Charcoal vs Wood for Grilling: What’s Better?

Header showing charcoal vs wood side by side for grilling

Grilling with wood vs charcoal is an ongoing debate but I’m here to explain how you can enjoy the benefits of both.

As a grilling enthusiast, I’m always looking to try new techniques and expand my skills. Combining both wood and charcoal grilling has allowed me to enjoy the convenience of charcoal grilling with the versatility of wood grilling.

If you’re looking to settle the charcoal vs wood grill debate, here’s how to combine the two for the best of both worlds.

Charcoal vs Wood Summarised

  • Charcoal grilling is convenient, reliable, cost-effective, and known for the classic smoky flavour it offers but it can be messy
  • Charcoal grilling is ideal for cooking with direct heat
  • Wood grilling offers versatile flavours but requires longer cooking time, more temperature monitoring, and runs the risk of charring
  • Wood grilling is ideal for cooking meats with indirect heat
  • Combining wood and charcoal grilling can create mouthwatering flavour profiles and bring out your inner chef
  • Avoid softwoods and stick with hardwoods such as mesquite or hickory when grilling with wood

Charcoal Grilling

Luke charcoal grilling Kangaroo loin

Charcoal is wood that has burned down into pure carbon using low oxygen. It offers a classic smoky flavour and reliable results.

Types of Charcoal

Common charcoal options include charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal. You can learn more in my lump charcoal vs briquettes guide or see a quick glance at their differences here: 

  • Lumps: Pure hardwood charcoal, preferred for a hotter, cleaner burn that creates less ash, uneven chunks, good for quick grilling
  • Briquettes: Contain binders to create uniform sized pieces that offer a consistent burn, less ideal for aficionados, can contain chemical additives
  • Specialty Options: High-heat options like Binchotan, eco-friendly alternatives like coconut charcoal

Pros of Charcoal Grilling

  • Ideal for direct heat
  • Longer burn (a little goes a long way)
  • Eco-friendly since it is pure carbon and free of additives
  • Burns steady and hot
  • Affordable and readily available
  • Easy to control the temperature

Cons of Charcoal Grilling

  • Messy and can lead to stubborn stains and excess ashes
  • Takes longer to reach desired cooking temperature
  • Less smoke but produces dangerous vapours

Ideal Use

Charcoal grilling infographic showing temperature, cooking length, and internal temperatures for 13 types of meatPerfect for backyard barbecues with direct heat cooking or for searing. From corn on the cob to chicken wings to steaks, hot dogs, and burgers, charcoal is the tried and true grilling method.

You May Also Like: Charcoal Grilling 

Starting Methods

I recommend a chimney starter to avoid chemicals.

 

Wood Grilling

Wood grilling requires a little more practice but the results are worth it. With a bit of experimenting, you can create custom flavour profiles based on the meat you are cooking.

Types

The most common types of wood for grilling are:

  • Wood Logs: Ideal for campfire or pit BBQs
  • Wood Chunks or Chips: Fully seasoned small pieces that are perfect for backyard BBQs

And what about a charcoal vs wood pellet grill? Pellet smokers rely on compressed wood pellets and can be used for grilling but only if it has a cooking-specific oven.

Note: It is important to use wood logs or wood chips specifically intended for grilling. These options are seasoned to reduce water content. Fresh cut wood will steam due to its high water content, creating poor results. Never use rotten or mouldy wood.

Pros of Wood Grilling

  • Offers a range of flavours
  • Ability to customise a flavour profile using different wood species
  • Natural and free of chemicals or artificial additives

Cons of Wood Grilling

  • Requires more monitoring throughout the cooking process
  • Risk of over-smoking or charring the meat
  • Not all wood types are suitable
  • Not ideal for direct heat grilling
  • Burns faster than charcoal and requires frequent replenishment of chips
  • Takes longer for the wood to heat up and requires longer cooking time overall

Ideal Use

Adding wood chunks to the BBQ

Grilling with wood is primarily used for smoking with indirect heat. Trying to use wood grilling for direct heat is difficult because the flames are tough to control. This can lead to foods becoming charred if you aren’t careful.

