There's a New Charcoal in Town
04/18/15 - 20:12 Filed in: Charcoal | Review
Pardon my painful paraphrasing of the line from Western movies: “Look out, there is a new sheriff in town”. There is indeed a new charcoal in town, it is called Ranch-T and I am rather excited about it. You can blame the western sounding name of this charcoal for my bad pun. I was lucky enough to get to try and test some pre-release sample bags and i was quite impressed with the performance. It is being rolled out to market starting this past week, and will be available in small quantities to start. This blog will describe my experiences using the pre-release bags of this new lump charcoal and where it is intended to fit in the marketplace.
FULL DISCLOSURE: As I mentioned. I was given some pre-release bags of this charcoal to test out and also as a thank you for the reports I wrote of my impressions. You would be within your rights to think this may color my judgement. Let me say several things here. First the quality of the food I cook is THE most important to me. I would not sacrifice that for anything. Nor would I make up stories about this charcoal being great if I wasn’t prepared to put my money where my mouth is. Today when I went to my Big Green Egg dealer, I found they had several bags of Ranch-T for sale. I bought this instead of my previous go-to charcoal, Wicked Good Weekend Warrior.
BACKGROUND: Back in January I was contacted by my Big Green Egg dealer to see if I would be interested in testing a new lump charcoal that might be coming to market. They would provide the charcoal and I would report on my experiences. The timing was perfect because since September I had been having some issues with my “go-to” charcoal: Wicked Good Weekend Warrior. One of the main things I liked about Wicked Good Weekend Warrior (I will use the abbreviation WGWW going forward) was it was quite smoke neutral. What I mean by this is once fully lit, it added little smoke flavor of it’s own to the food you are cooking. This gave me the opportunity to add as much or as little smoke flavor as I wished depending on what I was making. This was done by the addition of wood chips or wood chunks. Last September I bought a 3rd Egg for baking which I never use wood chips or chunks in, just straight lump charcoal. The first bag of WGWW charcoal I started using in this new Egg was much smokier than any Wicked Good I had used before. You could taste it in the finished food. I thought it might be one bag that maybe got wet somehow, but the problem persisted. It wasn’t just me, others who were using charcoal from this same batch had similar problems. I also noticed there were starting to be some huge pieces of lump in the more recent bags of WGWW. They were so big I felt I needed to cut them down to get the best distribution of coals within my firebox. I also had found several bags that were quite“sparky”. In over two years of use, I had previously seen only two bags of WGWW which were “sparky”. In just under 2 months I had found several more. It was around this time that Wicked Good brought out a new charcoal blend in addition to the Weekend Warrior blend. But the biggest problem for me is I was getting bags of WGWW that were no longer smoke neutral. The website mentioned they made some improvements to the Weekend Warrior blend. I don’t know if this change is what is responsible for the suddenly more smokey output from WGWW or not. The bottom line is WGWW seems to be consistently smokier than it used to be. This was my main reason for wanting to find an alternative.
There has been a more long term problem: Availability. Wicked Good is a very small company and they had often had problems where they didn’t have enough WGWW to go around. I have read about this issue many times on various BBQ message boards. It hasn’t affected me personally too much because I was always able to find the 1- 4 bags I typically buy. ButfI have heard complaints from time to time where folks couldn’t get bags of WGWW when they wanted.
ENTER RANCH-T: Tarantin Industries, the Northeastern distributer for the Big Green Egg, decided to come out with their own line of lump charcoal. It is called Ranch-T. They contracted with a charcoal vender to come out with a line made just for Tarantin Industries. This is not simply a case of re-bagging an existing product. I was told Tarantin went through 19 different wood blends in order to arrive at the end product. They wanted a product that was smoke neutral like the older WGWW and I can attest that this charcoal is very smoke neutral. The charcoal is just starting to come to market. The plan going forward is for Ranch-T to replace Wicked Good in the product line Tarantin distributes. The charcoal will be available through Tarantin’s Big Green Egg dealerships in the Northeast. They also want to take it national by selling it through Big Green Egg dealerships, as well as hardware stores via various hardware distributers. Right now it is just starting to be rolled out and it will be a while before it is widely available in quantity.
