The Best Lump Charcoal, According to Our Extensive, Very Smoky Tests

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A closeup look at a fiery charcoal grill
Serious Eats / Meredith Butcher

Lump charcoal is colloquially favored as a premium or “upgrade” variety of charcoal, thanks to its clean, efficient burn. Unlike manufactured briquettes, which are uniform in shape and size (and may be coated with fire-starting chemicals), lump charcoal has a more natural, “real” aesthetic and can burn extremely hot or low and slow, making it ideal for a variety of grilling tasks.

But lump charcoal isn’t cheap, and premium bags can cost over $50 for a couple dozen pounds. To determine which brands are worth the price, we reviewed 13 bags of popular lump charcoal with both high- and low-heat grilling tests.

In addition to using the lump charcoal in the two different applications, we evaluated them by other metrics, including ease of use, cleanup, and efficiency. Overwhelmingly, we favored lump charcoal brands that contained a moderate variety of different sizes and shapes. That blend allowed for a quick-to-light product that burned consistently, with minimal temperature regulation required.

The Winners, at a Glance

These highly irregularly sized pieces of lump charcoal have a natural look and feel to them, and they were some of the best at maintaining temperature consistency during low and slow and high-heat cooking alike. They gave off a woody, mild scent when burning.

Although made from the makers of the Big Green Egg Smoker, this product can be used on any charcoal grill. It lights super quickly and burns clean and fast, making it an ideal choice for nights when you’re just trying to get dinner on the table. 

The low price tag on this bag of lump charcoal is attractive, and while it’s not as elite a performer as other varieties we tested, it fits the bill for just about any grilling activity—just mind the milk sparking when lighting and have a plan for cleaning up the ash.

Rockwood’s lump charcoal is made from a blend of hickory, maple, and oak, giving it a pleasing scent. In our testing, it performed particularly well in the low-and-slow category, although its ease of use and minimal ash detritus meant we’d happily pay the premium price.

We loved the dense, uniform composition of this lump charcoal, which reminded us of high-quality briquettes. It’s sourced from sustainable acacia wood, and burned incredibly clean, allowing the food we grilled to shine.

This blend of hickory, maple, and oak will please grillers who crave a campfire ambiance and extra smoky flavor that enhances the food without overwhelming it. The pieces range in size and shape, with some XL chunks mixed throughout.

With a moderately smoky burn that enhanced the flavor of chicken and burgers, B&B’s oakwood charcoal is not intimidating to use. It lights easily and burns efficiently after some initial sparking. It’s a great option for those transitioning to lump charcoal for the first time.

This bag is made up of 80% big chunks, which are ideal for the slow, sustained burns required for smoking and low-heat grilling. The smoke level was minimal, and the woodsy flavor imparted during both of our cooking tests was mild and pleasant.

We were impressed with how little ash this charcoal produced after grilling, which made it a great choice for easy cleanup or for those with a particular aversion to the messier aspects of grilling. It’s a solid performer, adding a moderate, crowd-pleasing smoke flavor to food.

The Tests

a closeup look at a spatchcocked chicken cooking on a charcoal grill
Serious Eats / Andy Wilson

In addition to taking observations about the packaging—including directions for use, explanations, safety warnings, and notes about water-resistant qualities, we completed two tests with all of the lump charcoal varieties.

  • Low and Slow Test: We created a two-zone fire with the lump charcoal piled halfway up the side of one half of the grill. We timed how long it took the charcoal to light, then stabilized the grill temperature at 225˚F. We placed chicken over the side of the grill without coals for low-and-slow indirect heat cooking, then timed how long it took for the chicken to reach an internal temperature of 165˚F. After removing the chicken, we timed how long it took the charcoal to burn out entirely. We evaluated each product based on the taste and char level of the chicken, ease of lighting, burn time, the size of the charcoal, and the amount of ash produced.
  • High Heat Test: We once again created a two-zone fire, with the charcoal piled halfway up the side of one half of the grill. We timed how long it took for the grill to reach 475˚F. We then grilled a protein (steak, burgers, chicken) over the center of the coals until it reached the desired doneness. We then immediately cut off the air supply to the grill and allowed the charcoal to cool completely. Once cool, we observed the size and quantity of the coals to determine whether they could be used for another grilling session. We evaluated the lump charcoal based on the flavor and char of the protein, the size of the remaining coals, and the amount of ash produced.

