First things first: I have always told people (and in the most righteous way possible) to never ever use charcoal briquettes. Never. Ever.
So what do we have here? A briquette, that’s what, formed from carbonized cocoanut shell powder. And I am going to (warning! spoiler coming!) give it an almost unqualified thumbs-up recommendation. Which means that I am a tool. Or was, anyway. Charcos is good stuff. Environmentally sound, easy to work handle and store, easy to clean up, and definitely delivers on the heat.
The reason that most serious charcoal cooks stay away from briquettes is because of the binder they use to create the little bricks. Charcoal dust doesn’t normally want to stick together, so the makers of briquettes use assorted resins and glues to make everything hang together. Resins and glues give off fumes that taste about as delicious as you would think. Which is not at all. For added annoyance the non-charcoal parts of the average briquette also burn incompletely (if at all) leaving you with tons of ash to clean up.
Bad, bad, bad.
Charcos does away with resin and glue and instead substitutes stupidly high amounts of pressure. They pretty much just squeeze the little buggers so tight that they don’t dare come apart. The benefits to this method are four-fold: You get no horrid resin taste, you have almost no ash, the product packs into a startlingly small and wickedly convenient box, and the briquettes are so dense that they put out more heat than any other charcoal. Ever. Be warned.
In fact, for some applications (and thus my “almost” unqualified recommendation) they heat may just be too much. If you are using a closed cooker or pit (like a Weber kettle or a Big Green Egg or a drum smoker) then you have no worries. You can manage the heat by cutting the draft to almost nothing, and you will get amazingly even heat at pretty much any temperature you want. Even better, with this much thermal mass the heat lasts and lasts and lasts. On an open cooker, however, where there is unlimited oxygen … watch out. These babies can get uncontrollably hot – my neighbour up the street has an ultra-high temperature probe that he, er, “borrowed” from work and we measured the centre of a 16 briquette pile on at open grate at 1400 degrees C. Not the kind of heat you want to grill your weenie on.
The high density of these things also means that they have some significant thermal inertia. Lighting them can be a bit of a chore unless you know what you are in for. You will need to load your charcoal chimney with at least 8 full sheets of newspaper instead of the usual 4, or do what I do and put a couple of lumps of some other lightweight charcoal in the bottom of the chimney as a booster (maple works great for this), load the Charcos on top, and then light your chimney in the usual way.
Once it is up and going, this charcoal burns incredibly clean. You get vanishingly small amounts of almost completely neutral smoke. For any sort of baking in your pit this is ideal, and if you want more smoke flavour you can add either a couple of chunks of your desired wood or do a mix of Charcos and another charcoal of your choice. If you added some “booster” charcoal into the starter chimney then you are already halfway there.
Finally, there is the fact that it doesn’t look like any other charcoal and it comes in a freaking cardboard box. Barbeque geeks tend to be a very traditional lot – myself included – and this is something that some of you might find off-putting. I had to be convinced by the guy at my local barbeque supply store to give it a try, and I was more than a bit skeptical. Don’t be like me, do yourself a favour and give this a shot. And don’t get your shorts in a knot over the cost, either. It seems pricy for what looks like a small box, but you get a huge whack of charcoal in the package, you use less than half of what you would use of any other brand, and there is virtually no waste in the box – no broken pieces, no marbles, no chips, no dust. Just 100% usable first-rate charcoal.
This stuff rocks hard from an environmental standpoint, too. This is made from cocoanut shells that are otherwise waste. No tropical woods are being destroyed here, and no trees are being cut down. This is made from stuff that is already being harvested and cracked open. Waste is reduced, resources are maximized, and you can feel good about what you are spending your dough on.
This will never be your only charcoal. You will still want to keep other more traditional lumps on hand for specific flavours and for direct open-grill cooking, but for all of your work in the pit and in closed cookers like the Egg, this stuff is hard to beat.
On The Web: Charcos Cocoanut Shell Charcoal