How to make your own charcoal

Charcoal is smokeless, healthy and all about natural flavour.
Charcoal is smokeless, healthy and all about natural flavour. 

Here's another little milestone reached in this deal of growing older, the moment you realise the child you brought into the world, well assisted as best I could, is now grown up and returning knowledge. She said to me when I was describing my new charcoal project, I'll get to that "You know, it's like you are going back in time, they worked all this sh*t out years ago and you can now just turn on a knob!"

True, now that I think about it, I am de-evolving: Move out of the city, grow crops and stock, start eating solely meat. I've built a huge fire pit in the oaks where I feel more comfortable with a tent nearby. Can I travel back through history, go full-caveman? With my iPhone of course, invaluable at self-diagnosing symptoms during the black plague. I think I just reached the pre-industrial age and that's why I'm foraging around for hardwood to stockpile charcoal. 

Can I do in a lifetime what took mankind – and womankind too, who are only a few stages ahead so they can tell us what we are doing wrong at any given time – 1.5 million years to reach this peak? 

Grilled duck breast.
Grilled duck breast. 

Can we evolve any more? I keep checking my toes, the little one will be the first to go. Don't think that I'm on that side of the evolution versus creation debate. If I can believe that a prokaryotic cell, billions of years ago, eventually made Kim Kardashian, then I'm equally open to the idea of a vengeful yet caring god being involved.

So why, and what is, charcoal anyway? Good point I've been reading about Japanese konro barbecues. These small, tile-lined barbeques, also called hibachi or yakitori, are one of the most elegant ways you can grill food. Fueling these is charcoal. The highest form is binchotan or white charcoal, a slow-burning intense fuel source. Together you'll have the best BBQ since Adam realised he had another use for that spare rib. 

I had but one person to call here. Peter Marshall, truffle and moso grower. He knows just about anything to do with forestry, agriculture, fungus and odd little gems like what is the exact height a table should be to be comfortable. He'll be all over this, and says come on over and bring fifty bucks. The main challenge is emptying your head on the drive over so it's a sponge to absorb all the information. I conclude he doesn't spend too much time watching mind-shrinking shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians

Turns out he is all over this, grows the ubame oak, used for binchotan, and is currently exploring the production of biochar. Not enough room to attempt an explanation here, suffice to say the NSW DPI classes biochar as "… the single most important initiative for humanity's environmental future". So why is this the first time we've heard about this?

He hands me a $50 tiffin tin. You've probably seen these on the Discovery Channel, vendors deliver lunches in them throughout India. I'll play some elevator music. OK, isn't it fun where we go each week? I'm as surprised as you, please continue… Peter has worked out that the tiffin is perfect for making charcoal in a wood fire. The lid allows the volatile gases to escape and burn, quite spectacularly, and then seal once the fire burns down to inhibit oxygen return to the chamber. This helps make rock-hard charcoal that burns slower. 

Think about that, he worked that out; what have you done today? As I drive home, random words and phrases come to mind like Exeter retort, Hackwald, coppicing, pyrolysis, sequestering and surprisingly, trebuchet (which can't be right; how would a community catapult help here?) Armed with enough information to take to Wikipedia, I get home with my tiffin and hunt down wood to make charcoal. 


Charcoal is smokeless, healthy and all about natural flavour. Making a tare is central to charcoal grilling. Based on soy, mirin plus a concentrated stock, tare is used to paint the food as it cooks. A great starting point in grilling is duck breast, has plenty of fat and hard to dry out. So here we are barbecuing over charcoal you've made from your own coppice, the world can keep changing and evolving at super high speed but we'll be pleasantly oblivious, sitting in a cave, carefully grilling food. 

Grilled duck breast with Yakitori tare

1kg duck or chicken backbones and wings
1 cup each: light soy sauce, mirin and sake
1 knob ginger, sliced
3 spring onions, sliced
2 litres water

Roast the bones until they are well charred, place in a stock pot, deglaze the roasting tray with a little water and add everything with enough water to cover the bones. Bring to a simmer and cook for an hour. Increase the heat and cook until you have a thick reduction, a cup at best. Strain and cool.

To cook duck breasts:

Leave breast on a plate in the fridge uncovered for a few days. This makes for a crispy skin. Heat the grill, make crisscross cuts over the skin, start grilling. Every minute turn the breasts over and paint with warm tare. Takes about 10 to 12 turns, depending on size and heat source. They should feel firm yet giving when done. 

To make charcoal in a tiffin:

Fill the tin with hardwood. Get a fire going well, carefully place the tiffin in the middle, pile plenty of wood around it and let the little pot heat up. At some point you'll hear a mini-cyclone as the gases escape through the lid, this looks amazing, flames lick and shoot out in all directions. Let the fire die down and the next morning remove singed pot and check the beautiful charcoal inside. 

To use, get a little fire going with newspaper and start adding charcoal. It'll take just 10 minutes until they are glowing and can be used to grill food.