Charcoal vs. Wood Grilling: What’s the Difference?

For that smoky flavor while grilling, do you opt for charcoal or wood? The guide below will help you decide which method is best.

Nothing goes better with warm summer nights than firing up the grill. It’s easy to find the right type of grill for your BBQ style. But when it comes to starting the grill, a debate lingers: cooking with charcoal vs. wood. Both impart that coveted smoky flavor. However, they vary in terms of use, versatility and cost.

Here’s a closer look at the pros and cons to help you choose the best option for your next BBQ.

Grilling with Charcoal

The bag of charcoal is common sight at backyard barbecues. When choosing charcoal, you’ll have two main options: briquettes, which are made with chemicals to form a neater, square shape, and lump charcoal, which some BBQ aficionados prefer for a “cleaner” taste. Learn how to start a charcoal grill the right way.


  • Easy to Control: You can control spots of direct and indirect heat, which is helpful for larger cuts of meat that need to be cooked for longer times. It also helps keep them tender and juicy, rather than charred.
  • Low Cost: You can buy a hefty bag of charcoal briquettes for less than $20. It’s easy to find at grocery stores or home improvement stores, too.


  • Extra Mess: With both wood and charcoal, you’ll have to clean grease, smoke and ash from the grill. But handling charcoal can also be a messy endeavor and can permanently stain clothes.

See how charcoal grills compare vs. gas grills.

Grilling with Wood

Cooking with wood ushers you into an entirely new world of flavors, one you can customize depending on the type of wood you choose. However, stick to meats like chicken, beef or pork—for this, you’ll want foods that benefit from long, slow cooking and smoky aromas. (Before you start, quench your thirst with summer-ready drinks.)


  • Flavor: You can choose the right type of wood to perfectly flavor what you’re cooking.
    • Hickory wood imparts a mild, smoky flavor that isn’t too overpowering.
    • Mesquite has a sweet scent and can be used for any type of meat.
    • Pecan is best for low-and-slow cooking, particularly briskets and other large cuts of beef.
    • Apple wood has a subtle sweetness that’s best for high-fat meat, like pork.
    • Oak is a popular option in the South and produces denser, powerful smoke. It’s best suited for beef and pork.
  • No Additives: Unlike some types of charcoal, which can contain artificial additives, wood is free of chemicals. This makes your food safer to consume—and the flavor will be rich and won’t be affected by any surprise ingredients.


  • Difficult to Master: You’ll need to monitor the level of smoke: too much, and your food will be overwhelmed with wood flavor. Wood can also burn faster than charcoal, so you’ll have to replenish your chips more often.
  • Slow to Heat: Flavor-packed BBQ comes at a price—it can take longer for the wood chips to heat up and longer for the food to cook, making it less practical for those who are hosting barbecues or want food prepared quickly. Expect up to an hour for the wood to heat up, and then up to two hours for your meal to be ready.

What About Using Charcoal and Wood?

You don’t have to choose between the smoky flavor and the convenience of charcoal. The two can be combined with some practice. For best results, use both charcoal and wood while smoking your food, cooking over indirect heat with charcoal as the heating element and wood providing the flavor. You can easily turn your grill into a smoker. Start with a few pieces of wood at first, and add more as needed.

Next: Serve Dinner from the Grill
1 / 75

Kim Bussing
Kim Bussing is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She has written for publications including Reader’s Digest, Modern Farmer, Clean Plates and Vice, among others, and she is working on her first novel. She is always on the hunt for the perfect gluten-free cinnamon roll.