Charcoal vs Biochar

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If you’re into gardening and have been for a while, you have probably heard that you can use charcoal and biochar to improve your garden soil. But how does charcoal vs biochar compare as it relates to cooking?

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Although it may seem like the same thing, charcoal is very different from biochar, both in the way it is made, as well as in its main uses.

Biochar, and its uses in both soil management and cooking, is very fascinating. I will continue researching biochar and provide updates as I learn more, but for now, here are the similarities and differences with conventional charcoal vs biochar.

What is biochar?

Biochar, by definition, is a form of charcoal made by heating organic waste while kept in a low-oxygen environment. Unlike charcoal though, biochar is made in a sustainable way and its main purpose isn’t to burn.

Although very similar in terms of how they are made, biochar benefits fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms, while charcoal is not biologically active.

What are the main uses for charcoal and biochar?

Because of the differences in the way they are made, biochar and charcoal produce different volatile compounds which in turn yield dissimilar results.

Charcoal is commonly used for cooking and other heat-generating functions, yet biochar is generally created to be adsorbent and/or soil amendment - though it is becoming more well-liked for cooking in places where cooking with wood fire is a daily occurrence.

The main intent of using biochar is to improve soil functions, as well as to decrease the emissions from biomass, which would naturally degrade into greenhouse gases.

In short, using commercial charcoal will not give the same results as that of biochar in soil management.

Can biochar actually be used for cooking outdoors?

The short answer: yes. Biochar actually burns faster and reaches greater temperatures than conventional charcoal. While the latter should offer greater convenience in the long run, there’s a learning curve to using it.

If you have been relying on charcoal, you can’t just follow the same routine upon switching to biochar. You have to take into account the differences in cooking time due to biochar’s better heat production capacity.

Another advantage to using biochar instead of charcoal is that it produces less ash and smoke during cooking. The reduction in smoke is why it is becoming more well-liked in areas of the world where cooking over a wood fire is a daily occurrence.

Aside from that, using lighter fluid won’t be necessary (though some high-quality charcoal won’t require it either).

Ditching petroleum should reduce the likelihood of contaminating your food (and the environment). What’s more, used biochar can still benefit the soil.

While that’s certainly impressive, it’s important to keep in mind that biochar isn’t perfect.

What are the possible downsides to using biochar?

If you’re buying charcoal, it’s basically guaranteed that you’d get a product that’s suited for food preparation. That isn’t the case when it comes to biochar.

Since the biochar initiative is relatively new, and that it’s mainly geared towards agricultural applications, not every type of biochar is suited for cooking.

Despite being processed under high temperatures, biochar could still contain contaminants – depending on the materials used.

I've only seen people cook over biochar when cooking food in a pan or pot. I've yet to see anyone cook food directly over an open biochar flame, so if you're going to use biochar, I would suggest using a pan/pot. If you're familiar with cooking directly over a biochar fire, please share in the comments below.

If you’re planning to cook with this newer form of charcoal, you really need to check the product you’re buying.

Make sure that it’s specifically labelled for use in food preparation, and, if possible, has all the necessary quality certifications. Some commercial biochar is produced using feedstock instead of hardwood.

Or make your own. There are a number of YouTube videos explaining how to make your own biochar. Here is a detailed video on how to make your own biochar.

Although not necessarily expensive, conventional charcoal’s nature-friendly counterpart (especially the kind sourced from hardwood) is generally pricier.

What are the ecological benefits to using biochar?

Called “green charcoal”, biochar is generally believed to play a dynamic role in humanity’s future too. With the first known instance of biochar being that of Terra Preta, several benefits of its use are:

  • Maintenance of balanced moisture levels, even during wide climate changes;
  • Improvement of air permeability in dense clay soils;
  • Elevation of cation exchange capacity in normally inactive soils;
  • Increase in the safeguarding of soluble and organic carbon;
  • Discourages deforestation through effective use of agricultural waste;
  • Facilitation of synergistic interactions with soil microbes;
  • Detoxification of poisoned, sterile, or dying soils; and
  • Encourages environmental and social responsibility.

Aside from the ones listed above, biochar is also believed to be able to detoxify the Earth from excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Given that excess carbon dioxide worsens the greenhouse effect, this is indeed a beneficial quality.

Charcoal vs Biochar

The best way to compare charcoal and biochar would be in terms of purpose, impact, and economy.

Which one is better would depend on what you would need it for – in gardening and land management, biochar is definitely the clear winner.

Apart from the multitudes of known benefits to using biochar, it is also a very sustainably developed product which means it creates no additional waste during production.

Improved moisture and water retention in the soil due to the use of biochar is also making waves in the field of agriculture.

In cooking, biochar isn’t always the best choice.

If you’re looking for something inexpensive but reliable enough, you might want to go for plain charcoal.

On the other hand, if you want the cleanest possible way of cooking outdoors, biochar may be a decent option.

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Now that you’re aware of the similarities and differences between charcoal vs biochar, which do you choose?

Have you ever used biochar to cook? What was your experience?

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