Cooking with charcoal simply offers more versatility, better flavour and a more enjoyable cooking experience. At Modern Cooking we consider every product and article on our site an opportunity to inspire our members and readers to try something new and different. When we considered the idea of offering BBQs on our site it was clear that we would only be offering charcoal grills. Cooking with charcoal is such a primal and rewarding experience and the results speak for themselves.

With that said its obvious that there is going to be a certain level of bias present in this article, but not in terms of shameful product promotion only in terms of a bias towards cooking with charcoal as a fuel source. We understand that a gas grill can be a convenient, clean and enjoyable way to cook. However, the results you can achieve in terms of flavour are no different to those that can be achieved in a pan or oven.

With superior quality charcoal you will experience flavours and textures that simply cannot be achieved with any other BBQ fuel source. In this article we will explain why that is, we will discuss several unique charcoal BBQs and their usage and historical origins.

The flavour that charcoal BBQs impart is undeniably unique and delicious, but how does cooking with charcoal impart such an amazing flavour. The source of that salty, sweet and smoky, umami flavour is delivered through a variety of factors that only charcoal can deliver.

Firstly, heat plays a massive role. Unlike a gas grill a charcoal grill can reach extremely high temperatures. The high heat caramelises the meat that you are cooking. If you read our post on Umami you will know that this caramelisation transforms amino acids in meat and creates a strong umami flavour. Although a gas grill can caramelise meat it will often over cook the meat in the process due to the lower temperatures it produces.

Secondly, unlike a gas grill, which has isolated burners, charcoal can be manipulated to serve many different functions. This allows for a level of precision control and experimentation that cannot be achieved with a gas grill. You can create hot zones and cool zones as you see fit.

When cooking with charcoal it’s also possible to infuse flavourful materials like woods, herbs and spices into the charcoal, which will then impart unique flavours into the food you cook. This is also true of any fat drippings from meat that falls into the coals, which will then burn and produce oily, sticky, smoky flavoured particles, which will then rise and infuse with your food. All of this produces the smoky flavour that charcoal grills are famous for.

Charcoal Briquettes are traditionally formed out of compressed saw dust. Most professional chefs and pit masters will tell you that its much better to use pure wood charcoal and this is for a number of reasons.

While there are many manufactures producing decent quality charcoal briquettes, many use resinous soft woods and often use chemical binding agents, which impart undesirable aromas and remove all the flavour enhancing benefits of cooking with charcoal.

Charcoal briquettes burn a lot faster than pure wood charcoal and they cannot reach the same high temperatures. This coupled with common impurities found in the production process make briquettes a poor choice in terms of flavour and the environment.

Lump Charcoal

Lump charcoal is made from only natural hardwood, such as maple, oak, mesquite or even hickory. The wood is kiln baked which reduces it to charcoal. The wood remains in its original form except it is black all the way through from the kiln process. In fact, the best way to determine the quality of the charcoal is to look at it—if you can recognize the shapes of real wood, you’ve got the real thing.

Pure wood lump charcoal burns hotter (around 750°C), so you will require far less charcoal than you would with briquettes. This type of charcoal burns a lot slower than briquettes because it is much denser. Because it is not made from saw dust it also produces much less ash. You can also re-use lump charcoal and even put it out with water, dry it and re-use it.

This is far more natural and when farmed from sustainable sources is also environmentally friendly. The fact that it is not bonded with artificial bonding agents also makes it healthier. Pure wood charcoal maintains all the great flavour enhancing properties mentioned earlier.

Ubame Oak - Binchotan

Binchotan is a premium lump charcoal produced in south west Japan. The charcoal is made from a Japanese oak variety known as Ubame.

Produced in handmade clay kilns the ubame oak is first baked at low temperatures and then the temperature is rapidly increased before the embers are starved of oxygen by shutting the air in-take on the firebox, this process protects the carbon in the wood. This process of slowly drawing out the moisture at low temperatures before charring the wood is unique to the binchotan process. The resulting lumps burn longer and hotter than any other charcoal and are so pure that they are used in air and water purification.

Binchotan is the best charcoal money can buy, but it doesn’t come cheap. We recommend you only use Binchotan in a Konro or other small grills.

Japanese BBQs

The Kamado BBQ

In Japan, charcoal has been used for over 2000 years as a key household heat source and it was still popular up until around the 1950s. Kamado is essentially the Japanese word for hearth. In the traditional Japanese home, the Kamado was a clay or ceramic rectangular shaped cooking range. A fire would be built inside it and heat would rise through one or more holes in the top of it. Each hole could be used to place a pan for cooking.

