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Who Invented Charcoal Briquettes?

Hot BriquettesCharcoal briquettes were invented 70 years ago by Henry Ford, who wanted to get rid of wood wastes from his automobile factory. At the time, wood was used extensively in the automobile frames. Ford and his brother-in-law, E.G. Kingsford, manufactured charcoal in the same fashion as Connecticut Charcoal.

The following is a reprint from Inquirer Magazine:

UNION, Conn. — Tomorrow, millions of Americans will prepare meat, sauces and aromatic smoking chips and then set fire to their outdoor grills. It is an elaborate holiday ritual that many practice with religious devotion.

But only a few chefs will give even a passing thought to the most basic element of barbecuing – the ubiquitous charcoal briquette.

Mark Greene wants your attention for a moment.

“Do you know what’s in a charcoal briquette?” Greene asks with the authority of a man who knows the answer. “Well to begin with, there’s little, if any, hardwood charcoal in it.”

That’s right – most charcoal briquettes are about as closely related to timber as Spam is to a pig. The leading brands largely contain charred sawdust and anthracite coal.

What’s more, manufacturers pack those little pillow-shaped pellets with chemical additives – some to accelerate the fire and others to enhance the appearance of the briquette as it burns. The cheapest brands contain petroleum binders – those are the greasy briquettes that smell like diesel.

Greene hints darkly at the consequences of eating food cooked over such fuel. “If the fat is dropping down on coal dust, lime and sodium nitrate, there’s got to be a certain number of molecules of coal, lime and sodium nitrate that end up on the food.”

If you have not gathered it by now, Greene has a vested interest in an alternative product. He is part-owner of the Connecticut Charcoal Co., a rustic low-tech business tucked into a glade near the Massachusetts border, where they make something called lump charcoal, under the name Old Time Charcoal.

Lump charcoal is roughly the same fuel that cavemen used in cooking brontosaurus burgers. Irregularly shaped, porous and half the weight of briquettes, lump charcoal comes out of the beehive kilns at Connecticut Charcoal looking like blackened pieces of oak, hickory, cherry and beech. The wood grain is still visible.

Connecticut Charcoal is among a small number of concerns that sell lump charcoal primarily through hardware stores, coal dealers and natural food stores. Only a few supermarkets carry natural charcoal, which is bulkier and more expensive than briquettes.

Although lump charcoal accounts for only a microscopic portion of the $450 million charcoal market, it has encountered a receptive welcome from consumers concerned about the purity of their products.

“Our idea was to put this superior product in front of the consumer, get him to try it, and we can make a business out of it,” says Greene, a former New York advertising man who bought Connecticut Charcoal four years ago with the idea of taking a sleepy industrial product and promoting it as natural fuel.

Likewise, the Humphrey Charcoal Corp. in Brookville, Pa., reports that sales of lump charcoal have increased in recent years as consumers become more concerned about health matters.

“The market’s been growing, but it grows more by word of mouth,” says Jim Smith, the sales manager for Humphrey, which repackages lump charcoal it buys

from Missouri. “It’s been difficult to educate the buyers to the advantages of lump charcoal.”

Barbecued health food might seem like an oxymoron, particurly amid allegations that food seared by any heat source – charcoal, gas, or electric – contains carcinogens.

But lump charcoal producers maintain that a huge market exists for people who like to grill their food over open fires, but are leery of conventional briquettes.

Advocates of natural charcoal can produce no scientific evidence to support their assertions that the additives in briquettes affect the healthfulness of the food. But who needs evidence when perceptions will do?

“I never stocked briquettes because I didn’t really approve of all those chemicals,” says David Rothman, the owner of Dave’s Farm Fresh Poultry in Erdenheim, who began selling Connecticut Charcoal Co.’s product this year.

There is a certain amount of snob appeal to all this.

Greene sells his Old Time Charcoal under the slogan “real food deserves real charcoal.” And a Rhode Island company last year began selling “Nature’s Own” charcoal, which claims it is more environmentally pure than other hardwood charcoal because it is made from virgin Canadian rock maple – rather than sawmill scraps and pallet wood.

But according to barbecue connoisseurs, the best sales pitch for lump charcoal is that it simply makes food taste better.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but those briquettes give off bad smoke,” insists Ron Washington, the owner of Ron’s Ribs on South Street, who uses only lump charcoal.

Other devotees say the difference is more in the mind than in the mouth.

“I think if you did a test with people who use briquettes and hardwood charcoal, they would have a hard time discerning between the taste,” says Chris Schlesinger, the co-author of The Thrill of the Grill. “The differences are minuscule.”

Nevertheless, Schlesinger uses only lump charcoal and real hickory at the East Coast Grill, the restaurant he partly owns in Cambridge, Mass.

“I think the process they make the charcoal (briquettes) with is kind of weird,” he says. “I like the notion of hardwood charcoal. I’m seeing it more and more. It’s definitely the wave of the future.”

For the neophyte, lump charcoal takes some getting used to.

