Grilling season is upon us as the late spring fades into the first glimmers of summer, beckoning the masses with the call of open-flame cooking. If you close your eyes and listen carefully, you can already hear the restless burbling of barbecue bros all across the country, readying to throw some burgers on the Weber and debate the merits of propane versus charcoal.
The debate rages because there are so many amazing ways to grill. You can do it in luxury smokers, Big Green Eggs or improvised contraptions made from steel barrels and oil tanks. You can use cheapo supermarket match-light coals, beautiful lump charcoal or fancy Japanese binchotan, among many other options. You can add more smoke flavor by adding some wood chips to the mix, or forgo coals altogether and go with a live wood fire.
Given all of this, you’d be forgiven for imagining that there is no more room for innovation in the grilling metaverse in 2022, given humankind’s millennia of experience cooking over fire. But juggernaut charcoal brand Kingsford thinks otherwise: In March, it debuted a line of coals that have spices and seasonings pre-mixed in, promising to flavor your grilled foods with more than smoke. “We’re excited to bring this innovative, new offering to the category to help grillers create even more memorable experiences around the grill,” Ram Gopalakrishnan, the company’s marketing director, said in an announcement. “Whether you’re a beginner or pro, Signature Flavors charcoal briquets, pellets and flavor boosters will level up any barbecue.”
There’s that word: Innovative. It’s a bold claim wrapped up into an attractive product. The colorful bags of flavored charcoal scream things like “GARLIC, ONION, PAPRIKA,” making it clear that you’re supposed to get these flavors from the fire, not just the seasoning on whatever meat or produce you’re cooking.
But as somebody who’s grilled over charcoal for 15 years, my bullshit detector went off as soon as I heard of Kingsford’s new gambit. The product blends standard Kingsford coals with a lesser quantity of “flavor” briquettes, infused with small wood chips and dry spices. The idea is that, as they burn, the flavored smoke infuses with the surface of the meat. What I couldn’t understand is why anyone would want their meat coated in the aroma of burned spices — and that’s assuming any flavor is imparted at all.
There’s a reason why so much great barbecue involves rubbing on lots of salt, seasoning and marinades: It’s tough to get flavor to really stick to a piece of protein or vegetable, especially if it’s something as dense as a hunk of meat. I found it hard to imagine that a handful of briquettes with garlic powder in them would do anything but make for pleasant-smelling grill smoke.
If the online reaction since the debut of these seasoned coals is any gauge, I was right to hold back. The feedback from a variety of grilling sources is clear: The flavored coals are more expensive than standard options (including Kingsford’s own regular coals), but their impact can’t be tasted on the final product. “It’s a gimmick,” YouTuber Tom Horsman concludes with a chuckle.
Kingsford’s new line of flavored charcoal feels like a solution looking for a problem, especially given there are much easier, more impactful methods to add spice and flavor to your favorite grilled food. Case in point: You’d be better off opening the lid once in a while to baste, or by tossing a small amount of herbs like thyme onto the fire; in fact, one of my favorite methods is to lay whatever I’m smoking on a bed of woody herbs, so that their oils release in the heat of the grill without charring (do this over an indirect fire, not straight above the coals).
And if you just love the thought of savory-smelling smoke emanating from your grill, as the people who have tested Kingsford’s flavored coals do attest to, you can just throw a chunk of onion or garlic on the fire — it’s the same exact effect.
So much for capitalism breeding innovation; instead of something genuinely useful, we’re left with a gimmicky redundancy that feels more like a marketing play. At least something as stupid as Miller Lite’s beer-infused coals will gain some viral internet favor before dying out as a parody product. Nonetheless, I wanted to try the flavored coals out for myself, except there was a problem: I went to three supermarkets without finding a bag. “They never sold well,” one Safeway manager told me with a shrug.
No wonder redditors have been joking that these flavored coals will end up in a discount aisle near you. In which case, you should go for it. But otherwise, it’s hard to see the point of this “new” spin on a very old thing.