TEST METHODS: Before I start talking about Ranch-T and how it performed for me, let me tell you what this review is and isn’t. What it isn’t is a scientific test where I am measuring, weighing or timing down to the second with a stop watch. For that type of testing you will need to wait fro the Naked Wiz Lump Charcoal Database web site to test this lump. I was asked by my dealer, on behalf of Tarantin, to try this charcoal out and give them my comments on how it performed. This was subjective, not scientific testing. I am very aware of how my go-to charcoal: Wicked Good Weekend Warrior performs in my Eggs. Where I am often cooking on 2 or sometimes 3 Eggs at a time, I need to know how long the WGWW takes to start, get to temperature, how much smoke it makes, how long it lasts and the amount of ash it produces. While I didn’t weigh the amount of ash produced for a given time I am aware of how much ash I typically get in my ash pan for a given length of cooking time. I also took some steps to make a fair comparison against WGWW. When ever I did a cook using this charcoal, I made sure it was the only charcoal in the grill. If I had run WGWW for my last cook, I completely removed any left over WGWW in my firebox and completely swept out the ash drop. On those days the only thing in my Egg was the Ranch-T. I also repeated a couple cooks that I had recently done with WGWW using the Ranch-T to see what differences I might notice. I also lit the fires using Big Green Egg paraffin fire starters because that was the method I had been using most recently to light my Eggs. Believe me I took this testing very seriously. While I was doing it on behalf of Tarantin Industries, I was doing it on behalf of myself as well. Since last September WGWW was not living up to the performance I had come to know and rely on. I was in the market for somethingg else.
DESCRIPTION:General: Ranch-T is a hardwood lump charcoal made from South American woods, like WGWW. The description on the bag says it is: 100% Natural Hand Selected Hardwoods, Weekend Warrior Blend Hardwood Lump Charcoal. There is a prominent label on the bag stating it is not made from tropical lumber. There is a label on the website claiming it is an all natural sustainable product not made from tropical tinder.
Bags: The product is sold in 22 pound (10 kg) bags. The bag material is a cardboard colored heavy paper which has a plastic mesh embedded inside. It is similar to many of the charcoal bags you see. The mesh will help resist ripping and tearing of the bag. There is a string sewn across the top like many other charcoal brands. Like other charcoal bags using this type of closure, I can’t seem to get a good enough grip on the string to rip open the bag. I always resort to a utility knife to do the job. Once opened I store any remain charcoal in a Kingsford Charcoal Kaddy to help keep out the moisture.
Size Distribution: If the bags I sampled were any indication, I really liked the size distribution a lot. About 75 percent of the pieces were what I would call medium ranging from slightly larger than a golf ball to tennis ball sized. There was less dust and fine particles than I am used to seeing on the small end. On the large end there were one or two really large sized pieces and the rest were large but not excessively so. The two really large pieces I ran across were at the very bottom of the first bag I tried. This lump burned very evenly and I am guessing the relatively even distribution of sizes certainly helped this. In the FWIW department this lump has a different density than others I have used. When pouring out the lump or stirring it around with the ash tool. I noticed it makes a higher pitched “clinking” sound than normal when the pieces bang together.
Price: The charcoal retails for around the same price as Wicked Good Weekend Warrior charcoal. The two bags I purchased cost $22.99 which was the same price as WGWW.
PERFORMANCE:Below are my observations from using 5 bags of Ranch-T. I used it in my Eggs for a wide variety of cooks from low and slow indirect to high temperature direct grilling. I did a half dozen tests where I was baking indirectly at 350-450 degrees (177-232 C). This was so I could test it in my baking Egg on breads and dessert items to see how smoke neutral it was. I am saving the best news about how smoke neutral this charcoal was for last.
