Grilling Myths: Charcoal

©Welcome to the Cookout!™ photograph of charcoal fire in stages. Meat dripping fat.

Grilling Myths: Charcoal Doesn’t Add Flavor!

This post is inspired by a bonehead headline I read in an online Bon Appetit magazine article that read: “How to Get the Flavor of Charcoal When You’re Grilling with Gas.”  That’s right – I said it – er, wrote it. I challenge the statement printed in Bon Appetit. They are wrong, mostly. I am sorry to be the one to bust your myth — (Actually 2 myths if you believe Bon Appetit is infallible) but a charcoal fire allowed to burn to the state of “ready-to-cook” will not impart flavor from the charcoal to the food. 

Because I suspect you may doubt what I just wrote I did a little CYA research and sought the opinions of several respected outdoor chefs, cooks and writers to get their feedback. I wrote each an email and asked this question:

In general – would you agree or disagree with this statement:

“A properly prepared charcoal-fueled fire that has been burned to hot glowing coals and is ready to cook over – will not impart “charcoal” flavors to the food. Rather the flavors many associate with grilling over charcoal is actually derived from fats dripping onto the hot coals, vaporizing to smoke that attaches to the meat.”

9 of 10 agreed with it. Here are some of the answers I received:

Scott Heimendinger is the “Seattle Food Geek” and an associate with The Food Lab, authors of Modernist Cuisine.

Yes, I’d agree with this statement. Here’s the corresponding support from Modernist Cuisine, Volume 2, page 12: “Once the flames of ignition have died and the coals are glowing hot, neither briquettes nor hardwood charcoals have any flavor left to impart. Any aromatic compounds the fuel once harbored were vaporized and destroyed long before the food was laid on the grill.”

“The real secret to the flavor of grilled food is not the fuel but the drippings. Dribbles of juice laden with natural sugars, proteins, and oils fall onto the hot coals and burst into smile and flame. By catalyzing myriad chemical reactions, the intense heat forges these charred juices into molecules that convey the aromas of grilling food. These new molecules literally go up in smoke, coating the food with the unmistakable flavor of grilled food.”

Larry Gaian, respected outdoor cook and writer, publisher of Embers and Flame.

“I would agree. Except in the case of charcoal with wood mixed in.”

Lynnae Beth Oxley, professional chef and lead on Sugars Championship BBQ Team, Competitor in the TV show BBQ Pitmasters

“hot glowing coals” ..yes that is correct IMO. “no flavor”..depends on the type of charcoal..briquettes vs. wood lump. If u test-cooked chicken breasts w/o seasoning, you would detect a noticeable flavor difference. Vaporizing fat on hot coals or burners will definitely impart flavors on the cooking meat.

Scott Richard Thomas, head fool of Grillin Fools.com

I would agree. If the charcoal is not burned through, then you get that, but once it is a bed of coals, then the smoky flavor is from grease smoking in the fire, not the components of the charcoal…

What? But. What. About … I love the taste of food grilled over a charcoal fire.

Have you heard or said this? Uh-Huh – most of us have. Unfortunately – it’s not true. Or rather, the inconvenient truth is a perfectly tended bed of hot glowing charcoal has no flavor of its own. In a backyard cooker charcoal coals are burning at about 750°F -to 1200°F whereas propane burners will be a bit hotter than that. Once the charcoal is burned to coals that are glowing there is no smoke, per se, from the coals. And there is no smoke from the propane. Specific to both fuels the heat you can feel if you hold your hand a foot or so above the grates is mostly hot air <insert joke here> and with the charcoal about 30-40% infrared energy. To prove the infrared energy claim, back away and maybe a bit upwind from the hot coals and you will still feel the heat on your skin – it’s the infrared emitting from the coals and converting from energy to heat when it hit’s your skin. Common gas grills emit very little infrared, although there is some generated in every open flame. Some new gas and electric grills have special technology which converts the heat generated from the source to infrared energy.

SO where are we? If the charcoal doesn’t really impart flavor to the food what is it we smell when we are cooking and why does it taste so darn good? In a nutshell here are the primary means of getting flavor onto food grilling over a a charcoal fire are:

  1. You put the food on the grates over the fire before the coals have heated and burned to the optimum state and you truly are getting particulates of charcoal in the smoke from the fire…don’t do this
  2. Food placed on the grates directly over the perfect charcoal fire is dripping fat and as it hits the coals it vaporizes and smokes, rising with the hot and here-to-for fairly pure air to land on the meat and inhaled by you
  3. You’ve placed some dry wood chunks near the hot coals and the right combination of distance-heat-air is causing the chunks to smolder so a faint blue smoke is emitting in a manner similar to the dripping – vaporizing – coating – inhaled fat
  4. You’ve placed some dry wood chips in a metal containment device (foil packet, cast iron or stainless steel) near the hot coals and the right combination of distance-heat-air is causing the chunks to smolder so a faint blue smoke is emitting in a manner similar to the dripping – vaporizing – coating – inhaled fat
  5. The infrared energy emitted by the hot glowing coals and hot air is heating the grates and the meat is browning from direct contact with the grates; as it browns more the flavor is intensified.
  6. The infrared energy emitted by the hot glowing coals is turning to heat on the surface of the meat and browning it; as it browns more the flavor is intensified

YOU can create the same flavors over electric, natural and propane gas heat sources but it requires a little trickery.

