By Christie Vanover | Published September 25, 2021 | Last Updated July 11, 2022
Follow this Grill Smoke U lesson to learn all about lump charcoal, including what it is, how to light it and how to cook with it.
Lump charcoal is one of the most popular types of charcoal used on the BBQ competition circuit, but you don’t have to be a competitive pitmaster to add this authentic wood flavor to your barbecue.
Disclosure: I am a paid ambassador for Cowboy Charcoal.
What is lump charcoal
Lump charcoal is created when natural hardwoods, such as oak, hickory and mesquite, are burned slowly in a high-heat, low-oxygen environment. In this controlled setting, wood’s organic matters are converted into carbon.
The result is a lighter piece of carbonized wood that still carries the flavor and smoke qualities of the originating hardwood. In this state, the wood becomes a great fuel for pitmasters, because lump charcoal is more portable and lights more quickly than solid hardwood.
When you open a bag of lump charcoal, you’ll notice the pieces come in varying sizes. Some may be as large as your fist, while others are the size of a golf ball. Additionally, some may appear to look manufactured like a wood plank, while others look more rustic.
The look of your lump charcoal has to do with the wood source
While some lump charcoal is made from tree trunks and branches, which vary in size, some of the wood includes scraps from flooring and cabinet manufacturers. When I first started barbecuing, I was turned off by the pieces that looked like 1x4s, until I learned that using these leftover materials is actually a good thing.
The building manufacturers use as much wood as they can to create their products, but they still have residual pieces. They have found a resourceful partnership with charcoal producers, so the wood isn’t wasted and dumped into landfills.
It’s still untreated, natural wood – it’s just been shaved into planks, so it’s not as natural looking as a branch.
Lump charcoal is awesome for both grilling and smoking, because it burns super hot, allowing you to get a great sear on your tomahawk steaks. But it can be controlled to burn slowly at low temps for killer brisket.
It also produces a lot less ash than briquets, which helps keep the oxygen flowing throughout those long cooks.
How to light lump charcoal
First and foremost, you DO NOT need lighter fluid. You bought lump charcoal to get that natural hardwood smoke. Lump charcoal will light quickly without it.
There are two sure-fire methods to light your lump.
The Chimney Method
A charcoal chimney is a metal cylinder with a handle that has a shelf a few inches from the bottom. When you fill the chimney with charcoal, you’re placing it in a controlled environment that funnels the fire and oxygen up and around all of the pieces.
To light the chimney of coals, place a natural firestarter on the bottom of the chimney, under the shelf. Add the coals from the top and light the firestarter.
The flame will start to burn the coals from the bottom up. When they begin to turn ash gray, you can dump them into your grill or smoker and add more coals, if you need a larger fire.
The Pyramid Method
If you don’t have a charcoal chimney, try the pyramid method by stacking a pile of lump charcoal in the shape of a pyramid. Oxygen flow is important, so don’t pack it too tightly.
Nestle one to two firestarters into the pile and light ’em up.
Once the coals ash over, you can use long tongs to spread them out for even cooking.
How to use lump charcoal
When cooking with lump charcoal, it’s important to manage both your heat and your smoke.
When you first light the coals, they will emit a thick white or light gray smoke. This is not the time to put your food on the grill. During this stage, the coals are still balancing out with fire and oxygen looking for their sweet spot. If you add your food during this stage, it will get a bitter smokey taste.
Instead, you want the smoke to range from light white to almost non existent. This is referred to as blue smoke or clean smoke. At this point, your food will get that pleasurable kiss of smoke – like a light seasoning of salt.
As for heat, figure out what temperature your recipe calls for. Lump can be used to cook slow and low around 225-250F degrees or hot and fast at 500F degrees plus.
Your grill or smoker will help you control your heat level. Most grills have a vent or intake where air is introduced to the coals and then an exhaust where the oxygen escapes. The wider you open these vents, the more oxygen you allow in and the hotter your coals will burn.
If your grill doesn’t have a thermometer, I recommend monitoring the heat with a digital thermometer. These devices are so smart, they’ll even notify you when your temp is getting too hot or too cool. If you really want to make things easy, try using a temperature control fan. These connect to you air intake and automatically add air if the coals start to cool.
If you’re cooking on an open fire pit
The air flow works differently. Dump your coals onto a slightly elevated rack in the fire pit to allow air to flow underneath the coals. Then, to control your heat, spread the coals wider for cooler temps or push them together for more heat.
You can also control your heat by raising and lowering your cooking grate up and down.
To determine the temperature of your pit, place your hand about 3-4 inches above the coals. Count how many seconds it takes before you need to pull your hand away from the heat.
2-3 seconds = 400-450F degrees
4-5 seconds = 350-400F degrees
6-7 seconds = 300-350F degrees
7-9 seconds = 250-300F degrees