Real hardwood charcoal burns much hotter than briquettes, which means it is superior for searing meat and sealing in juices – a key part of charcoal grilling. But you have to be careful not to burn the meat.

“It can actually get so hot as to damage some backyard grills,” cautions Lisa Readie, a spokeswoman for the Barbecue Industry Association, which represents the leading briquette and gas grill manufacturers.

“Another thing that can make it tricky to cook over is its irregular shape, which can cause un-uniform heating and sometimes sparks.”

To its credit, lump charcoal lights more easily than briquettes – it can be started with a few wads of newspaper. The coals are red hot in 15 minutes, rather than more than 30 minutes for briquettes.

“Lump charcoal works better,” says Russell Goudy, owner of Killian’s Hardware in Chestnut Hill, which stocks Humphrey charcoal. “It burns faster, but you usually don’t need a fire that’s that long-lasting. And it starts up easy, so you get away from the liquid fuel, which doesn’t smell that good.”

But lump charcoal can be costly – a 20-pound bag of Humphrey’s goes for as much as $9 and a 10-pound bag of Old Time Charcoal sells for $7. Briquettes cost about $6 for a 20-pound bag.

Lump charcoal is manufactured much the way it has been for thousands of years, when humans discovered that hardwoods charred in an oxygen-starved environment produced nearly pure carbon, a more efficient fuel than wood. Softwoods, such as pine, produce poor charcoal because they contain tarry substances that make food taste like asphalt.

At Connecticut Charcoal – the last natural charcoal producer east of the Mississippi River – workers pile planks of scrap hardwood to the roof of the 30-foot high brick kilns. Most of the wood is slab lumber – the round, barky edges cut from trees at sawmills.

When the fire is set, woody smoke fills the folds of the hills surrounding the charcoal company’s compound.

After the fire is started, workers then seal most of the kiln’s oxygen intakes and draw the smoke out through a diesel afterburner, which acts as an emission control device.

The slightly green wood smolders for five days, burning off water, minerals and the volatile materials. When the smoke stops, the wood is completely charred. The kiln is sealed and the fire is suffocated for nearly two weeks.

“It has to be completely cool otherwise the fire will start up again when we open it up,” says Greene.

When the kiln is opened, the 150 tons of lumber has been reduced to about 35 tons of charcoal.

Until Greene and his partner, Matt McNerney, bought Connecticut Charcoal, most of plant’s production was used in the dwindling number of metal

foundries in the Connecticut River valley. Brass-makers put charcoal on top of the molten metal to absorb impurities such as oxygen.

Charcoal briquettes were invented 70 years ago by Henry Ford, who wanted to get rid of wood wastes from his automobile factory. At the time, wood was used extensively in the automobile frames.

Ford and his brother-in-law, E.G. Kingsford, manufactured charcoal in the same fashion as Connecticut Charcoal. But Ford’s company went one step further and mixed the crushed charcoal with a potato starch glue. They then pressed the blackened putty into the pillow-shaped briquettes.

At first, the briquettes were used in tobacco curing and as fuel on ocean liner kitchens and railroad dining cars. Until World War II, when outdoor barbecuing became popular, Ford sold the briquettes only through his car dealerships.

In the 1950s, the Clorox Co. purchased Kingsford Products Co. and changed the formulation. The company no longer produced charcoal in a kiln. Rather, it turned the wood into sawdust and blasted it into black ash in a gas furnace. The furnace did in minutes what takes weeks in a kiln.

Kingsford also mixed in a few other ingredients to improve the appearance and decrease the cost of the briquettes. It added anthracite coal, sodium nitrate to speed up ignition, lime to make the ash turn white, borax to make the ash fall off, and sawdust to give the charcoal a woodsy smell. The nitrates burn off before the cooking starts, says Sandy Sullivan, a Kingsford representative.

Charcoal experts say that the telltale sign of inexpensive briquettes is the amount of ash it leaves behind – most of the additives are minerals that don’t burn away. “The more heavy ash you have, the cheaper quality charcoal,” says Jim Humphrey, the owner of Humphrey Charcoal Corp. Lump charcoal leaves only light ash.

Briquette manufacturers are reluctant to talk about the additives. Kingsford acknowledges that its briquettes contain “mineralized carbon” – a euphemism for coal. But it says its briquettes contain no petroleum, except for the Match-Light product, which has been drenched in lighter fluid and sealed in a plastic-lined bag to ensure that the fuel does not evaporate.

Federal laws do not require charcoal manufacturers to list the ingredients on the bag.

“They can put ‘charcoal’ on the label, but there’s no charcoal in it, which kind of burns me up,” says Don Hysko, the owner of People’s Coal Co. in Cumberland, R.I., which sells Nature’s Own charcoal.

But, for the sake of convenience, Greene believes that briquette manufacturers have so impaired the performance of what most people know as charcoal that many barbecuers have given up and switched to gas grills.

“Here’s the poor consumer thinking he has a problem getting a fire started,” says Greene. “Well, of course he has trouble – there’s nothing in it to burn. You might as well be out there trying to light rocks.”