Most people think of briquettes when charcoal comes up in conversation. Briquettes are the most common heat source for grills and barbecues; they are inexpensive and easy to use. But briquettes are a manufactured product made from wood charcoal, brown coal, sodium nitrate, borax, sawdust, and starch. That’s why you can always taste the charcoal when meat is grilled on briquettes.
Charcoal made from whole pieces of hardwood is called lump charcoal. It’s often available right next to the bags of briquettes, but it’s easy to overlook, especially if there is any doubt about how well lump charcoal will work. It’s worth taking a chance on something different to bring a new flavor to the traditional barbecue experience. Lump charcoal burns cleaner, cleans up easily, and provides subtle smoky notes to your meal. Cooking with lump charcoal is a little different from using briquettes, so today we will show you tips and tricks using this ancient cooking source to make the most amazing meals for your family and friends.
From Chunks to Lumps to Briquettes – How Charcoal is Made
Charcoal has been in use by humanity so long that no one knows when or how it was invented. We know that cavemen made charcoal because it’s one of the things they used to draw on the walls of caves. Charcoal briquettes, on the other hand, were patented by Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer in 1897. The most popular charcoal briquettes in the US today are made by Kingsford – a brand that sprung from the desire of Henry Ford to waste nothing and profit from everything. Charcoal is a manufactured product that uses several ingredients to work. Lump charcoal, on the other hand, is only made from one thing; hardwood.
How Lump Charcoal is Made
The process of making charcoal begins with logs of hardwood. There are various methods of making charcoal, but the goal is always the same: remove water and tar from the wood along with other organic compounds. What remains is a chunk of carbon we call lump charcoal.
The trick is to maintain a high heat in an environment that lacks oxygen. The process begins by igniting the wood and allowing the surface to char, then extinguishing the available air. If the wood has reached a high enough temperature during the char, the wood will not burn, but will become wood charcoal. The process can take days to complete and requires frequent attention to get a high-quality charcoal.
The wood will release wood tar and gases during the conversion process to charcoal. The chemicals released are harmful to your health. Methane and carbon dioxide are among the most dangerous.
When the process is done correctly, the result is a chunk of lump charcoal. The charcoal will burn evenly and hot without a bunch of smoke. It’s an all-natural product that gives great results on the grill.
The Types of Wood Used for Making Lump Charcoal
Hardwoods are the primary contributor to lump charcoal, but fruitwoods can also be used. The types of wood can impact the flavor of the meal. Many companies producing lump charcoal advertise it as “100% Hardwood” but that can be a mixture of oak, maple, hickory, walnut, or even tropical trees from South America like mahogany, and woods from Asia. The Japanese even make a special type of lump charcoal from the Ubame Oak that is called white charcoal.
The types and qualities of the wood used will contribute smoky flavors to your grill. The flavors are much more subdued than when using chips in a smoker, but the distinct aroma of charred hardwood is definitely present. Oak, maple, hickory, and walnut lump charcoal provides a warm, soft smoke.
Mesquite is a type of invasive wood that grows wild in the south-western US. Mesquite lump charcoal gives a smoky, hot spiciness and pairs well with Mexican-inspired meals. Have fun and experiment with different combinations of hardwood lump charcoal.
Lump charcoal is also made from timber cuttings and scrap material from flooring, furniture, and cabinets. In fact, any hardwood can be used, including some stuff that has varnish or paint on it. Buying lump charcoal from a reputable company will ensure quality, sustainable, and consistent lump charcoal.
Rockwood Lump Charcoal
Our favorite lump charcoal is made by Rockwood. This stuff is fantastic and our go-to when we're grilling on our Big Green Egg. We get consistently sized pieces of lump without chips and dust, and we know what it’s made from. Rockwood makes their lump charcoal from Missouri-harvested timber milling operations. They never use any hardwood products from flooring, molding, or furniture to ensure zero varnish and paint contaminating the charcoal.
