For most of us cooks charcoal is the fuel of choice when we pull out our old black pots and start cooking. I've never made it a secret that I like Kingsford brand charcoal. Though I'm not paid to say this I've never found another brand that gives me the consistency in burning time and temperature output as Kingsford brand. From Texas to Tennessee I can grab a bag of Kingsford from any store and know it will light easily and perform, as I'm accustomed to. There are so many variables a DO cook must contend with as it is, so finding a dependable heat source eliminates at least some variables. This can be especially critical for the beginning DO cook. Too many times I've seen someone try to pinch a few pennies and buy a cheaper brand only to be stymied because it was hard to light or self-destructs within thirty minutes. If faced with shaving a little money from my camp budget I'd rather grill a hamburger with good charcoal that try to do a filet mignon with charcoal that doesn't perform.
As a rule I don't use the Matchlight or Mesquite varieties because they don't seem to give me the cooking time regular Kingsford does. Rather than an hour plus cooking time under normal conditions I find the burning time to be about 25-30% shorter. However, I keep a sack of Matchlight handy especially during the fall and for trips to hunting camp. When ambient air temperature drops below forty degrees as it often does during our fall hunting trips a few of the Matchlight briquets mixed in with regular Kingsford charcoal decreases the amount of time it takes to get briquets to cooking temperature.
Typically I start my briquets with a chimney starter and a couple of sheets of newspaper wadded up underneath. If it's cool and damp I might squirt a little lighter fluid on the newspaper so it burns a bit hotter which aids in getting the charcoal started. On occasion I'll drain the bacon at breakfast on a brown paper grocery bag then use the grease soaked sack to start my charcoal in the evening. When it comes time to add or start more charcoal I pour the chimney starter about a fourth full of new briquets then with my metal tongs place half a dozen briquets that are over half burned in the chimney starter. Then I add more briquets from the sack to the starter and set it in a firepan for about twenty minutes. The old briquets have the new batch ready to go in about the same time as the newspaper method. I like doing it this way because it eliminates the ash resulting from the burned newspaper from flying around camp.
When conducting clinics and seminars one of the most frequently asked questions is, "What's is the difference between using charcoal and wood coals?" This takes us right back to the primary reason I prefer Kingsford brand charcoal, consistent heat output! All firewood is not created equal. I envy folks who live where there is an abundance of good hardwood available for firewood. They are rich and they don't even know it! Here in the Northwest we poor folks have very little available in the way of hardwoods when camping compared to folks in other parts of the country. By and large we have our choice between pine and fir, which are both very soft woods. What hardwood we see is sold in small plastic bags for flavoring barbecue or for making jerky and smoking fish. Of course there are exceptions but for the most part camp cooks here in the West don't get the opportunity to use good hardwood coals when cooking with their Dutch ovens. Coals from pine and fir are adequate for simmering stews or other dishes that take a minimum of top heat on the DO but present a challenge for even the most experienced cooks when using them for baking! The best analogy I can come up with is to compare pine and fir coals to real cheap charcoal. They don't get hot enough long enough to bake with. To use them for baking one must figure on having a good supply of fresh red-hot coals available and changing coals at least once just to bake a batch of baking powder biscuits.
On the other hand good hardwood coals yield about the same heat and length of cooking time, as does my favorite charcoal. Of course the coals are not uniform and consistent in size as briquets but it's my experience if I apply the equivalent amount of good hardwood coals, as I would charcoal briquets my results are the same. Of course the more one experiments and uses wood coals the better feel for heat output and cooking time they get. On my trips to the Las Piedras Ranch in the Texas Hill Country I cook strictly with oak coals. I set my fire pans up adjacent to the outdoor fire ring and keep a medium size fire going it while cooking with my DO's. Whenever I need coals I scoop them up with a shovel and distribute them as needed.
For folks just getting started with DO cooking I recommend they start with charcoal and be comfortable making their favorite recipes first before using wood coals. The bottom line being whether using wood coals or briquets is to have the longest most consistent heat source possible.
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