Lighting: When I was actively testing this charcoal, I used fire starters because that is what I had been using most recently for cooks using WGWW. I was trying to compare starting times vs WG and I wanted to be consistent in the method I was using to light the fire. Using fire starters, the charcoal lit the same way as with WGWW, meaning It was not particularly difficult to light. After I was done with my “Beta” testing, I switched back to using the Airlighter for my last 2 cooks this past weekend. I found Ranch-T was somewhat more difficult to light with an Airlighter than WGWW. I actually had a pile of lump go out on me. This is not a real big deal though. Once I was aware of the added difficulty lighting it with the Airlighter, I was able to adjust for it. I would imagine the same would be true when using a Looftlighter but I didn’t actually try mine. With the Airlighter I have found you need to apply the flame longer and run the blower longer to make sure the coals are lit. Based on these observations I am guessing that if you use a charcoal chimney, you might want to add an extra sheet of newspaper to help get the charcoal lighted.
Warmup: For lower temperature cooks the Ranch-T took around the same time as WGWW to reach my target temperature. For higher temperature cooks the Ranch-T does seem to take a bit longer. I found that for a cook of 475 degrees (246 C) it took about 10 minutes longer to get to that temperature than I was expecting. Once again certainly not a deal breaker. I could keep the id open a bit longer to let more of the charcoal be ignited which would speed up the start up. This charcoal is well worth the wait and you simply need to build a little extra time into your cooking time or tweak your startup methods.
Stability: As I just mentioned the charcoal takes a bit longer to reach it’s target temperature, but once it does the charcoal is very very stable. When controlling it by hand, I had to make relatively few adjustments to the dampers. Under control of my CyberQ WiFi over a 16 hour cook it was amazingly stable. Once the Egg was stabilized again after the food was added, I had very few temperature spikes. I had one “larger” spike where it went 8 degrees (4.5 C) high and 6 degrees (3.3 C) low before settling in and remaining within 2 degrees (1 C) plus or minus for the next 15 hours. Using this charcoal both under my control and using the CyberQ to control it, I have found it to be the most stable charcoal I have used. I suspect part of this stability is due to the relatively uniform sizes of the lump. As I mentioned earlier about 3/4 of the pieces fall with the medium size range.
Temperature Range: I tried Ranch-T for several low and slow cooks in the 225-250 degree (177-221 C) range and had no trouble reaching and maintaining steady temps. All 3 of my Eggs have a high temperature gasket and the gasket makes a good seal all around. So I have no air leakage and had no trouble with overshooting when cooking at 225 degrees. Up to about 350 degrees the warmup time was within 5 minutes of WGWW and I felt any differences might also be accounted for by other factors-weather, lid open time, damper settings etc. When I got needed to cook at around 475 degrees (246 C) it seemed to take about 10 minutes longer. I didn’t notice the slightly longer startup times at first, because my early tests of this charcoal were at lower temps. A little extra time to reach temperature does not really concern me. I think you could eliminate much of this extra time by letting the fire burn a bit longer before closing the lid. Plus I like this charcoal well enough, that even at worst case it is simply a matter of building 10 minutes extra into the starting time. I also took it up to 700 degrees (370 C) once. There was no problem other than it took around 10 plus minutes longer than I recall it taking WGWW. This is all quite subjective and there are other factors that can effect this time. Bottom line this charcoal can be used for the type of low, medium and high temperature cooking I do.
Burn Time: This charcoal burns steady AND long. When I did my brisket cook the cook lasted 16 hours, plus an hour to start up and stabilize my Egg. I left the Egg running for 3 additional hours testing out the CyberCook software, I had filled the firebox to the top of the firebox with a few pieces going up an inch or so into the fire ring area. After burning for 20 hours I still had about 25 percent of the lump available. It was gray around the edges meaning the charcoal was partially spent and wasn’t 100 percent usable, but there was still some life left in it. Frankly I was surprised there was any life left in it at all. I normally figure on 18-20 burn time for that sized load of charcoal. The was typical of all my cooks using Ranch-T. It seemed to have a very long life.
