in a low-oxygen environment. The process cooks off excess water and sugars to create a product that is mostly pure carbon. People cook with charcoal because it burns hotter and longer than regular wood.
How Do You Start a Charcoal Grill?
There are multiple ways to start a charcoal grill, but the chimney method is regarded as the best. A chimney is like a charcoal pitcher. Place charcoal inside the chimney and put two to four sheets of newspaper into the bottom. Light the paper and place the chimney on your grill. Let chimney heat up for 10 to 15 minutes or until the center coals glow orange. When that happens, you should dump the lit charcoal into the lower grate. Replace the fire grate and now you're ready to start grilling.
Lump vs. Briquette
Briquettes are made of compressed sawdust and lumps are cooked chunks of wood. Briquettes typically burn slower and produce lower temperatures. Lumps have greater variability. A typical bag of lump charcoal contains dust, chips, and huge chunks. Using a mixture of them, you can create a very high heat. Briquettes offer uniformity and usually a lower price. Lumps offer better heat and usually impart a bigger smokey flavor.
Other Charcoal We Tested
Rockwood Lump Charcoal
There's a lot to like about Rockwood charcoal, which is why it smoked its way into second place. First, it's entirely made of Missouri oak, maple, and hickory. All the wood is harvested with eco-friendliness in mind, taken from leftover timber. We also like how uniformly the charcoal chunks were hewed. The plank-like shape allows you to pack quite a bit into a chimney.
However, we did find it was harder to light than the Royal Oak, which is why it didn't take the top spot. The Rockwood required two attempts. Originally, we wanted to chalk this up to the 18 mph wind, but two other charcoals we tested that day lit up just fine under the same conditions. Our gripes aside, once the coals were lit, the Rockwood shined. The smoke smelled like a campfire with a hint of sweetness. We lit up 2.1 pounds of charcoal and it cooked our burgers in 11 minutes.
There's a lot of love out there for Rockwood among grilling enthusiasts. It's the Naked Whiz's highest user-rated charcoal. You can impress grill nerds by getting this well-regarded charcoal, but you will pay an above average price for it.
Jealous Devil proved itself to be the charcoal of convenience. The zip lock is the first feature you'll notice. It allows you a no fuss, no muss access to the charcoal. Opening up the bag, we saw a very uniform chunk size, with few large chunks. Plus, we also noted a lack of useless dust and annoying chips.
During testing, we found that Jealous Devil was one of the hottest in the roundup. We got a medium-rare burger in only six minutes. As we grilled our burgers, we noticed that Jealous Devil has a unique-smelling smoke, almost a medicinal scent. A little research revealed that Jealous Devil is made from Quebracho Blanco, a South American tree known for its hardness. The unusual odor did not translate to an off-putting taste.
If you're looking for a way to get a quick meal, you can't go wrong with this Amazon's Choice charcoal.
Royal Oak Briquettes landed in the middle of the pack. We had more trouble lighting them than other briquettes in this roundup, which is surprising because the bag advertises that it "starts faster." It took a total of about 11 minutes to cook up our quarter-pounders. That puts in slightly below average compared to other briquettes.
We really can't gripe too much. A shopping trip online showed us that this is one of the more affordable charcoals out there. On the plus side, the briquettes still carry sweet notes like the lumps.
Weber Briquettes are made from 100-percent hardwood and it shows. In terms of heat, these briquettes can hang with the more expensive lumps. During testing, Weber gave us medium-rare beef in seven minutes. The downside is that they are harder to light than Kingsford and more expensive. We hit up multiple outlets to find one that carried Weber briquettes, but your mileage may vary.
More experienced grillers will probably like this charcoal over Kingsford, but we think the average person is going to have a better time with other brands.
Coco-BBQ was the strangest charcoal that we tested. It's made from sustainably harvested coconut shells, but what really sets this extruded briquette apart is its cylindrical shape. In fact, it reminds us of Thai-style binchō-tan, which is used by vendors for street food. We expected the Coco-BBQ to keep a consistent heat for a long period of time. In that regard, our testing showed that this coconut charcoal delivered. It cooked our testing burgers in under nine minutes and stayed lit for more than three hours. We attribute the longevity to the large briquettes, which weigh about 52 grams each, more than double what a Kingsford briquette weighs.
However, the Coco-BBQ did not take a top spot because of two things: a strange smell and price. We were half expecting this to smell like burnt coconut oil but were greeted with a scent more akin to incense. It's not bad, but it is a bit off-putting. What really prevented the Coco-BBQ from taking a top spot was how expensive it was. We did a bit of shopping and found it to be six times the price of Kingsford. That being said, if you want sustainable briquettes that involve zero deforestation, this is the one to get.
Cowboy Brand charcoal landed pretty low on the list because it didn't show consistent quality. Going through the bag, we found bits of wood that didn't look fully charred. Think of it like charcoal that's underdone or raw. We looked online and found plenty of reviews of people finding plastic, rocks, and uncharred wood in their bags.
When we did assemble about four pounds of good lumps, we were underwhelmed. It cooked burgers in nine minutes and produced a smoke that wasn't memorable. Even though our experience was unremarkable for the most part, we cannot discount the number of negative reviews.
Kingsford Matchlight came in last in our roundup. It's not terrible, just terrible smelling. We assumed from the outset that having a lump of charcoal doused in lighter fluid was a bad idea, but we had to know for sure. Because we wanted to keep our methods consistent, we disregarded the instructions to light the briquettes in the grill and placed the Matchlight into our chimney. The end result was a pillar of flames nearly 3 ft. tall. We like things en fuego but that's a little too much. Matchlight's chemical smell did get in our food. Perhaps it was just stuck in our noses, but either way, we did not enjoy our experience with this charcoal.
Jonathan Chan currently serves as the Senior Lab Technician at Reviewed. If you clean with it, it's likely that Jon oversees its testing. Since joining the Reviewed in 2012, Jon has helped launch the company's efforts in reviewing laptops, vacuums, and outdoor gear. He thinks he's a pretty big deal. In the pursuit of data, he's plunged his hands into freezing cold water, consented to be literally dragged through the mud, and watched paint dry. Jon demands you have a nice day.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.