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How is Charcoal Made?

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  • Written By: V. Wagner
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 19 June 2014
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Anybody who’s grilled with charcoal knows what it’s like — black, hard, long-burning, and relatively smokeless. It gets those characteristics from the way it’s made, a centuries-old process that essentially involves heating carbon-based substances, like wood or bone, in an environment with little or no oxygen. This process removes water and gases that were in the original material, creating “char.” The char is then mixed with other substances, including binding materials such as corn, and shaped — often into briquettes or other shapes.

Charcoal literally goes through a trial-by-fire process, which makes it, in turn, a substance that can be burned to deliver steady, reliable, and long-lasting heat. There are three basic stages to the production process: charring, shaping, and bagging.

In the first stage, wood, bones, or other carbon-rich materials are dried and then subjected to extreme heat of around 840° to 950°F (450° to 510°C). This is accomplished by placing the materials either in a kiln or a continuously-fed furnace called a “retort.”

In the kiln or batch method, there is a cooling period, in which the air and exhaust vents are closed off and the material is left in an oxygen-free environment. During this cooling off time, the materials becomes char.

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In the retort or continuous method, the materials are fed through a furnace with multiple hearths, and mechanical arms stir them to make sure they burn evenly. At the end, the char is sprayed with cold water. Coal can also be charred by crushing carbon-rich materials, then drying and heating them to about 1100°F (590°C), and then cooling them by air.

The second step in making charcoal is shaping it, typically into some form of briquette. To make these, the char is mixed with other ingredients, such as a starch binder like wheat. The mixture is then dropped into a press that cuts it into standard briquette shapes. These briquettes then go through a dryer. Charcoal is sometimes also extruded into larger, log-like shapes.

After the material is shaped and cooled, the briquettes are bagged and sent off to store shelves, industrial plants, and other destinations.

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Discuss this Article

submariner
Post 7

@GiraffeEars- Before you add your wood chips to the hot charcoal briquettes you should soak them for an hour in some type of liquid. This will make them burn slower and produce a good smoke to flavor your food.

When I soak my wood chips, I will often combine beer and water. I do not know what it is about alcohol and cooking, but it really seems to draw the flavor our in a meat. What type of beer I use depends on the food that I am cooking. Something with a strong flavor often requires a darker beer. I use a whiskey barrel stout or a porter for a steak or burgers. For seafood, pork and poultry, I usually soak my wood chips in something light like a blond or light lager. Play around with it a bit to find what you like most.

GiraffeEars
Post 6

I have a question regarding charcoal barbeque. My friend gave me some wood chips (apple wood I think) to add to my barbeque, but the chips just burn away instantly, producing too much smoke and not so great a flavor. Can anyone tell me what I am doing wrong? How can I make my barbeque taste as if it has been apple wood smoked?

anon128226
Post 3

it's basically rearranging molecules in the stuff. It is not burning. When you heat something at a very high T, can you imagine that it will get a different physical form?

zegbuonu
Post 2

Where to find Charcoal buyers?

ethanhines
Post 1

How can wood (or anything) be burned with out Oxygen?

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