What's the Differences Between Charcoal vs Coal?


Do you often get confused with charcoal vs coal?

What are each and what are the differences?

Before we dive into definitions and a little more detail about each, when cooking, always use charcoal. Never use coal - it'll poison your food. Something you don't want to do!


Charcoal is produced from the slow heating of wood or other substances. (Merriam-Webster defines charcoal as “a dark or black porous carbon prepared from vegetable or animal substances.”)

Coal, on the other hand, is a natural formation of mineral through decaying plant and animal under the earth’s crust with prolonged heat and pressure. (Merriam-Webster defines coal as “solid combustible substance formed by the partial decomposition of vegetable matter without free access of air and under the influence of moisture.”)

What are the types and differences between these two substances?

The most basic difference between these two is that coal is a mineral and charcoal is not.


Coal is basically a result of fossil fuel that formed over many years, whereas the source of charcoal is slow burning carbon woods.

It is formed through the collection of plant materials that are degraded slowly. When plant debris is buried under sand or mud, the pressure and the temperature inside convert them into coal over a long period.

Coal is considered as a non-renewable natural resource. Once coal is mined out and used, it cannot easily be regenerated. Blacksmiths have used coal, particularly bituminous or “soft” coal, in forge fires for hundreds of years.

There are different types of coal. Their categories are based on their properties and composition. The coal types are:

  • Anthracite
  • Bituminous
  • Sub bituminous
  • Peat
  • Lignite

Peat is considered the lowest grade coal among the coal types. It is formed by recently accumulated plant debris, and over time, can be converted into coal.

There are some drawbacks to using coal. First of all, it’s not easily available, and even if found, it is  expensive to use every day.

Another serious concern is burning coal emits sulfur dioxide (SO2), and if it comes in contact with water (H2O), it creates harmful sulfuric acid (H2SO4).

And, if used to cook food, coal will poison your food. A definite drawback!


Charcoal comprises carbonic compounds. When water and other substances are removed from the carbonic compounds, the end result is charcoal.

Charcoal is in the solid form and looks dark grey.

The main method of producing charcoal is called “Pyrolysis,” where organic materials are decomposed at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. For example, by heating wood we can obtain charcoal.

There are few types of charcoal. Below are a few options:

  • Extruded charcoal
  • Lump charcoal
  • Japanese charcoal
  • Briquettes

Charcoal has a density of nearly 25 percent of the original wood. The average density of charcoal is .13 or approximately 1/10 that of coal. It usually takes 10x the volume of charcoal to do the heating job as coal.

Charcoal vs Coal: Which one to use when?

The maximum temperature that coal fire generates is approximately 3,500°F (1,927°C). Lower temperatures are used for boilers and furnaces, which is also due to increasing focus on reducing nitrogen oxide or NOx emissions.

Charcoal, on the other hand, heats up more than chard coal (coke) or a gas grill. It is because charcoal is more or less pure carbon, and generates lots of energy.

A charcoal-fired forge makes the air temperature nearly 45 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the normal temperature. Particularly, wood charcoal burns a little quicker than coal charcoal.

Charcoal also adds that unique “grill flavor” to food.

Actually, it's not the charcoal alone that provides that delicious flavor. It comes from the volatile compounds and not from the briquettes themselves.

When the meat heats up, it releases drippings that fall on the burning charcoal and combust. Those drippings have plenty of fats, proteins, oils, and sugars that vaporize and come back up into the meat, giving it that distinct flavor.

More drippings = more flavor.

Knowing the difference between coal and charcoal is particularly important for grilling.

For everyday cooking use,  charcoal is your choice. But which charcoal to choose?

Which type of charcoal is ideal?

That can depend on a number of factors - particularly personal preference.

Is lump charcoal a more effective fuel source compared with briquettes? Are briquettes better when it comes to maintaining even temperatures?

Though different types of charcoal are available, each person may have a personal preference. Try different charcoals and decide which one you prefer.

Leave a comment below and let us know which type of charcoal you prefer.