Is it safe to BBQ with lump charcoal? Here’s the short answer: yes. It’s no more unsafe for you than any other thing you’re doing in your day to day life. There are risks associated with it, sure. There are also risks associated with walking down the street. There are risks associated with going outside on a sunny day or eating meat full-stop. Do the risks outweigh the benefits? Would you sacrifice the joy of a day at the beach? Didn't think so.
Most of the risks of cooking with charcoal have nothing to do with the charcoal itself. The issues are going to be with the foods you are cooking, and the method with which you cook. Let’s break it down.
What Is Lump Charcoal Made Of?
BBQ charcoal is bits of pre-burned wood. It could be hickory, mesquite, oak, or any other hardwood. The wood bakes for a long time in a low oxygen environment. It's had all the nasties cooked out of it. Water's the first to go, but methane, hydrogen, and tar are all removed in the process. When your burn BBQ charcoal it produces a whole lot of heat. It also emits carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. That might sound like bad news, but it's like the fact that there's arsenic in apples - it's not enough to hurt you.
Is Cooking With Lump Charcoal Dangerous?
On a simple level, barbecuing is dangerous. You’re literally playing with fire! Of course, there are risks involved. That's going to be the case no matter what you're cooking. You can avoid most of these risks by taking a few simple measures. Be careful not to get too close to the flames. Don’t use too much fuel. Don’t wear flammable clothing. Tie your hair back. Know proper fire safety protocols and first aid, so that in the event you do cop a burn, you know what to do about it.
But we're talking about charcoal cooking in particular. So here's the big one when it comes to that: always BBQ in a non-enclosed area!
Letting smoke build-up is no good. It’s a pain when the wind changes and it gets in your eyes at the best of times. If you’re surrounded by the stuff you’re going to be at risk of smoke inhalation. In extreme cases, carbon monoxide poison. We don’t want that. BBQ outdoors. That’s where it’s the most fun, anyway.
Which Foods Should I Cook With Lump Charcoal?
If you want to get into the details of how to charcoal grill the safest, it comes down to what you’re cooking. At first blush, it’s easy to think that cooking with charcoal would be carcinogenic - that is, it can cause cancer. Cooking with charcoal produces smoke, and smoke is carcinogenic. Cooking with charcoal produces high heat, and cooking over high heat is carcinogenic. But like we’ve already said, this stuff is part and parcel of being a pitmaster. And it's a risk, not a certainty. We don't barbecue because we like breathing in smoke - we're going to avoid that as much as possible.
The most important thing to know about cooking over high heat is that it's only bad news when it comes to meat. The char on meat can contain chemicals called HCAs which raise the risk of certain cancers. The combination of heat and creatine in meat is what creates HCAs. There are a few lessons you can learn from this.
First, don’t aim for a whole lot of char - that’s where the carcinogens live. Rotate your meat often, lower the heat a little, whatever it takes. Anyway, who wants a steak that's burnt to a crisp? Another hot tip from the American Institute of Cancer Research - marinate your meat! This will reduce the amount of carcinogens you produce AND increase the flavour of your meal! Double win!
Second, and this is important - high heat-producing HCAs is only the case for meat! Grilling veggies is safe as houses. Veggies don’t contain creatine, so you’ve got nothing to worry about. You can char grill veggies for days and your body will do nothing but thank you for it.
So Should I Use Lump Charcoal?
We love cooking with lump charcoal at The Barbecue Company. Of course, we're going to say you should cook with it. It's delicious, it's fun, and it's a great outdoor activity. At the end of the day, it's important to be aware of the risks, but not be paralysed by them. Think of it the same way you'd chuck on some sunscreen and slip slop slap before you hit the beach. Take some precautions, use your noggin, and take advantage of our top-quality charcoal. We stock Golden Oaks, Myron Mixon, and Goldens’ Cast Iron - only the best of the best. Shop our full range of BBQ charcoal today.