I think it was the grill manufacturer Weber that first came up with covers over the gas burners and called them “vaporizers” of “flavorizer” bars – that heat up and as the fat drips onto the hot surfaces it vaporizes and smokes – some of which returns as flavor on the meat (see #2 above) and some just makes us hungry when we smell it! Before this there were lava rocks which actually kinda sorta did pretty the same thing and also helped to even the heat out from the burners beneath them. But lava rocks get all clogged up from excess grease that drips onto the rough surfaces and isn’t cooked off. Lava rocks are kind of a mess. You can create a Smoke Bomb (wood chips in a foil packet with holes poked in it) or use a Smoker Box. Use wood chunks placed within range of the flame and play around until you get smoke, not fire, on the wood.

©Welcome to the Cookout!™ photograph of charcoal fire in stages. Meat dripping fat.

But I digress….

The photo at the top of this post shows meat resting on grates over coals that were emitting zero smoke and virtually no aroma prior to the meat being placed there.  The pieces of meat are on hot grates about 3 inches from the glowing coals and as the fat on the meat began to render and drip onto the hot coals it vaporized and smoke wafted around the meat, some of it landing on the surface of the meat pieces. Et voilà ~ Flavor!

YOU can continue to say you prefer the flavor of food grilled over charcoal – and now you know why. ~ CB

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About Barry CB Martin

Barry 'CB' Martin is a Curious-About-Food author of cookcooks with a mission to help you learn the basics of outdoor cooking so you can prepare tasty meals for your friends and family. Sounds like a cool deal to me!
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Comments

  1. In theory the “perfectly tended” fire produces no flavor. In practice, however, there are few perfectly tended fires. To be “flavorless”, as you state, the coals must be fully ignited and burning at high heat. In practice, if there is inadequate oxygen supply, if the intake vents aren’t adequate, or if the coals are not yet fully ignited, there will be smoke. Smoke is made of gases and particles. Particles will settle on food and flavor it. In the case of lump charcoal, the lumps aren’t always perfectly carbonized. If there is uncarbonized wood, and there almost always is, it will combust and produce smoke.

    Also, it is important to note that the combustion gases that may be invisible, can impart strong flavors. Even gas grills produce combustion gases that impart flavor.

    Also, temperature is a factor. Charcoal usually transmits more heat that the normal gas grill, and this creates more browning on meat, and browning, the maillard reaction and caramelization, produce huge flavors.

    Time is also a factor. For a quick cook of thin food, smoke and gases have little impact. FOr longer cooks, there is a cumulative impact.

    So the theory holds that a balanced burn of pure charcoal and adequate oxygen will produce little or no flavor without drippings. But in practice, that is often not the case.

  2. Chef Barry says:

    “Also, temperature is a factor. Charcoal usually transmits more heat that the normal gas grill, and this creates more browning on meat, and browning, the maillard reaction and caramelization, produce huge flavors.”

    Craig – yes the charcoal fire can be organized in the standard backyard grill to create very high and somewhat difficult to regulate temperatures – a big chunk of which is generated as infrared energy, about 30% or better in really good fires. Infrared “Turns to heat when it hits the meat. ~ barry” and infrared cooks differently than convection heat (hot air) which is the primary heating source in most grills (especially when cooking with indirect heat) or the conductive heat of the grates. This infrared energy created in charcoal fires contributes to the taste difference which some folks associate as “charcoal flavor” too.

    One should also differentiate between lump charcoal (made from wood and it still looks like it) and hard wood briquettes as well as the compressed briquettes made from wood, coal and petroleum by-products as each of these burns a bit different and can be managed (mismanaged?) to produce flavors that attach to meat.

    But you know what? At the end of the day – what folks like is what they like. I really want to emphasize the facts and understand that folks will believe whatever they want regardless of the facts.

  3. You are so right when you say “folks like what they like”. They wear their preferences on their T-shirts and bumper stickers “and that’s all I have to say about that”. As your readers can see, it is complicated! AND I think that, under ideal lab conditions, it is hard to tell the diff between gas and charcoal (it is no mistake that almost ALL the top steakhouses use gas), but in practice, in most backyards, charcoal is smokier and produces a distinctive taste.

  4. Chef Barry says:

    We are pretty much in agreement – it’s important to help folks understand what is going on so they can better manage the processes, respond to weather influences and learn to produce the results they desire.