Turn Kitchen Waste into Artisan Charcoal

Anthony Todd

There are several ways of using heat to create flavors while grilling: an initial or reverse sear, using different woods to grill, or the next step, crafting your own charcoal for even deeper hits of flavor.

First, some science: What, exactly, is charcoal? Charcoal is a way of turning wood (or other things made of carbon) from a product that produces a relatively messy, inconsistent and smoky flame into something that is easier to work with and burns longer. Wood is cooked until all of the volatile compounds—things like sap, tar and water—burn off, and all that’s left is the black carbon. At that point, it’s lighter, burns longer and gives off a more even heat, all of which make it a great tool for cooking. Charcoal has been a primary heat source for thousands of years. And you can make it yourself.

Dan Barber started making charcoal with a surplus of wood from some unproductive trees on his farm at Blue Hill. After he and his team played around with it for a while, he learned something about the flavors. “We realized that each type of wood carried its own distinct aroma after carbonization, and that essence was ultimately infused into the dish,” he explains. 

That piqued his interest. “We started thinking: What if we could carbonize bones, just like wood? Could that become another kind of seasoning for a dish?” This opened an entire world of possible charcoal ingredients, including discarded seafood shells, vegetable scraps, and leftover bones. “Bone charcoal adds a whole other dimension of flavor during the grilling process,” Barber notes.

Barber isn’t the only one playing with bones as fuel. Adam Sappington of The Country Cat in Portland, Ore., started burning bones into charcoal as part of his commitment to using whole animals. Sappington places pork knuckle bones in a two-section grill (he says you can use a chimney grill starter for this), burning wood at the bottom and roasting the bones down to black carbon. He uses the resulting charcoal to grill pork, imparting extra flavor into the meat. 

Barber had a similar inspiration: use everything, waste nothing. “Animal bones are staples of any restaurant kitchen. They’re infused into sauces or stocks, but ultimately they end up in the compost bin,” he says. “This was a way to give them new life. We are essentially refurbishing a waste product into something that elevates our food.”

Barber has branched out to ingredients beyond pork. “Each type of charcoal contributes a different flavor profile to whatever we grill it with, so we take that into consideration when deciding what type of materials to carbonize,” he explains. Pork coal is good when he wants to impart what he calls a “smoky-fat” flavor, but for something like grilled corn, he uses charcoal made of corncobs and lobster shells to add a different nuance. Barber is even working on a bone-ash cheese. “The result is stunning—you get this beautiful black coating on the cheese and this rich, earthy flavor infused throughout.”

Anthony Todd is a Chicago-based food writer.

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