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Follow this lesson to learn all about charcoal briquets, including what they are, how to light them and how to cook with them.

The signature flavor of American barbecue predominately comes from using charcoal briquets. As the hardwood burns and smokes, that classic aroma is infused into your food, creating a backyard masterpiece.  

Disclosure: I am a paid ambassador for Cowboy Charcoal.

Charcoal briquets burning in grill.

What are charcoal briquets

Charcoal briquets are the most common wood fuel sources for making American barbecue. How they are made and what they are made of has varied over the years.

While charcoal itself has been around for centuries, briquets were made popular when Henry Ford began manufacturing them from sawdust left behind from wood materials used during car manufacturing. You can read more about the history of charcoal briquets in the New York Times.

The briquet really changed the way we grill and barbecue, because unlike wood that may be damp, briquets provide cooks with a bag of equally-sized, dry fuel every time.

When I first started grilling, I was hesitant to use briquets because I had heard that some were made with chemicals and fillers like limestone and even tar.

Now, I cook with Cowboy Charcoal briquets all the time.

They’re all-natural and don’t contain fillers, chemicals or additives.

The briquets are made by carbonizing sawdust from hardwoods like oak, hickory, mesquite and applewood. To form the pillow-like shape, the charcoal compound is then mixed with a proprietary vegetable binder. That’s it.

Because it’s made with quality hardwoods, the briquets provide wonderful smoky flavor that makes grilled meats and vegetables taste fantastic.

Cowboy Charcoal Briquets come in a variety of wood and flavor combos

rack of beef ribs by bag of charcoal

How to light charcoal briquets

Please don’t use lighter fluid. If you’re cookin’ with Cowboy, it’s because you appreciate that the charcoal is all natural. So don’t go and add chemicals to it.

Instead, fill a charcoal chimney with briquets. Add a natural firestarter or scrunched up lunch sack under the chimney. Place the chimney on the charcoal grate within your grill and use a long-handled lighter to light it.

When using a charcoal chimney, don’t set the chimney on your cooking grate. The bottom charcoal grate is built to withstand the high heat. Cooking grates, on the other hand, are usually thinner. Also, don’t set the chimney on the ground, because it will scar the surface and the heat can even melt pavement.

Once the coals begin to ash over and the thick white smoke transitions to a virtually clear smoke, dump the coals into your grill. Then, pour on a few more coals, if you are planning to do a longer cook. You can also add 2-3 wood chunks at this point.

chunk of whiskey barrel on coals.

How to use charcoal briquets

No matter what you’re grilling or smoking, the key to success is managing your heat. With a charcoal grill, that means adjusting the bottom and top vents to allow oxygen to flow into the body of the grill to feed the coals.

Once your coals are dumped into your grill, allow that thick white smoke to subside. Then, start to close down your vents to whatever temp your recipe calls for.

I usually leave a small 1/4 to 1/2-inch gap in bottom vent(s) and open and close the top vent to manage my grill temperature.

The wider your vents are open, the hotter your grill temperature will get. As you close down the vents, you limit oxygen, allowing the coals to burn at a lower temperature.

If your grill doesn’t come with a thermometer (or you don’t trust that it’s accurate), you can monitor the heat with a digital thermometer. . 

If you’re cooking on an open fire pit or park grill

When you go to your local park and use the grills, you don’t have the luxury of a lid or vents, so you have to learn to manage the heat a little differently.

Instead, spread the coals out a bit to reduce the temperature or push them together to create more heat.

If you’re lucky, the park grill will have an adjustable grill grate. You can lower it closer to the coals for hotter temps, or raise the grate for cooler temps. You can also add coals to one side of the grill, creating two zones, so you can rotate the food as you cook it.

Where to buy charcoal briquets

Cowboy Charcoal Briquets are available in select stores across the U.S. like Krogers/Smiths, Lowe’s, ACE Hardware and Tractor Supply Company. 

You can also order them online at Amazon, Wal-Mart and Lowes.

Click here to find a store near you.

cookin with cowboy logo

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christie vanover standing against wood wall.

Hey BBQ Family

I’m Christie, the head cook and award-winning competitive pitmaster for Team Girls Can Grill. I have won multiple grand championships and top 10 category finishes. I’m an expert grill reviewer for BBQ Guys, and I have appeared on the Food Network and Ninja Woodfire Grill infomercials. I established this website in 2015 to share my BBQ tips and recipes.

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  1. Hi Christie. How would you describe the difference between Cowboy lump and their briquettes? Which has more smoke flavor? I agree with you that pellets have a lighter smoke flavor. I like more smoke flavor.
    Also, it looks like you start your charcoal, dump the basket then add more coals and your wood chunks? Does adding unlit coals on top of lit ones at the start of your cook create any issues. The unlit coals don’t release any of that start up smoke as they ignite?. I usually do the reverse.

    1. Hi JW. I don’t notice much difference between the two. Lump is probably a bit more smoky. If you really like smoke flavor, I recommend adding 2-3 wood chunks. For competitions, I use a mix of briquets, lump and wood.

      Great question about adding coals on top. I usually let them catch and burn a bit before adding food. Adding coals on the bottom is a great option if you want to get cooking right away.

      But I also add coals mid-cook sometimes, and it doesn’t really impact the flavor.