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