What Is Charcoal?

Charcoal, the kind used for grilling, is scrap wood or sawdust partially burned in very hot ovens until it becomes what’s called wood char. That is, wood that’s cooked thoroughly but not to the point of disintegration. If you’ve ever made a fire, you’ve probably seen wood reach this state before it turned to ash.

Henry Ford pioneered the mass production of charcoal when he built a chemical plant to reclaim scrap wood created through the production of his Model Ts. Originally called Ford Charcoal, the product was sold exclusively in Ford’s auto dealerships. Later, the facility was renamed for E.G. Kingsford, a relative of Ford’s and the man credited with the formula and process. The product was also renamed, as Kingsford Charcoal, one of the best-selling brands on the market today.

To make charcoal, wood or wood scraps are put in either a kiln or dryers to suck out moisture so they’ll bake efficiently, then are typically cooked in cast iron retort ovens. These are cylindrically shaped furnaces that work with very little oxygen, so the wood bakes more slowly. More oxygen would produce a bigger fire, which would simply incinerate the wood rather than turning it into pure carbon, or wood char.

The more familiar pillow-shaped briquettes are made from charred granules that typically come from sawdust. These are mixed with anthracite coal, cornstarch, and borax. Nitrate is added to help the charcoal ignite more quickly, and lime to help it assume a white, ashy appearance that lets grillers know the coals are hot enough to begin cooking over.

This mixture starts out the consistency of wet snow (only it’s hot), and then goes on a conveyor belt where it is stamped into briquettes. At this point, mesquite flavoring is added to some products, or lighter fluid in the case of Kingsford’s Match Light Instant Light Charcoal.

Larger chunks of wood char are sold as what’s known as lump charcoal.

The number of people who prefer lump over briquette charcoal is growing, and small firms like the Original Charcoal Company are cropping up to offer new products to meet the demand. Although it’s a little trickier to cook over because the pieces are not uniform in size, lump generally has fewer additives than briquette (or none), and so doesn’t impart a chemical flavor to your food. The Original Charcoal Company offers one product that it coats in natural wax, rather than lighter fluid, for quick ignition.

Interestingly enough, the state of Missouri accounts for 80 percent of the country’s charcoal production. Probably because it used to have less stringent air quality regulations. Though the federal Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, Missouri didn’t begin implementing the controls until a decade later.

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