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Nothing says summertime like the happy smell of a backyard barbecue. Sure, grilling with charcoal takes a little more TLC than grilling with gas, but the upside is that one-of-a-kind smoky flavor you just can’t get from propane.
If you took the time to score the very best grill and seek out top-notch meat and veggies, don’t skimp on choosing high-quality charcoal. Think of lump charcoal as another important ingredient in your grilling or smoking. Different charcoals impart different flavors, and they imbue your meat with the complex smokiness and rich aroma quintessential to barbecue, a uniquely deep, woody, smoky flavor that you can’t quite replicate with anything else.
To back up, lump charcoal refers to charred wood, usually made from tree limbs or logs which are burned in a kiln without oxygen for purification. Water, volatile alcohol, and oil in the wood vaporize as smoke, leaving behind black carbon…voila, charcoal. Without any additives or fillers, lump charcoal is a totally natural fuel for grilling, one of the reasons it’s a favorite choice for grills and smokers. (On the other hand, briquettes are pressed and often contain additives or filters.) The downside is that lump charcoal costs more than briquettes, and they burn faster.
Lump charcoal lights quickly and easily, burns hot, and produces less ash than briquettes. Look for bags labeled “hardwood lump charcoal” or “All-natural” to make sure you’re buying legit charcoal, not briquettes. When it comes to the lumps themselves, bigger is better. That's why our top pick, Jealous Devil All Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal, is able to handle more heat without popping. Larger pieces burn for longer and also at hotter temperatures. Another pro tip: sparking might look impressive, but it means the comes from lightweight wood and will burn fast, so it’s not a great sign.
Here are our best lump charcoals for your charcoal grill, smoker, or kamado.
Best Overall: Jealous Devil All Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal
What We Love: No fillers, high maximum temperature, minimal ash
What We Don't Love: Pricey
The Jealous Devil folk select the densest South American hardwood to be transformed with a unique small-batch carbonization process into this lump charcoal. The result? Longer burns with no sparking or popping, minimal ash, and a subtle flavor-enhancing aroma sought out by barbecue pros. Able to heat to more than 1,100 degrees, these cleaner burns can handle however hot you want to go. Perfect for a caveman-style reverse sear on your favorite steak or a low-and-slow cook on juicy brisket, chefs love the sweet flavor that manages not to overpower.
The resealable bag is a bit of an investment, but you’re paying for details like the specially designed bag that protects the charcoal in shipping, to keep the large pieces intact and prevent dust and residue. It's available in multiple sizes from 8 to 35 pounds.
Best Budget: Rockwood All-Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal
What We Love: No chemicals, eco-friendly, affordable
What We Don't Love: Inconsistent size and quality
Rockwood’s lump charcoal comes from premium Missouri oak, hickory, pecan, and maple woods sourced from leftover timber milling, so it’s eco-friendly and grilling friendly. Fun fact: Missouri is the number one producer of charcoal in the United States.
It’s free from chemicals, fillers, binders, and other impurities. Rockwood’s rich wood aroma complements the natural flavor of meats, fish, and poultry, and some barbecue champions swear by the relatively affordable brand’s long, clean burn. The pieces can be of inconsistent size and quality, which is the sacrifice for a lower price tag. This is available in 20-pound bags.
Hottest Burning: Harder Charcoal 100 Percent Natural XL Restaurant Style Barbecue Grilling Lump Charcoal
What We Love: Good amount of smoke, great for kamado grills, eco-friendly
What We Don't Love: Inconsistent sizes
Harder Charcoal is handmade from 100 percent quebracho wood, called the "axe breaker" in South America. It’s that dense hardness that makes Harder Charcoal one of the hottest burning lump charcoals around. It’s also made with the environment in mind—Harder Charcoal is harvested without cutting down a single tree. You’ll get long-lasting heat without excessive amounts of smoke or pesky sparks.
Harder Charcoal is great for any charcoal grill but especially ideal for kamado-style grills, like the Big Green Egg, Kamado Joe, and others that retain heat for low-and-slow cooking as well as high heat and searing. This is available in 33-pound bags.
Related: The Best Charcoal Grills
Best for Big Green Egg: Big Green Egg Natural Oak and Hickory Lump Charcoal
What We Love: No fillers, treated wood, or petroleum products
What We Don't Love: Hard to light
Many chefs consider Big Green Egg charcoal a secret ingredient that contributes to great flavor.
Made in the U.S. with American oak and hickory hardwood, Big Green Egg sources its natural charcoal to ensure that it contains no fillers, nitrates, chemicals, anthracite coal, limestone, treated wood, or petroleum products, so it’s pretty darn pure. This eco-friendly fuel can be a bit challenging to light, but it’s a more than fair trade-off for the quality of the fuel and the fantastic flavor it imparts. This is available in 20-pound bags.