Ash Production: This charcoal burned very cleanly and produced very little ash. I seemed to have more leftover charcoal than I expected with less ash on a consistent basis. I actually got several more test runs out of the bags than I expected. WGWW produces less ash that the other charcoals I have tried using. Many times when I clean my Egg out after a session using WGWW, I fill the Big Green Egg ash pan once and need to come back and partially fill the bottom of the pan with a little more leftover ash. Only once, after a 20 hour cook, did I have to fill the ash tray more than once to get the ash drop thoroughly cleaned out.
Smell: I have saved what iI consider the best news for last. So far this has been the most smoke neutral charcoal I have ever used. Both Ranch-T and WGWW charcoal are sourced from South America and I am sure this accounts for their unique smell. Both of these charcoals have their own unique smell and both are different from the smell of North American hardwoods. The different smell is not good or bad, just different. What is more important for me is I want a charcoal which is smoke neutral after it has reached temperature. If I want to add smoke flavor I would rather doing it by adding my choice of smoking wood. For most items I bake on my Eggs I do not want to add smoke. The first time I lit a batch of Ranch-T I was rather amazed that I could smell very little smoke. What smell there was, was different than any woodI had smelled before. After 30 minutes when the grill was up to temperature, I had to put my nose very close to the chimney of the Egg to smell anything. As of this weekend I have now used 5 bags of Ranch-T. While each bags has varied a bit from one to the other, each one has been at least as smoke neutral as the best bags of WGWW I have ever used. Several of the bags have been the most smoke neutral charcoal I have ever used. All of the bags were significantly better than the more smokey WGWW charcoal I have been getting these last 6 or 7 months. We you first light the charcoal there may be a little smoke and some smell of smoke. Several bags had virtually no smoke smell at all when you light it. After abut 30 minutes there is little to no smoke or smoke smell.Baking on a charcoal grill you are always going to get a bit of wood flavor. That is inevitable. But for many baked goods that is all I want: A background flavor that you are aware of almost on a sub-conscious level. One where you need t go looking for it to even taste it. This as opposed to smoke flavor being the first thing you taste when you bite into the item. WGWW used to have this level of smoke neutrality. Since September many bags of WGWW have gone beyond this level and have added more smoke flavor than I want. I say again: Every bag of Ranch-T I have tried so far has been AT LEAST AS smoke neutral as the BEST bags of WGWW I have used. Several bags have exceeded WGWW best performance by a noticeable margin.
CONCLUSION:I will summarize this review with some likes and dislikes below. For me, finding this charcoal was an amazing case of kismet. I had become dissatisfied with the performance of Wicked Good Weekend Warrior during the last 6 months. I waited a while to see if this was just a bad batch. Some bags have been a bit better, but the problem has persisted. I was at the point where my supply of Wicked Good was almost gone. I was going to try to find a new “go to’ charcoal. Out of the blue I get a phone call from my Big Green Egg dealer. They tell me Tarantin Industries is in the final stages of testing a new charcoal. They intended for it to be better and more consistent than WGWW, they were hearing the same complaints about it that I had. My dealer asked would I like to test this new charcoal and give them my impressions? I got to test this possible replacement charcoal without spending a dime of my own money. The other problem this charcoal is intended to solve is the sometimes limited availability of WGWW. Even here in New England, where Wicked Good is based, there have been availability issues for me from time to time. I have had to put some miles on my car trying to track down WGWW when my usual sources are out of it. I was willing to do drive around a bit to locate it, because it was the best charcoal I had used and was my “go to” charcoal. The smoky version that I have been getting for the last 6 months is not really something I want to drive around looking for. From what I hear, Tarantin’s main reason for selling their own charcoal is to be able to have a consistent supply to fill their dealer’s needs. I am also pleased to hear this wasn’t just a quickie solution. They were looking to produce a quality product for their customers. I am really looking forward to being able to keep using this charcoal going forward.