The Kamado grill as we know it today comes from the Mushi Komado, which was designed specifically for cooking rice. The innovation for this came in the form of a separate fire box or charcoal box and cooking pot. However, it was American ingenuity that transformed this design into the modern-day grill that we know today.

There are quite a few interesting stories about how the Kamado made its journey into the west, but essentially it all began with American servicemen, whom, during the second world war would pack Mushi Kamado on to transport plans and ship them back home as souvenirs. Eventually, they became so popular in the US that a variety of companies began producing them state side.

The modern day Komado BBQ has received quite a bit of innovation and is now a truly versatile piece of cooking equipment, it’s an all in one grill, oven and smoker. You can really cook anything on a kamado, from a low and slow brisket or ribs to burgers, steaks and veggies and even pizza (with a pizza stone).

What sets the Kamado apart is its ceramic shell. The ceramic shell has extreme heat retention properties and can absorb temperatures up to 400 °C (750 °F) similar to a wood fire oven. The design also gives precise control of airflow (and thus temperature) afforded by the bottom up ventilation system, which makes it possible to roast and bake in your Kamado BBQ.

Modern Kamado Accessories

Although the standard air flow control on the Kamado BBQ allows for rapid temperature adjustment, through the addition of a little modern technology in the form of an electric air blower and a thermostat controller you can precisely control your Kamado BBQs temperature to within a few degrees. Famous among competition pit masters, professional chefs and BBQ aficionados the BBQ Guru temperature regulators make it easy to control and manage the temperature of a Kamado BBQ. The latest models can even be controlled via Wi-Fi enabled web applications and seriously make cooking with charcoal and breeze.

The Konro

If you have ever travelled to Japan, you would have seen one of these small BBQs on just about every street corner. Particularly as you walk around the entertainment quarter of Osaka (Dontonbori near Namba station) you will find a konro at almost every restaurant with an expert operator twisting Yakitori skewers or some other delicious morsels.

The Konro is probably better known in the west as a Hibachi grill, but in Japan it is called shichirin or konro. It’s a bit complicated, but the shichirin and konro names probably evolved when these small clay or ceramic fire boxes started getting used for cooking instead of just heating.

Hibachi were originally developed in around the 8 thcentury A.D. and their original purpose was to act as a small room heater. My guess is that they became a poor man’s Kamado or cooking range, like those cheap electric hot plates are today. Over time it was discovered that they were great for cooking Yakitori and other smaller food items and so they were rebranded or renamed Konro or Shichirin.

Originally Konro were made from volcanic diatomaceous earth, which has a natural capacity for retaining and dispersing heat. Modern Konro are long, slender, rectangular grills fabricated from firebrick or ceramic.

With decent quality lump charcoal or Binchotan a Konro produces a very hot source of heat (750°C). The compact size and shape and the firebrick/ceramic construction makes these grills perfect for cooking skews of meat or sliced vegetables. The food is inches away from the charcoal and the juice that drips down is instantly evaporated into a smoky cloud of deliciousness that infuses with the food on the grill. The hot temperature is also perfect for creating crisp caramelised skins on chicken and other meats.

With the onset of the molecular gastronomy revolution many professional chefs have begun using Konro and Kamado BBQs to capture the great flavours that can only be achieved by cooking with charcoal and wood smoke. The versatility of these BBQs is really what makes them great and, like Sous Vide immersion circulators, a charcoal BBQ is for many professionals now becoming a must have piece of cooking equipment. Like many other modernist cooking techniques, cooking with charcoal give the opportunity to add unique and delicious flavours and textures to the food.

Today a quick search for charcoal BBQ on google will turn up hundreds of options. We believe the ceramic options are best in terms of versatility, durability and value. You might pay more for a Kamado BBQ, but with a little care it will last you a life time.

Reviewing half a dozen YouTube videos will tell you that steel and cast iron grills have a much shorter life span. With that said we advise you to look at the kamado BBQs and Konros and buy a model that has rust resistant metals parts because it is those parts that will fail you first on a Ceramic BBQ. Look at the spring-loaded hinges, air intakes and metal frames on the Kamado BBQs. If you find a grill that has rust resistant parts you have a great grill.

At Modern Cooking we have a range of charcoal BBQs including the very popular  Japanese Konro BBQ that have been featured on Master Chef. You can follow the links to check them out, but there are many others out there and whether you choose to buy one through us or someone else we strongly suggest you check them out and start cooking with charcoal.

Peter Buckwalter
Tagged: Cook Smart