Question: What's the best charcoal to use in my smoker?
Good Charcoal for smoking lasts a long time and produces a steady high heat.
While there are those who will tell you that the best charcoal is actually hardwood logs, there are those people who live in the real world and use charcoal to produce heat for their smokers. Of course, not all charcoals are created equal. The first rule is to avoid self-starting charcoals that have lighter fluid additives to get them burning.
These leave a bad taste, are bad for the environment, and are just not good for any kind of cooking. If you want an inexpensive charcoal, go with something that has no additives. Charcoal should be as basic and clean as possible. You can add real wood for smoke flavor but avoid charcoals that promise things like "authentic mesquite flavor". Charcoal shouldn't come in flavors.
Buying plain, basic charcoal is the first step. Charcoal can easily become contaminated in the garage. Of course, charcoal must be kept completely dry. Damp charcoal not only doesn't burn well, but can grow mold that will produce a harsh flavor in the smoker.
Much of the charcoal we have grown up with over the years is formed into briquettes. These generally use a natural, sugar-based binding agent that burns clean. These are a good choice for your smoker, provided you get the cleanest versions possible. Many cheaper brands add anthracite or coal to the mix for better, hotter burning.
Coal is not a good fuel source to cook over, but doesn't affect the flavor much, and is used in very small amounts.
If you want to step up a level you can use what is known as lump charcoal. This isn't pressed sawdust like most charcoals but is actual pieces of wood that have been fired into charcoal.
Lump charcoal made from hardwood is as close to smoking with hardwood as you can get without splitting logs. Lump charcoal burns longer so you use less of it and have a much more authentic and flavorful smoke. Lump charcoal also costs more, but since it burns hotter and longer you use less so the in long run it isn't as expensive as you might think. Lump charcoal is also more available these days and can typically be found in places that sell smokers and outdoor cooking equipment.