What We Learned

Wood Species Mattered (A Bit) for Flavor 

two steaks cooking on a charcoal grill
Serious Eats / Rebecca Sheehan

All the lump charcoal we tested imparted a moderate, appealing smoky flavor—unlike briquettes, which can be intensely smoky. Because lump charcoal is made from pure wood, it allows for greater flavor expression when specific wood species are used. (Although some brands we tested did not specify wood type). During our tests, we noted that brands made with hickory and oak in particular added a pleasing, moderate campfire scent and smoky flavor. 

But flavor isn’t the only factor in wood choice: We valued other brands’ sustainability efforts. The Good Charcoal Company uses acacia wood, which is an invasive species and requires regular harvesting to combat overgrowth.

A Moderate Variety of Size and Shape Makes for an Efficient Burn

a closeup look at different sized pieces of lump charcoal
Serious Eats / Katrina Cossey

Chunky, large lumps of charcoal are ideal for fiery-hot cooking (when food is placed directly over the coals), or lower, slower styles of grilling (when Zone 2 placement is used). But the XL pieces are slow to light, even when a chimney is used—and they don’t always fit in chimneys! So the best bags we tested had a wide variety of sizes and shapes, which allowed us to pick and choose the optimal mix of lumps for whatever type of grilling we wanted to do. 

All this said, there’s a balance to be had: We docked points for brands that contained wood pieces so small they fell through the grates, or sizes so big, it made temperature regulation challenging. Our tests also proved that smaller shards tended to spark more (one brand even produced a spark so energetic, it hit someone in the face—they’re okay though!).

Don’t Be Fooled By Marketing Lingo

Ultimately, all lump charcoal is a natural product that contains no fillers. Some marketing copy is useful, as when the species of wood is listed. But you can ignore flashy words like “Naturally sourced” or “Premium,” which are not regulated and don’t tell you much about the quality of the wood. 

The Criteria: What to Look for In Lump Charcoal

a charcoal grill with a bag of lump charcoal beside it
Serious Eats / Rebecca Sheehan / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

Look for lump charcoal that lists the wood species on the bag, and has a moderate variety of natural shapes and sizes. All charcoal bags should be easy to open, often with a pull string, and should be made from durable, thick paper. The cleanest-burning lump charcoal had very little dust in the bag upon opening and left behind minimal ash when burned.

What we liked: The fun begins with this highly branded bag; it’s cheekily patterned with a flannel-wearing man cooking a steak over a kettle grill. Beyond aesthetics, the highly irregularly-sized charcoal pieces are fast to light and maintain excellent temperature consistency. They’re made from sustainably-sourced wood, too, that doesn’t pop and spark at all when lit.

What we didn’t like: The charcoal pieces took a long time (90 minutes) to burn down. It’s very smoky when first lighting, although it burns cleaner once fully lit.

Price at time of publish: $35 for 20 pounds.

Key Specs

  • Wood type: Quebracho Blanco “hardwood” from Paraguay
  • Time to light: 6 minutes with a chimney
  • Bag details: Non-waterproof; open with string pull tab
two steaks cooking on a charcoal grill
Serious Eats / Rebecca Sheehan

What we liked: Clearly packaged with the branding associated with the Big Green Egg (one of our recommended kamado cookers) smoker line of products, this charcoal burns cleanly after a quick smoky burst upon lighting. It enhanced the meat with a distinct smoky flavor, making it a standout among other, milder options. We favor this option for hot and high grilling tasks, like weeknight dinners, when the easy-to-ignite lumps and quick burn time work in our favor.

