Learn How To Make Charcoal and What’s Really in Your Fuel

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Regarding barbecuing or grilling, charcoal has been a popular fuel choice for many outdoor cooking enthusiasts. Its ability to infuse food with a unique smoky flavor has made it a go-to option for backyard gatherings and summer cookouts. But have you ever wondered how charcoal is made and what fuel ignites those glowing embers?

In this in-depth guide, we explain everything you need to know about charcoal, including how to make charcoal at home. 

How charcoal is made

Charcoal production involves the burning of wood or organic matter in a low-oxygen environment, a process that eliminates water and volatile elements. As a result, the resulting charcoal can burn at high temperatures while emitting minimal smoke.

Various methods are employed in charcoal production, ranging from traditional to more advanced techniques. The conventional approach uses pit kilns, resulting in lower-quality charcoal. On the other hand, industrial equipment is utilized in the more advanced methods, yielding high-quality charcoal with a fixed carbon content exceeding 82%.

Whether employing a low-tech, small-scale approach or cutting-edge supra-carbonization technology, the fundamental process remains similar. However, the quality of the final charcoal product and the time required for its creation can differ significantly.

Types of wood and materials used

Charcoal production encompasses a wide range of organic materials, including various types of wood and other substances such as coconut shells, groundnut shells, and dry leaves. However, when it comes to lump charcoal, it is typically derived from natural wood, mainly hardwoods.

Hardwoods like longan, mangrove, and eucalyptus generate higher temperatures when burned. Therefore, if you prefer lump charcoal, look for options from these wood varieties, as they can provide the desired heat intensity for your grilling or cooking needs.

Alternatively, sawdust and finely ground organic matter can be utilized to create charcoal dust, which is then compressed into charcoal briquettes for burning. Briquettes often consist of a blend of different woods and are commonly produced from timber offcuts, including both hard and softwoods. These briquettes are typically available at a more affordable price point and may also incorporate tree bark.

Whether you opt for lump charcoal made from hardwoods or charcoal briquettes composed of a mixture of woods, the choice ultimately depends on your specific requirements and preferences for your outdoor cooking endeavors.

Briquettes vs Lump Charcoal

learn how to make charcoal at home

Both charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal are often referred to as “charcoal.” Nevertheless, there are some essential differences to be aware of.

Lump charcoal

Composed of pure hardwood pieces: Choosing lump charcoal from reputable sources is crucial to ensure it is made solely from hardwood. This helps avoid potential contamination from timber treatments or additives.

Irregular shape: The irregular shape of lump charcoal can make controlling airflow and stacking more challenging than briquettes.

Shorter burn time: Lumps tend to burn through faster than briquettes due to their smaller size.

Possible uneven burning: The irregular shapes and sizes of lumps may result in some pieces not being fully carbonized in the center. This can lead to occasional smoke or sparks during burning.

No additives: Unless otherwise specified, lump charcoal typically does not contain any added extras, setting it apart from most briquettes.

Charcoal Briquettes

Regularly formed shapes: Briquettes are designed in uniform conditions, making them easier to stack. This improves airflow control, resulting in a more consistent and reliable burn.

Contain wood by-products: Briquettes are usually made from charcoal, coal dust, sawdust, and wood chips. These natural combustible materials are blended to create briquettes.

Additives: After the charcoal is made, briquettes may be mixed with additives that serve as binders, improve ignition, and ensure a steady burn throughout the cooking process. The specific additives used can vary between brands and products.

How was charcoal first made?

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The history of charcoal production dates back to approximately 4,000 BC, with people recognizing its valuable properties and utilizing it for various purposes. In ancient times, the process involved piling up wood in small quantities, setting it on fire, and then covering it with dirt to create a slow burn with limited oxygen.

As societies progressed, charcoal gained increasing significance. It was used for writing, drawing, smelting metals, creating glass, and even as an essential ingredient in early gunpowder production. Due to its diverse applications, charcoal production has held great importance throughout history. Local charcoal burners refined their production methods to meet the demand, gradually improving efficiency.

Charcoal piles were meticulously stacked in earth mound kilns, and the charcoal burners often resided in modest dwellings known as “charcoal huts” adjacent to the banks. Earth mound kilns proved more efficient than rudimentary pit kilns, where the charcoal was burned underground. However, as the carbonization process required continuous attention over ten or more days, kilns and charcoal production methods were enhanced by incorporating chimneys for improved air control.

Over time, brick kilns were developed, followed by the introduction of steel kilns, which enabled the carbonization of even lower-quality wood. Charcoal production has become an industrial process, utilizing vertical cylindrical metal furnaces. These furnaces, employing the MAGE supra-carbonization process, carbonize wood at temperatures around 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit. All gasses produced during the process are destroyed by a flare to prevent air and soil contamination.

From its humble origins in ancient times to modern industrial methods, charcoal production has evolved significantly, ensuring a steady supply of this versatile fuel throughout the ages.

What’s really in your charcoal? 

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Unless you’ve opted for pure hardwood lump charcoal or 100% hardwood briquettes, your charcoal will likely contain specific additives. 

These are added to improve burning performance and act as binding agents in the case of briquettes. 

Here’s the lowdown on what could be in your charcoal.

Heat fuel materials: This is the primary component of charcoal, typically derived from wood. However, it can also be a combination of natural biomass materials such as nut shells, coconut shells, peat, paper, and tree bark.

Binding agents: If you are using briquettes, binding agents are necessary to give them their shape. Common binding agents used in charcoal briquettes include starch, molasses, and sodium silicate.

Borax: Charcoal briquettes may contain borax or sodium borate, which helps in removing them from their molds without breaking.

Limestone: Some charcoal briquettes may include limestone as an ash colorant.

Sodium nitrate: Charcoal may have sodium nitrate added to improve burning performance. Nitrates act as oxidants, releasing oxygen when heated, accelerating the charcoal’s burn rate.

How to make your own charcoal

If you want to make your own charcoal, the process can be time-consuming and messy, but relatively straightforward. Here’s a guide on how to make your own lump charcoal:

Equipment

Hardwood cut into pieces (preferably hardwood rather than softwood)

Metal barrel with a lid

Kindling (small twigs or paper) to start the fire

Heat and fire protection gear (gloves, metal poker, bucket of water)

Getting started

Start a fire at the bottom of the barrel using kindling and small wood pieces. Ensure a good flame and plenty of heat.

Add the hardwood pieces in layers, gradually increasing the quantity. This will facilitate a faster spread of fire from one layer to the next.

Continue adding hardwood until the barrel is filled. Wait until the wood starts to blacken before proceeding.

Making charcoal

Once all the hardwood is burning and blackening, place the metal lid on the barrel to limit the oxygen supply.

Allow the wood to smoke in the barrel for approximately 24 hours or longer.

Remove the lid and check if the wood has finished smoking. If not, re-cover and leave it for several more hours.

Ensure the wood has finished burning and is extinguished before removing it from the barrel. If the barrel isn’t used for another load, you can store the charcoal with the lid on to protect it from moisture.

Your homemade, additive-free charcoal is now ready to be used with your grill!

If you want to create the perfect charcoal product for your market at scale and take your charcoal business to the next level, contact us for a free consultation and find out how we can best help you. Enjoy nature’s bounty without forfeiting dependability – unlock your eco-friendly lifestyle today!

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