Charcoal: What Should I Use? For Us, Natural Lump Charcoal Is the Only Way!

May is National Barbecue Month, and what better way to kick off the celebrations than an in-depth exploration of charcoal, its different forms, and how it got that way? But wait, I hear you say, charcoal is charcoal is charcoal, isn’t it? It’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Here, then, is an overview of the two most common kinds of charcoal, and the difference between them.

The charcoal briquettes you get at the grocery store are actually compressed chunks of ground charcoal and sawdust, as well as non-wood products such as coal dust, limestone, starch, borax, and sodium nitrate (not exactly what we want in our food!). The advantage charcoal briquettes have is their even size and density, which allows for a more predictable burn rate in less expensive grills. The disadvantage of briquettes is that they produce far more ash than lump charcoal, and this ash can choke the fire, limiting the heat output. With a small charcoal grill, this may not be a problem, but the volume of ash produced means that briquettes won’t work in ceramic smokers like the Primo or Kamado Joe. They also cannot be easily used for more than one cooking session. Additionally, briquettes have no flavor of their own, and so impart no flavor profile of their own to the food cooked over them.

Traditional charcoal kiln. Image courtesy of Kamado Joe.

Traditional charcoal kiln. Image courtesy of     Kamado Joe.

Lump charcoal, on the other hand, is made from hardwood which is burned slowly in a low-oxygen environment over a period of several days, through a process known as pyrolysis. (Readers may remember from our chimney safety post that pyrolysis can occur when clearances to combustibles are not met for wood stoves or fireplaces, or when venting materials aren’t connected right; essentially, this means that an improperly-installed wood stove can gradually turn your wall studs into charcoal! Pyrolysis: bad for houses, good for cooking.) This low-oxygen environment is created when wood is either placed into an oven/kiln, or covered with earth and straw, then closed off and left to burn slowly and steadily until the wood is fully oxidized and hardened. The hard wood chunks are then broken down into lump charcoal, which is filtered to remove crumbs and dust.

Because it has no fillers or binders, lump charcoal produces less ash than briquettes, burns hotter, and heats about 20 minutes longer per pound of fuel. Here at Wooden Sun, we use 100% hardwood charcoal in our grills and ceramic smokers, and feel that for flavor, lump charcoal really can’t be beat. We also like to cut the air off after cooking, let the fire die out, and use the remaining charcoal for the next grilling session, which is very difficult to do with charcoal briquettes. A bag of good lump charcoal should have very little dust (there’s always some that settles in the bottom during shipping, but more than a little indicates that your charcoal supplier hasn’t adequately filtered their product before packaging), and only a few small chips.

Whichever form of charcoal you choose for your outdoor cooking, steer clear of lighter fluid. It can impart a nasty chemical flavor to your food, as well as being environmentally unfriendly. There are a variety of fire starters available out there (usually made with some combination of paraffin and compressed sawdust), and products like the Looft Lighter and BBQ Dragon will keep hot air moving over your charcoal to get it up to temperature faster.

 

-P.S. The links below aren’t actually relevant to your choice of cooking fuel, but your blogger encountered them in the course of her research, and found them too interesting not to share:

Spring Inventory Reduction Clearance Sale!! Up to 80% Off!

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Big changes are afoot here at the Wooden Sun! Over the summer, we have plans to remodel our store, bring in new product lines, and expand our work into more outdoor projects! To make room for new products and displays, we’re putting all of our showroom units on sale, at discounts ranging from 10%-80% off our usual retail pricing. From April 15th-May 22nd, come into the Wooden Sun showroom for big discounts on a wide range of gas & wood stoves, fireplaces, fireplace inserts, and outdoor cookers! And be sure to look for our grilling accessories, on clearance from 10%-25% off retail price!

At the same time as we bid a fond farewell to our old inventory, we’d like to welcome the Kamado Joe line of ceramic grills and smokers to the Wooden Sun family! Every Kamado Joe cooker comes standard with cooking racks, rolling cart, grill lifter, and ash tool, so you can get started grilling right away. These grills will also be included in our sale, at 10% off retail.