Rockwood’s plant is even zero-waste. The best thing about the lump charcoal from Rockwood is the medium and large pieces which burn hot and long. It’s a low-smoke charcoal that has little ash and doesn’t spark and pop like some lump charcoal. The bag can even be burned; it contains no harmful chemicals, dyes, or other nastiness. Rockwood says that if users compost the ash after the lump charcoal has burned out, the entire process is zero-waste. Pretty awesome!
Tips for Grilling with Lump Charcoal
Lump charcoal is never a consistent size. A good-quality product will have a mixture of medium and large pieces with some smaller pieces, and very little dust and chips. Larger pieces can burn longer and may even burn hotter, but can take longer to light. Start your grill with a moderate amount of lump charcoal and monitor your temperatures as it catches fire. Lump charcoal can burn up to 1400 degrees, while briquettes typically won’t get over 800 degrees.
Lump charcoal should never be lit with lighter fluid. Instead, you can light lump charcoal with a starter chimney, a natural fire starter, or even a propane torch. Adjust the upper and lower vents to moderate the temperature. Be aware that some types of lump charcoal can spark and pop as they burn. Mesquite is particularly dangerous and will regularly throw sparks in random directions.
It’s often necessary to add more lump charcoal when cooking. Adding more lump charcoal is easy to do if you start the lump in a chimney starter, then add it in when it’s hot. Smaller pieces can also be added in while cooking to keep the temperature up.
Unlike pellets or briquettes, you can dry lump charcoal if it happens to get wet. Spread the lumps out in the sun and let them dry completely. Pellets and briquettes will fall apart once wet and are unusable. If the lump charcoal is still burning along when you are done cooking, snuff it out. It can be re-lit and used for your next cook-off.
Searing and Grilling
Lump charcoal is the best heat source for searing and cooking steaks and other proteins to get that perfect “bark” while preventing overcooking. When the goal is to sear and grill, start with a layer of lump charcoal that is all burning pretty well, but has not started to ash yet. This gives a consistent temperature and creates beautiful sear marks. Try grilling veggies like squash or okra over lump charcoal for a truly amazing side dish.
Purists out there will tell you there is no substitute for lump charcoal when it’s time to smoke. A long burn time and that wonderful smoky flavor make lump the go-to for thousands of enthusiasts. The trick to smoking with lump charcoal is to place an even layer of unlit lump charcoal in the smoker or grill, then place the burning lump over the top. The lump will burn down, igniting the charcoal underneath. This process provides a nice, flavorful, intense smoke while making it easy to keep temperatures from skyrocketing.
Lump charcoal is so much better for cooking over a campfire than natural wood. When wood burns, numerous chemicals are created and released, some of which can change the flavor of your protein in unexpected and undesirable ways. Lump charcoal burns very clean, so the only thing contributed to your meal is a delicious flavor. Try using a campfire grill with lump charcoal at your next campout or backyard barbecue and amaze your friends and family with your caveman (or cavewoman) skills.
Lump charcoal is a natural product with no additives or fillers. Clean-up is super simple. The only thing that is left is ash, and far less of that than using briquettes. The ash is a natural fertilizer and additive you can use in your garden or spread on your lawn. Burnt lump ash contributes potash, nitrogen, and other necessary elements plants love. Not only can you feed your friends and family the best meal ever, your garden gets a treat, too.
If you have been on the fence about trying lump charcoal in your barbecue, we encourage you to take the plunge and try it today. Following the tips we shared above will help take the guesswork out of using a new-to-you fuel, and ensure your meal is cooked to perfection. Lump charcoal is somewhat more expensive per pound than briquettes, but you will also use less. You can even break up bigger chunks into more medium sizes to extend the amount of cooking you can do.
A few things you might want to have handy are a dual probe barbecue thermometer to monitor the temps of your meat and grill or smoker and a pair of heat-resistant gloves. Gloves make adding hot coals less dangerous, and once you start using them to grill and smoke, you’ll always want them at hand.
Try a few different blends of hardwood lump charcoal to get an idea of the flavor the lump provides. It’s always fun to experiment with mixtures of hardwood types. Lump charcoal adds a whole new dimension to your barbecue experience we highly recommend.