How Does Charcoal Affect The Flavor of Smoked Meat?

How Does Charcoal Affect The Flavor of Smoked Meat

I always wonder how barbecue meat tastes so good, then I understand the logic behind it. Let me help you know the actual reason why our meat gets a smoky taste. What is charcoal? How does charcoal work? And which type of wood or charcoal do we need to achieve that perfect taste? It’s important to know how cooking with charcoal and smoke works chemically. 

So many people enjoy smoked barbecue meat because of its full, rich flavor. We need to understand the process of grilling. In this article, we will talk about all the grilling tips and a complete guide to the mystery of charcoal. And I will also give you some advice on how to pick the right charcoal for a smoky taste. 

The Process of Burning Charcoal To Smoke

By burning wood and other organic substances with a bit of oxygen, you will get your charcoal. Most charcoal is carbon, and it burns too long and is hotter than wood. It makes less ash and smoke, but it can’t add much flavor by itself. You need to add wood chunks, pallets, and wood chips to get a better taste. These pieces of additional fuel help in burning wood and making more smoke. With the help of chemicals in the smoke, your meat gets its color, flavor, and delicious smell. 

What Happens To Food When it is Smoked? 

how does charcoal affect the flavor of smoked meat-meat

In the method of smoking, meat is kept in a room with low and indirect heat. This way, the meat stays juicy while cooking on low heat. Here comes a chemical reaction called Millard between the smoke and the meat. You get a new taste and smell from this reaction; not only this, but it can change the color and texture.

Meat undergoes so many changes in this process of smoking, which means that your meat has more chemicals in it. Harmful chemicals like heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can cause cancer and other diseases if consumed in high amounts. Studies show that an adequate amount of smoked meat is safe for your health. 

Types of Charcoal

how does charcoal affect the flavor of smoked meat-charcoal

To become a pro at grilling, you should know the common types of charcoal. The most common types are wooden lumps and briquettes. You can use both as per your choice; both have some pros and cons. Let me simplify both types of charcoal to help you so you can choose wisely. 

Wooden lump charcoal

Burning hardwoods until they take on the shape of a lump and become carbon-containing is how you make lump charcoal. These lumps are used in the making of charcoal; it’s a natural and organic way to produce charcoal. If we compare lump charcoal to briquettes, it makes more smoke and less ash. It gives more authentic and natural flavors to the meat because it does not contain any harmful components. 


Pressing scraps and other types of wood waste produce this kind of charcoal. They are the same size, the same shape and easy to manage. But they make less smoke and more ash compared to lump charcoal. They are good for long grilling sessions because they burn more consistently. 

The Taste of Different Kinds of Charcoal

It depends on so many factors, like what type of charcoal you use. When you add them to your smoker, Here are some simple tips about how different types of charcoal give the meat a smoky taste:

  • Wooden lump charcoal gives you more smoky flavor meat because it makes more smoke than other types of charcoal. 
  • Briquettes, on the other hand, will give the meat a mild flavor because they don’t have any explosive compounds. 
  • Hardwood charcoal always gives a better taste to the meat. It has cellulose and lignin; that’s why it has a sweet flavor. 
  • You will get a milder and lighter taste of smoke if you are using softwood charcoal.

Why is each type of charcoal better or worse? 

Nobody can answer this question because it depends on the type of meat and your personal choices. But I’m going to share some important points that you need to remember:

  • If you are planning to use meat like lamb or beef, then you must use wooden lump charcoal. It will give you the most natural and strong flavor. 
  • For the steak and chops, use wooden lump charcoal because they need to cook on high heat. 
  • But if you are using fish, chicken, and vegetables, then briquette charcoal will be beneficial for you. They will improve the natural taste of these kinds of meat. 
  • Same with ribs, briquettes of charcoal will give you the perfect smoky flavor because it is better for slow cooking. 

kinds of smoke

how does charcoal affect the flavor of smoked meat-smoke

When charcoal and wood burn, smoke comes from them. Smoke has four types, and each has its color, reason, and intensity. Many kinds of particles are the reason that changes the taste and texture of the meat. 

  1. White smoke: If your wood or charcoal is wet, then you will see white smoke. It is thick and clear and often used for barbecue. The taste of this type of smoke is average, and the meat will become dull. 
  2. Blue smoke: This is an indication that the fire is burning well and the charcoal or wood is dry. You will see the perfect golden color of the meat, and the taste is also good with this smoke. It is thin and tough to see, but it is the best smoke for grilling. 
  3. Grey Smoke: If you see your smoke turn grey, then you should stop your grilling. It’s thick and dirty with a smell in it. This type of smoke means that your wood or charcoal isn’t good and clean. It gives a strong taste and dark color to the meat. 
  4. Black smoke: You have to stop smoking immediately; if you see it, your smoke will become black. It contains poison and it’s not good at all for the meat. Painted charcoal can be a reason for black smoke. It will give a black color and a bad and bitter taste to the meat. 

Common kinds of wood used for smoking

how does charcoal affect the flavor of smoked meat

If you are a beginner in grilling, then you have to understand some common types of wood that we use for the mouth-watering recipes. Wood is the main ingredient for flavorful smoked meat. Choose the wood type carefully because you will get a different taste from different shapes and sizes. There are two types of wood we have:

 Hardwood charcoal

It’s made from the trees of maple, hickory, cherry, walnuts and apple. If you are going to grill meat, then you must choose hardwood because it will burn longer than softwood. It gives a strong and fruity flavor to the smoke. In hardwood these two chemicals called lignin and cellulose are found in high amounts. It makes more white and blue smoke so that the meat gets a mild and nice smoky flavor. 

Softwood charcoal

If you want your meat to be smoky and tasty, then you should avoid softwood charcoal. It is made from cedar, pine, spruce, and fir trees. It burns faster but gives less heat and flavor. The main ingredients of this type of wood are resin and terpenes. In the burning process, it releases phenols and creosote, which makes the meat taste strong and sticky. It makes more grey and black smoke so that your meat gets a sharp and bitter taste. 

Ways to avoid cheap or self-lighting charcoal

  • The cheap charcoal is made from low-quality wood and contains chemicals like borax, paraffin, and lighter fluid. 
  • Self-lighting charcoal is so convenient but can’t be used to smoke the meat in so many ways. 
  • It gives less heat and flavor because it doesn’t burn evenly. 
  • Cheap charcoal is bad for the health of the meat; it contains harmful substances. 
  • Self-lighting charcoal makes more ash, which is not good for your smoker. 
  • Try to use only organic and natural charcoal, like hardwood lumps. 
  • Natural charcoal doesn’t contain any chemicals, so they are safe to use. 


Smoking meat on charcoal is a fun activity for anyone, but choosing the right type of charcoal is important. You have to pick the right amount of wood or charcoal to keep your fire on. If you want the meat to be smoky and tasty, then go for wooden lump charcoal. Avoid cheap and self-lighting charcoal as it contains harmful chemicals. Use hardwood charcoal to get a delicious grilling. Manage the smoke and fire intensity as well. Follow the advice and tips which are mentioned above to become an expert in Smoking meat. 


Q: Does charcoal add smoke flavor?

A: Only charcoal doesn’t add smoke to the meat. Wood chips and chunks in charcoal help to add flavor, color, and smoke to the meat. 

Q: Is charcoal good for smoking meat?

A: Charcoal is a good option for smoking meat, but the type of charcoal matters a lot, so choose it wisely. 

Q: Does cooking with charcoal taste better?

A: The taste is more authentic and natural and way better than cooking on a stove or gas. 

Q: How do you add flavor to smoked meat?

A: By simply using charcoal, seasonings, and aromatic marination, you can get a smoky flavor to the meat. 

lizz barret foster

I’m responsible for managing and coordinating content creation, distribution, and optimization. I’m the former editor-in-chief of PMQ Pizza Magazine and have written for several B2B food publications over the years, including Restaurant Hospitality, Flavor & The Menu, Restaurant Business, National Culinary Review, FSR, Restaurant Startup & Growth, and more.

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