On the Care and Feeding of Your New Awning

So you’ve just gotten a fabulous new awning/canopy/solar shade. First of all, congratulations on all of your newly-usable outdoor space! We hope that your new awning beautifies your home and improves your summer afternoons for many years to come. By keeping direct sunlight from entering your home, your new shade product should also keep your home much cooler, significantly reducing your air conditioning bill. Although both Aristocrat and Eclipse shading products are made with a coated, durable aluminum-frame construction and sturdy marine-grade fabric, some basic care and maintenance will help to extend the life and beauty of your awning or canopy.

Routine Maintenance

You should clean your awning on a regular basis, before dirt, bird droppings, or roof residue have a chance to get embedded in the fabric. Loose dirt can be brushed off with a soft brush, and you can hose the fabric down without having to remove it from the frame. To remove stains, use a mild natural soap like Ivory® Flakes or Woolite® in lukewarm water (no more than 100 degrees F). Do not use harsh soaps, detergents, or chlorine bleach. Allow the fabric to dry completely before you retract your awning, and don’t let water pool or puddle on the fabric. When retracting your awning, make sure no twigs, leaves, or other debris get rolled up in the material. We recommend retracting your awning in strong wind, hail, rain, or snow, particularly in winds of over 20 mph. The fabric should roll off the top of the roller tube, never from underneath; if your awning fabric is unrolling from below the tube, rather than above, please schedule a service call.

At the start of the outdoor season, it’s a good idea to hose down the aluminum arms of your awning and wipe them with a soft cloth, to make sure no dust or grit has accumulated during the winter. Although the framework is self-lubricating, it’s a good idea to lubricate the moving parts yearly with a dry silicone spray lubricant to maintain optimal, quiet operation. If unusual creaking occurs when you operate your awning, try lubricating it before calling your dealer. The most prevalent place where an awning needs lubrication is at the end of the roller tube, on the side opposite the motor or gear. Be sure to keep the spray away from the fabric.

Preparing Your Awning for Winter

You should retract your awning for the winter season. If your awning has a hanging valence, you should remove this and store it in a dry space, following the instructions below. Do not store the valence in a plastic bag, as this can trap moisture.

Valence removal and replacement

Awnings and fire do not mix.

Awnings and fire do not mix. (click to enlarge)

A Final Note

Please, readers, don’t store or use grills or smokers underneath your awning. This picture shows the damage that can result from having such a high heat output underneath your awning or canopy. In addition to posing a danger to your home and family, this is a sad fate for such a lovely awning.

 

 

Grill Safety & Maintenance: Refresher Course

Ed. note: It’s that time of year, so here’s our grill safety and maintenance post once again.

Summertime, and the grilling is easy! Everybody loves food cooked outdoors, whether on a gas, charcoal/pellet, or electric grill or smoker. But, as with any heating or cooking appliance, grills require regular maintenance, and some basic safety precautions to keep you, your family, and your home safe.

Grill fire

This picnic has ended badly.
Image: Countryside Fire Protection Dist., Vernon Hills, IL

Let’s start with the safety precautions:

  • Never use your grill indoors; carbon monoxide can build up in an enclosed space, posing a significant health hazard to everyone in the home.
  • Grills should never be used underneath a deck or balcony, or directly next to a wooden structure. Keep your grill away from flammable materials, and make sure that all children and animals stay at least three feet away from it.
  • When starting a gas grill, the lid should always be open. If the flame has gone out (blown out by the wind, for example), turn off the grill, wait 15 minutes for the propane to dissipate, then re-ignite the pilot.
  • Before you use your grill for the first time each year, be sure to check the gas line and connections. You can do this by applying a soap-and-water solution to the hose, gasketing, and connector valves. If bubbles form, there is a leak. Turn the gas off immediately and wait to see if the leak stops. If it does stop, be sure to have your grill serviced by a professional before trying to use it again; if the leak does not stop, call the fire department. If you smell gas while cooking, get away from the grill and call the fire department.
  • If you’re storing your propane grill during the off-season, disconnect the gas tank and store it outdoors, never in the house or garage.
  • And, of course, always read the user manual that comes with your grill, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding use and proper maintenance of the grill.

As to maintenance:

  • Clean cooking grids and drip trays thoroughly. Grease and salt speed up corrosion, and pooled grease can easily ignite.
  • In addition to checking for gas leaks, check all valves and connectors for rust and other corrosion. Remove all rust with a wire brush, and apply a rust-proof paint or sealant to the area.
  • After you finish grilling, leave the grill on high for about 10 minutes; this will vaporize most of the remaining drippings and grease (although you should still clean your grill thoroughly at the beginning and end of grill season).
  • Protect your grill with a fabric-lined grill cover. A tarp or other non-breathable cover can trap moisture inside, speeding up the rusting process.
  • Finally, have your grill cleaned, serviced, and inspected by a qualified technician once a year.