Wood grilling works well for meats that benefit from a long, slow cooking process and is a great way to add unique flavours.

While it is fun to experiment with different wood profiles to create unique flavours, I do not recommend softwoods for grilling.

I know a poor fellow who tried grilling with spruce and ended up with a subtle coating of soot on the meat. Ok, maybe the poor fellow was me.

To be successful grilling with wood, I’ve learned to stick with hardwoods and work my way up slowly by adding a bit of wood at a time. The goal is a subtle flavour enhancement that complements the meat without overpowering it.

I’ve found that grilling with wood lends itself best to beef, chicken, and pork.

Flavour Differences Between Charcoal and Wood Grilling

Using wood turns the grill into a flavour playground while charcoal imports a tried and true taste.

So, is cooking with charcoal vs wood better for flavour?

I like both depending on the type of meat I’m cooking, how much time I have to grill, and if I want to customise a flavour.

Charcoal Flavour

Grilling with charcoal imparts a consistent chargrilled, classic taste. I love when meat juices drip onto the charcoal and create a flavourful steam.

You can’t go wrong with the simpler, smoky flavour that the pure carbon nature of charcoal infuses into meats. It’s essentially fail-proof, even for beginners.

Wood Flavour

I like the versatility that grilling with wood offers. Grilling with wood provides a diverse range of flavours depending on the wood type used, allowing for more tailored taste profiles.

Here are some of my favourite wood types to grill with and the flavours they create:

  • Hickory Just the right amount of smokiness, great for just about any meat.
  • Mesquite Robust, mouthwatering smokiness and a slightly sweet scent that complements just about anything
  • Fruitwoods (Cherry, apple) — Subtle sweetness and pleasant aroma that complements high-fat meats, such as pork
  • Oak Long and steady burn time, robust smokiness with subtle nuttiness, good for pork or beef
  • Pecan This one is on my list to try! I’ve heard it is great for briskets and larger cuts of beef that require long cooking times at low temps

When to Use Both Charcoal and Wood

Luke adding chips of natural wood to a charcoal BBQ to give his food an enhanced flavour

So what’s the answer for the debate of grilling with wood vs charcoal? I vote for both!

I’m a big believer in the “best of both worlds” for grilling.

Combining the two offers the convenience of using charcoal grilling and the ability to create unique flavour profiles from wood grilling.

Learning to combine them has been a lot of fun for me. 

Combination Techniques

Using both wood and charcoal for grilling can seem intimidating but it’s surprisingly easy to get started.

I’ve found that the key is starting slow with just a few pieces of wood at first and adding more as needed.

For best results, create a two-zone fire with charcoal as the base heat and wood as an indirect heat source for flavour.

Zoning Setups

To set up your grill for both indirect and direct heat zones, use charcoal as the base heat and place wood chunks off to one side. This will help minimise flare ups while still adding a subtle flavour to your meat.

This two zone method won’t add as much flavour as true wood grilling but it is the easiest way to start.

Some grills include a pan that you can add wood chips directly to. However, they burn up fast and need frequent replenishment. Wood chips add just a hint of flavour, so don’t expect a significant difference.

Get Grilling With Us

With a bit of practice, you can combine the benefits of charcoal and wood grilling into one.

Combining the two has allowed me to enjoy the convenience of charcoal with the delicious, customisable flavours of wood.

I highly recommend playing around a bit to see which technique works best for you. I also like adding a variety of rubs and spices to meat when grilling.

Whether I’m grilling with wood or charcoal, my go-to BBQ rub is our All Purpose Seasoning. It pairs well with anything, isn’t spicy (perfect for little ones who prefer more neutral flavours), and is the perfect way to get started with adding new flavours to burgers, steaks, pork, or chicken.

I also love our Loaded Burger seasoning for combined wood and charcoal grilling. My favourite recent meal was burgers seasoned with Loaded Burger and cooked over a charcoal base with indirect heat. The entire family raved about those burgers for days afterward!

If you have questions about wood or charcoal grilling, want personalised seasoning recommendations, or just want to talk BBQ, we’re here to help! Please feel free to get in touch with us any time.

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