For those of you who may question my objectivity because I got a few free bags of this charcoal, let me once again say two things. First the quality of the food coming off of my grill is the most important thing for me. If this charcoal had turned out to be crap I wouldn’t have continued to test it on food I would be serving to my guests. Everything I made with this charcoal was served to 4-8 people. Some of these meals were the best I have made. not necessarily due to the charcoal, but the charcoal did nothing tract from the finished food. Second, and perhaps the most telling, is I put my money where my mouth is. I drove up to my Big Green Egg dealer on Friday to buy a couple bags of Wicked Good. I was only going to buy a couple bags because I had heard Ranch-T would be released very soon. When I got to my dealer I was happy to see Ranch-T on display. It had just been released. I was very happy to spend my own money buying two bags of Ranch-T. So bottom line, when I had to spend my own money, I was pleased to be able to purchase Ranch-T.
PLUSSES & MINUSES:Please remember these results are based on 5 bags of this product. Hopefully Tarantin Industries will be able to keep tight control over the quality of this product going forward. Obviously it is in their best interests to have a good supply of it around, so I am not worried about that. Here are my likes and dislikes so far:
- Smoke Neutral, Smoke Neutral, Smoke Neutral. I was looking for a charcoal that was smoke neutral like WGWW used to be. This charcoal is actually equal or better than WGWW.
- Consistent Size: A very nice ratio of sizes. Mostly middle sized pieces, little dust and small chunks, and only a few larger pieces. The larger pieces were not too large.
- Low Ash: WGWW had a reputation for low ash production and Ranch-T seems to create even less ash.
- Long Burn Times: I am guessing the low ash and consistent size contribute to this, but I get long burn times with Ranch-T. Low ash means most of the charcoal is burned up as fuel and not turned in to ash.
- Even Temperatures: Again I am guessing the consistent size of the lump contributes to this charcoal being very stable.
- Harder to Light: There is no problem lighting Ranch-T with paraffin starters. When using my Airlighter fire starter it was a bit more difficult to light than WGWW. I had to keep both the flame and the burner on for a longer time to make sure the coals stayed lit. I am guessing you might need an extra sheet of newspaper in a charcoal chimney to help get this started. To me this isn’t a major issue. You just need to be aware of it and there are simple steps that can be taken to deal with it.
- Longer Time to Reach Cooking Temperature: This is not a biggie for me either, your mileage may vary. The Ranch-T seems to take 5-10 minutes more to reach my desired cooking temperature. This does not really concern me. There are steps I could take during startup to speed things along if I wanted. Some people want instant gratification. For me startup time is just something I build into the time for my cook. If it takes 30 minutes, I light the grill 30 minutes before I need it, If it is 40 minutes, I light it 40 minutes early. I just build it into the prep time. But you should know going in, it may take somewhat longer to reach your desired cooking temp.
FINAL FINAL WORD: For those of you living in the Northeast who buy Wicked Good charcoal from your Big Green Egg dealer, you will need to make a change. With the release of Ranch-T, Tarantin Industries, who is also the Northeast Big Green Egg distributer, will no longer be distributing Wicked Good Weekend Warrior charcoal. As a result your Big Green Egg dealer may no longer carry it because they would need to get it somewhere else.So you will have 3 choices: First buy your WGWW from some other source. Second switch to a different brand of charcoal from a different source. Your third choice is to continue buying charcoal from your dealer, but switch to Ranch-T. For me the choice is easy. Choice three is the best choice because I like Ranch-T better than my old go-to Wicked Good charcoal and I can still buy it where I am used to buying it. Those of you in other parts of the country, be on the lookout for Ranch-T and give it a try.
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