My favorite premium option is the Fogo All Natural Hardwood (see pricing at Amazon, it’s expensive!). A cheaper, easier-to-get option is the Royal Oak (See pricing at Amazon). (Home Depot, Lowes, & Ace have R.O.)
Smoking meat and fish seems to be more a way of life than a cooking method! Cooks who are bitten by the smoking (food) bug become obsessed.
And with obsession comes a more finely tuned palate.
For example, noticing that self-lighting charcoal briquettes leave an acrid flavor to the food that is cooked over it.
This of course is due to the fact that self-lighting briquettes contain lighter fluid which is a petroleum product. No wonder the food cooked over it has an ever so slightly toxic flavor!
There are many benefits to smoking with natural lump charcoal (also known as charwood) It is a very clean burning fuel. It has few if any additives, and it burns hotter than briquettes, if the grill allows for unrestricted access to oxygen.
Smokers always allow for good control of airflow, and with restricted air, lump charcoal can be controlled so that it burns cooler and longer. As an added bonus, lump charcoal produces little ash, making cleanup a breeze!
Some claim that depending on the type of wood the lump charcoal is made of subtly affects the flavor of the food that is smoked over it. This simply is not the case.
As a side note, some lump charcoal is made from construction debris. The raw materials are still unadulterated hardwood, but some packages contain pieces that were clearly scraps from construction projects.
Some of the less reputable brands may even contain rocks or other construction debris, such as pieces of insulation or nails. None of the brands reviewed later in this article contain any of these items.
The most important thing that home smokers can do to boost the smokiness in their food is to add small amounts of hardwood chips on top of the charcoal. This will impart subtle flavor to the meat.
The technique of smoking food is that the heat is consistent, low, and slow. The function of the charcoal is to provide that heat. There are some grillers who cook with logs instead of charcoal, but it is very difficult to regulate the temperature of burning logs.
Wood gives off all kinds of chemicals in the form of gas when it burns. Many of these volatile chemicals are what give smoked food its nuanced flavor. All of these chemicals are burned off in the production of natural lump charcoal.
This is why smoking with charcoal exclusively will give a smoky flavor to the food, but no subtlety. Conversely, smoking with hardwood exclusively can overwhelm the flavor of the food, especially if you are smoking fish.
A mix of charcoal and wood chips is the sweet spot. Lots of smoke, and some nuanced flavor.
The smoke becomes part of the food – the flavor – so you better use the BEST fuel you can find if you want to have the best meat out of the smoker.
Briquettes versus Lump Charcoal
If you’re reading this, then you’re probably happy with your move to lump from briquettes. Great, but let’s do a quick comparison in case someone is undecided.
Charcoal briquettes are made primarily from sawdust and contain fillers and petroleum products. Added ingredients include coal, limestone, borax, and cornstarch.
- Briquettes are more consistent due to a standard size.
- Briquettes produce more ash.
- Briquettes burner cooler, and normally longer.
- Briquettes have additives and binders.
Natural Lump Charcoal (sometimes known as charwood) is made from pieces of hardwood that have been burned with very little Oxygen to render a product that is almost pure carbon.
- Lump can have huge chunks of coal and near-dust-like coal.
- Lump produces less ash.
- Lump charcoal burns hotter.
- Lump has no additives, at least it shouldn’t.
What to consider when choosing lump charcoal
Choosing lump charcoal can be a daunting task. Here are some things to consider
- What brands are available in your region (or, what can you order online)?
- Are there any additives?
- Are there any foreign bodies in the bag with the charcoal?
- How easy is it to light?
- Is there a chemical smell upon ignition?
- Does it burn hot?
- How long will it burn?
- Does it burn consistently (without temperature fluctuations?
- How much ash does it produce?
- How much does it cost?
How to choose fuel for your smoker—the don’ts
While almost all hardwoods that work well with “stick burning” smokers, lump charcoal works, too, and is easier than ever to source. Lump charcoal is a more natural form of coal as well, so it burns cleaner.
Charcoal briquettes can provide a consistent low heat for the amateur smoker, and offers the advantage of lasting for a longer time than its less carbonized counterparts. Natural lump charcoal burns hotter, but if the airflow to the smoker is properly controlled, it too can burn at the relatively cooler temperatures needed for smoking food. Remember, low and slow is the key to really good smoked foods!
Go Chemical Free – No Self Lighting Charcoal (i.e. Match Light)
When it comes to charcoal, avoid buying brands that have self-starting lighter fluid additives at all costs. The reason should be pretty apparent. These chemicals are smelly and may make your food taste bad: chemical-like. Companies that produce these products claim that if you let all the flammables burn off, you won’t get any bad flavors. This may be true, but ALL petroleum products produce sticky smoke that will adhere to the inside of your smoker or grill, not to mention the grates that you place your food on. Enough said, yes?
Avoid Flavored Charcoal
Charcoal, by its very nature, soaks up everything it comes in contact with. It’s best to leave well enough alone and let it produce nothing more than heat and smoke. Don’t be tempted into buying charcoal “enriched” with additives. This includes wood flavorings that may promise a “maple flavor.” Charcoal should be just that—charcoal—and does not need to come in a variety of colors or flavors. And remember that if you are a serious smoker, that you will want to add some hardwood shavings on top of your coals. That (and smoking premium ingredients) are what will give you the flavor that you crave.