Enjoy your grilling, and have a safe and happy summer cooking season!

Backyard and Patio Projects

Spring has finally sprung. Time to get out in the garden, give everything a good spring cleaning, and think about how to best use your outdoor space this season.

Part of an outdoor landscaping project done by Blake and his dad.

Part of an outdoor landscaping project done by Blake and his dad.

Is this the year for that patio, outdoor kitchen, or landscaping project you’ve been considering? Whether you’re looking for a small patio, a new outdoor kitchen, or an entire outdoor room, we can work with you to make your project a reality! Our lead mason, Blake Hunter, has been doing stone work for 20 years, learning from his father, Peter. Their top-notch stonework graces fireplaces, patios, and decks throughout the Charlottesville/Albemarle area.

Outside our showroom – a glimpse of the luxury an outdoor kitchen can provide.

 

Once your lovely stone patio is complete, you’ll need a focal point for your new space, and what better choice than a firepit or firetable? With a huge variety of products from HPC, R.H. Peterson, and the Outdoor Greatroom, you’re sure to find something at Wooden Sun to complement any outdoor space, and help you “bask in the warmth” at your next backyard gathering!

 


Enjoying coffee in the shade. Pergola canopy by Aristocrat Awnings.

Is your outdoor space too sunny and hot? Do you get rained out whenever you try to host a party or enjoy your garden? A retractable awning might be just the thing for your deck or patio, or maybe you need some screens by Eclipse to keep the bugs off your porch. A pergola can turn a patio almost instantly into an outdoor room, and an under-pergola canopy keeps the sun and rain off you while you’re enjoying that room.

Relax by the pool. Awning by Eclipse.

Relax by the pool. Retractable awning by Eclipse.

 

 

Whether your plans are large or small, we have the products and expertise necessary to bring an extra touch of luxury and comfort to your outdoor space. Give Wooden Sun a call, and let us help you create the outdoor room of your dreams!

The Benefits of Interior & Exterior Solar Shades

Eclipse Interior Shade

Interior solar shade by Eclipse

It’s true that an awning keeps your house cool and lowers your heating bills, but maybe you don’t want to shade your yard or garden.  Or perhaps you enjoy the look of your interior blinds or curtains, but want to be able to open your windows without the wind blowing your window treatments around.  Available in a variety of fabrics, solar shades, which lie flush against your window frame, can provide excellent sun protection, and are heavier and more durable than most interior shades.  Fine mesh shades, in UV-resistant material, block the majority of the sun’s heat without impairing your view of the outdoors, while heavier fabrics give you privacy at the touch of a button. They can be either motorized or not.

Eclipse Exterior Shade

Exterior Shade by Eclipse

If you’re looking to prevent as much solar heat as possible from entering your home (without investing in blackout curtains), an exterior solar shade may be the most effective option for you.  Since these shades are mounted on the outside of your home, the sunlight never has a chance to reach your windows and heat the glass; interior window treatments prevent the sun’s radiant heat from entering your home, but a small amount of convection heat will still be transmitted from the warmed glass.

Zippered exterior shade

E-Zip Exterior Shade

Like the drop screens which are often attached to awnings, exterior solar screens can also be used as an effective barrier against both insect life and low-angled sun.  These zippered screens can be motorized, just like their awning and canopy counterparts, and can be raised or lowered with a wall switch or remote control.  Transform your open porch into a screened veranda within seconds!

Awnings & Canopies

Often, the sunny patio or deck that’s so perfect for during the fall and spring gets so hot during the summer that it’s impossible to enjoy.  An awning or canopy provides a cool, shaded area, perfect for children & pets, and the ideal place to enjoy a summer barbecue.  A retractable awning extends your home’s usable living space, complements an outdoor kitchen or grilling area, and can increase the value of your home.

girls+dogsThe sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and children and pets are particularly susceptible to sunburn and/or dehydration.  A shaded outdoor area remains cool and helps keep home residents safe from the damaging UV rays of the sun.  The kids can play with the dog while you weed the garden, and afterwards you can all enjoy the view together in comfort.
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