Best for Smoking: Royal Oak All Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal
What We Love: Quick to light, minimal ash, sustainably sourced
What We Don't Love: Inconsistent quality
Royal Oak’s all-American, sustainably sourced natural hardwood is made from oak, hickory, and maple, and contains absolutely no additives or chemicals. These coals are quick to light—you’ll be ready to get cooking in about 15 minutes.
What makes Royal Oak ideal for slow smoking is that the coals stay lit for hours. They also leave an impressively small amount of ash, which means you won’t need to empty your smoker’s ash drawer so often. Using Royal Oak, which is available in 8-pound and 15-pound bags, reduces the frequency with which you’ll need to swap coals, while also keeping your smoker clean. Smoking success!
Related: The Best Smokers
Best Mild Flavor: Cowboy All Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal
What We Love: Subtle flavor, affordable
What We Don't Love: Inconsistent sizes
Sometimes you just want your food to taste like what it is, without too much of a pronounced smoky flavor. Cowboy Lump Charcoal uses a carefully formulated mix of oak, hickory, and maple that will give a long, clean burn without imparting much flavor to your cooking, and definitely steering clear of any bitter off-notes.
The downside is that some bags come with a bunch of small pieces; the upside is its great price and perfect for everyday grilling. This is available in 20-pound bags.
Related: The Best Portable Grills
Best for Bold Flavor: B&B Charcoal Oak Lump Charcoal
What We Love: Lots of flavor, affordable
What We Don't Love: Unsure of sourcing
In contrast with Cowboy Lump Charcoal, B&B Charcoal Oak Lump Charcoal is packed with plenty of robust oak flavor. Your ribs, steak, or chicken take on a woodsy aroma (think campfire).
This Texas-based company has been in the business for more than half a century and it doesn't add any chemicals or fillers. The density of the hardwood oak used here makes B&B Charcoal Oak Lump Charcoal perfect for long burns without needing to add in more bags of extra charcoal as you go. This is available in 20-pound bags.
Related: The Best Grill Brushes
Best for Beginners: Fogo Premium Hardwood Lump Charcoal
What We Love: Easy to light, long-lasting, smoky flavor
What We Don't Love: Inconsistent sizes
Relative to other charcoals, Fogo Lump Charcoal lights up easily and quickly, allowing you to reach searing temperatures pretty fast, and perfect for beginners (and grillers without a ton of patience.) Its medium and large-sized pieces are ideal for long-lasting, consistent fires.
The “restaurant quality” claim is more than just marketing. The all-natural oak hardwood provides a fantastic traditional smoky flavor and is a versatile choice for grilling or smoking. This is available in 17-pound bags.
Related: The Best Pellet Smokers
With its lack of fillers, ability to burn hot, and easy cleanup, Jealous Devil Hardwood Lump Charcoal (view at Amazon) will work no matter what your menu is. If you're looking for eco-friendly charcoal at a great price, look no further than Rockwood Hardwood Lump Charcoal (view at Amazon).
What to Look for When Buying Lump Charcoal
Type of Wood
When she shops for lump charcoals, Cathy Asapahu, pastry chef at Ayara Thai in Los Angeles, says that her biggest focus is going natural. "You don't want anything with lighter fuel in it! This will cause food to have a taste more akin to the gas, as opposed to the warm, smokey notes of the wood being used," she says. "Hardwood adds a deliciously subtle flavor and, depending on the hardwood used, there are a variety of tastes and unique flavors to work with.” The varieties of wood commonly used for lump charcoal that impart excellent flavor include oak, maple, hickory, and pecan.
Lump charcoal typically comes in large paper bags that are safe to burn, so it’s easy to dispose of them when the charcoal runs out. The bags on our list come in sizes ranging from 8 pounds to 35 pounds, so users can pick up a package that suits their particular needs. Some brands, like Jealous Devil, make resealable bags, which offer an extra level of insurance to anyone concerned about spillage in transit.
Do you need a chimney starter to light lump charcoal?
A chimney starter isn’t strictly necessary to light lump charcoal. "To light it effortlessly, put [charcoal] in a charcoal chimney and start it on a propane camp stove," Asapahu says. "You'll be fired up in no time, and your dish will taste incredible." If you don’t have access to a charcoal chimney, you can ignite the charcoal by placing it on a grate, putting balls of paper (like crumpled paper bags or newspaper) beneath the grate, and lighting the paper.
How do you properly dispose of burned charcoal?
Before you attempt to dispose of your burnt charcoal, make absolutely sure that the ash and any residual charcoal bits have completely cooled, as hot (or even warm) charcoal residue could potentially ignite and cause destruction. Once the charcoal is fully cooled, you can wrap it in a heat-resistant material (like aluminum foil) and throw it in the garbage can. However, ash from hardwood charcoal can function as an effective fertilizer, so if you have a garden, it’s worth repurposing the ash.
Why Trust Simply Recipes?
Hannah Howard has been writing about food and cooking for over a decade, including the memoirs “Feast” and “Plenty.” She is married to a Kansas City Barbecue Society-certified barbecue judge and dedicated meat lover. She is having a lot of fun experimenting on her new kamado grill.
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