How to choose fuel for your smoker—the dos
The only type of additives you don’t need to worry about in a lump coal for your smoker are sugar-based binding ingredients or anthracite, as these do not impart any flavor to the meat. They do, however, allow for a hotter, longer burn.
True lump charcoal is made from whole pieces of wood, which are as close to wood smoking as possible without actually using wood chips. Lump charcoal does cost a little more than briquettes, but it burns hotter than its cheaper sawdust briquette cousins. Lump charcoal really excels if you are grilling and want a really nice char on your steaks!
As a result of burning hotter, lump charcoal burns faster. You may need more lump charcoal than briquettes if you’re grilling, but not if you’re smoking. Smoking involves a relatively low temperature of 225ºF to 275ºF, give or take. When you restrict airflow to your smoker, it lowers the temperature. As a result, the charcoal burns longer.
When you’re smoking, you will also have wood chunks or logs in the smoker, so your fuel cost may be about the same for lump charcoal or briquettes. Not to muddy the waters, but there are a number of smoking hobbyists who advocate mixing charcoal briquettes (ones with as few additives as possible) with natural lump charcoal and wood chips. This mitigates the extra cost of the natural lump charcoal and also helps keep a stable temperature.
Remember that lump charcoal only burns hotter and faster if the air flow is unlimited. When you’re using a smoker you’ll have great control over the air flow – you will use the vents and keep them in a mostly-closed position. If you restrict the air flow, then the burn rate will be consistent with the temperature. Hot burns faster, cooler burns slower.
Which brands of lump charcoal are best for smoking?
At last count, there were more than 75 brands of natural lump charcoal available for sale. Let’s look at a couple of examples of good charcoal that are perfect for the home smoker.
Rockwood Lump Charcoal is made from the highest-quality Missouri hickory, maple, and oak. Free of binders, chemicals, and fillers, this brand has a very slight wood flavor that will not overpower your food. It’s easy to light, is ready to go within 15 to 20 minutes, and burns relatively slowly to ensure an even cooking temperature. Even better, it’s sourced from sustainable forests.
Royal Oak Lump Charcoal
There are versions of Royal Oak that use Argentinian, Brazilian, and Paraguayan wood, but the most common type you’ll find comes from trees grown right here in the United States of America. Royal Oak is probably as good as it gets. If you are looking for to add a subtle, natural rich flavor to your smoked meats, this is the brand for you!
Lump Charcoal for a Kamado Smoker
A Kamado Smoker is one of the best options on the market if you want to do some backyard smoking. They might be somewhat more costly, but you will appreciate where the money went. The lump charcoal I would recommend for a Kamado grill is also Royal Oak.
Royal Oak bags contain the least amount of dust and chips of any lump charcoal I’ve used. It’s perfect for grilling, smoking, and just looking pretty on a backyard fire after the meal is over, as you’re kicking back with a beer.
Cowboy Brand 100% All Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal
All natural, 100% hardwood, made from oak, hickory, and maple, Cowboy-Brand burns hot and clean. It also lights easily and does not impart any off tastes from additives. Cowboy brand is made from environmentally sustainable forests.
Cowboy charcoal burns hot and is easy to light. While it does produce a fair amount of ash, it is very smoky charcoal. Perhaps not so great for grilling, but fantastic for smoking.
Fogo All Natural Premium Hardwood Lump Charcoal
Fogo natural lump charcoal is made in El Salvador from a Central American evergreen Oak species.
The size distribution is good (it comes in 35-pound bags, and some of the pieces are quite large – I had to break a few of the larger lumps down with a hammer!), burns for a long time, and doesn’t produce too much ash. It also burns with a clean, smoky odor.
Rockwood Premium All Natural Lump Charcoal
Rockwood lump charcoal has one of the longest burn times of any of the charcoals we have reviewed. It seems to burn forever and produces little ash. It is a little more difficult than some of the other brands to light but produces good, mild smoke. This charcoal is a good value for the money!
Caring for your natural wood charcoal
Caring for your charcoal, who knew? Here’s the deal… Think about all of those filters that we use, such as water filters or air filters. They are all composed primarily of carbon. The same ingredient in lump charcoal. Charcoal absorbs EVERYTHING, and can easily become contaminated. Lump charcoal is best kept in a sealed plastic container, some of which are sold for exactly that purpose. The container below comes in 12 and 24-pound sizes.
As well, charcoal must be kept bone dry. Damp charcoal doesn’t burn properly, and can also become moldy which will produce an off flavor in the food cooked with it.
A word of advice
Since most packages of natural lump charcoal contain huge pieces of charcoal, and charcoal dust, I never just dump charcoal into my chimney starter. I Keep a pair of cotton gardening gloves (one glove, actually) in the sealed container with my charcoal, and I load the lump charcoal into my chimney starter piece by piece. If you simply dump it in, the dust can clog your air vents, reducing your ability to control the burn rate of the charcoal. It can also make a mess.
Once the bag is empty, I cut the bag horizontally into thirds and use the paper (and in the case of the bottom section, the paper, and the coal dust) to stuff the bottom of the chimney and start the coals on their way to smoky nirvana.
Using natural lump charcoal has many benefits for those who smoke seriously. Just remember that you can use briquettes in addition to lump charcoal. Briquettes are not the enemy, and they are not evil. Unless you are referring to the self-lighting variety.
For great smoking recipes, see my recipes section for posts on how to smoke salmon, prime rib, and more.
References and further reading: