• 30/04/2024
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Is Binchotan the Best Charcoal in the World?

This Japanese charcoal is worth the high cost, because it’s smokeless, odorless, and one of the longest-burning charcoals you can buy.

Stumbling across unexpected street festivals was my favorite part about the year and a half I spent living in Japan. Almost without exception, every festival I unwittingly arrived at would have a yakitori stall, staffed by someone with their sleeves rolled up, shouting greetings at passersby, taking orders, and rotating dozens of skewers in rapid succession with surgical precision. Every aspect of these stalls felt tailor-made to draw me in: the jovial person behind the grill with the festival headband keeping the sweat out of their eyes, the sizzle of chicken fat dripping onto coals, but most of all, the amazing aromas emanating from that grill.

If you’re picturing me as a Looney Tunes character, floating through the air, being pulled by the nose by the enticing smell of chicken and caramelized tare-scented smoke, that’s not terribly far from the truth. What I remember most about the yakitori stalls, apart from the gravitational pull of the smell, is the intense heat I could always feel radiating from the grills I approached. At nighttime festivals, the glow from the coals is almost blinding, but the heat is what’s most intense—it’s no wonder the skewers are done cooking in a matter of just a few minutes.

I’ve eaten and cooked a lot of grilled food in my life, but traditional, expertly made yakitori is its own class of cuisine, especially when it’s prepared over a robata or konro grill, with binchotan made from ubame oak, harvested from the mountain forests of Kishu. Binchotan is widely considered by chefs to be the best charcoal in the world, prized for being exceptionally long-burning, odorless, and smokeless. Recently, I’ve tested yakitori grilled on a Weber with hardwood lump charcoal side by side with skewers cooked on a konro with true binchotan charcoal, and unfortunately for those of us looking to stay on a budget, the higher-priced option really does make a difference. This is not at all to say that I’m abandoning my trusty Weber or that it does a bad job grilling chicken—I would never—but the purely chicken flavor you get from grilling over binchotan is unmatched.

The difference in flavor comes mainly from the charcoal. Grill three simply seasoned chicken breasts over briquettes, hardwood lump charcoal, and binchotan, and you’ll be able to taste the difference right away. Briquettes often contain filler and accelerants, which can impart unpleasant flavors—notes of gas station, with a hint of nail polish. High-quality hardwood lump charcoal gives the chicken smoky, slightly woody flavors—flavors many people associate with good grilled chicken, and rightly so. But binchotan imparts virtually no additional flavor or aroma, which elevates the chicken in a way I’ve never really experienced with other cooking methods. The chicken tastes more chickeny—even the charred parts taste clean with almost no bitterness.

If you’re looking to really improve your skewer game this summer, it’s time to invest in a konro grill, some good quality binchotan, skewers, and the best chicken you can find. Keep reading for all the advice you need to get started.

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