What Is The Best Lump Charcoal For Your Smoker?
I am often asked, “What is the best lump charcoal to use in your smoker?”
Well that is not an easy question to answer, because there is a variety of charcoal. And when I speak of charcoal, I am only talking about lump charcoal.
You see, when you are using your smoker you can use either briquettes or lump charcoal. For me, I will only use lump charcoal.
So What is Lump Charcoal?
In order to make lump charcoal, you have to greatly reduce or eliminate one of the key elements for making fire: oxygen.
In essence, wood is burned in a low oxygen environment, such as a concrete or steel kilns or steel drums to make char or mostly pure carbon. The burning process can take days and removes a compounds such as water and hydrogen.
Most lump charcoal comes from hardwoods from places such as South America. You will often find oak, hickory or even mesquite as the initial wood, however you can also find cherry and even coconut shells turned into lump charcoal.
Once the wood is burned down to form char, the charcoal can vary in lump sizes. For example, I recently opened up a 20 pound bag of charcoal and about 20% of the charcoal was large lumps (greater than 4 inches in length), 30% was medium size lumps (2 to 4 inches in length) and the remaining 50% of the charcoal was small (below 2 inches in length), chips or dust.
And unlike a briquette, which is a compressed block of coal dust from charred sawdust and pieces of scrap wood, in my opinion lump charcoal burns hotter than briquettes and leaves much less ash than briquettes. Ash generation is a very important consideration if you are using a Kamado Joe or Big Green Egg like myself.
My Lump Charcoal Rating System
When trying to figure out how to rate lump charcoal, I really wanted to look at a rating system of one lump (the lowest) to five lumps (the highest). I mean who needs stars right? Lumps seems so àpropos.
So for my rating system I will focus on the following:
- Ease of Starting
Ease of Starting
To decide the ease of starting the lump charcoal, I will use three different ways of starting: a chimney starter, a propane charcoal torch and an air-torch such as the Joe Blow. For these tests I start with the same amount of charcoal. I will also be looking for sparking issues during this test.
For my smell/taste test, I really want to tell how pleasant the charcoal is once it starts to burn. Some lump charcoals can have a very distinct chemical smell due to the chemicals used to retard the flames or perhaps because of the composition of the hardwoods, smells more like cherry or hickory. I will also put some meat to the test to see if the lump charcoal yields any distinct flavors on the meats without having to add any other smoking woods.
For my temperature test I am going to use a Thermoworks Infrared thermometer to attempt to measure how hot the lump charcoal is burning. This is important to know for if you need to smoke low-and-slow for those long cooks or hot-and-fast for a nice sear for your steak.
To measure ash production, I will be starting with the same amount of charcoal for each test, burning the charcoal for the same amount of time and then measuring my remaining charcoal. I will also notate if I see any visible ash floating around my smoker, because hey, who wants to eat an ashy piece of chicken.
Lastly, I will be giving my viewpoints on overall value. While value is in the eye of the beholder, you never know what might be inside one bag or the other. For example, did you know that Royal Oak private labels charcoal for other companies and you may just be paying more for the same lump charcoal, but just because it has someone else’s name on it, you’re paying a premium price.
I will do my best to rate the lump charcoal on a not-so-scientific scale of one lump to five lumps, but if you want a more scientific approach to lump charcoal reviews, check out the Naked Whiz’s Lump Charcoal Database right here.