What we didn’t like: The bag is not water-resistant, and only has one layer of paper, making it particularly vulnerable to rain damage if left out. There’s no sourcing material on the bag, although the wood is described as “ultra-premium” and “natural.” It burned quickly during longer grilling or smoking sessions.

Price at time of publish: $60 for 20 pounds.

Key Specs

  • Wood type: Oak and hickory
  • Time to light: 20 minutes with a chimney
  • Bag details: Non-waterproof; bag is thin; includes lighting instructions; open with string pull tab
a charcoal grill with a chimney starter in it
Serious Eats / John Somerall

What we liked: There’s an impressive array of lump sizes, which created charcoal that was quick to light and burned moderately fast during grilling. It produced food with an excellent, pleasantly smoky flavor. It’s a good introduction to lump charcoal for grillers looking to transition from briquettes.

What we didn’t like: The wood type was not listed. It’s marketed to be “naturally sourced,” which doesn’t tell us much about its origins. There was a surprising amount of dust in the bag upon opening. The charcoal popped and sparked when lit. 

Price at time of publish: $15 for 16 pounds.

Key Specs

  • Wood type: Unspecified hardwood
  • Time to light: 10 minutes with a chimney
  • Bag details: Non-waterproof; open with a string pull-tab
a bag of lump charcoal on a concrete surface
Serious Eats / Meredith Butcher

What we liked: Rockwood’s blend of oak, hickory, and maple was a hit in our tests. One our reviewers noted that they felt it was worth the price tag, and planned on switching from their current brand. High on the list of our praises was the charcoal’s wood-fired taste and scent when used in the low-and-slow test (the chicken even had a desirable smoke ring). We also observed very little ash, and what was produced seemed to evaporate with a light breeze—it made cleanup especially efficient.

What we didn’t like: It’s pricey, and not always available through all online sellers. We found this bag harder to open than those will pull strings. It also sparked, popped, and gave off smoke when first lit (although it burned normally when emptied from the chimney).

Price at time of publish: $59 for 20 pounds.

Key Specs

  • Wood type: Oak, hickory, and maple
  • Time to light: 15 minutes with a chimney
  • Bag details: Non-waterproof brown paper; must be cut with scissors or a knife
a closeup look at lump charcoal in a chimney starter
Serious Eats / Rebecca Sheehan

What we liked: This lump charcoal’s burn rate was highly efficient, with very little charcoal being wasted during the chimney lighting process. The charcoal itself is substantial and dense and, during production, the charcoal is sifted before being packed into the bag, which resulted in very little dust. The charcoal is largely uniform in size, which we appreciated for reliable burning. It’s worth noting the wood used is acacia sourced from Namibia. While this didn’t lend any exceedingly different flavor to food, we appreciated the sustainability efforts.

What we didn’t like: It’s on the pricier side. Although sturdy, the bag is not waterproof and should be stored inside to protect it from the elements.

Price at time of publish: $40 for 15.4 pounds.

Key Specs

  • Wood type: Namibia-sourced acacia
  • Time to light: 15 minutes with a chimney
  • Bag details: Non-waterproof; open with string pull tab.
a look at the back of a bag of lump charcoal
Serious Eats / John Somerall

What we liked: This blend of three different woods (oak, maple, and hickory) had a pleasing campfire scent that followed through in the cooking process. During our high-heat test, the protein (chicken) acquired a large amount of desirable smoke flavor that enhanced, rather than overwhelmed, the meat. It burned consistently, requiring minimal adjustments to maintain ideal grill temperature.

What we didn’t like: The lumps may be too big for people with small grills. In our test, the largest measured three to four inches and were rather plentiful, although Amazon reviewers have reported receiving just a few XL pieces per bag.

Price at time of publish: $31 for 15.44 ounces.

Key Specs

  • Wood type: USA-sourced oak, maple, and hickory
  • Time to light: 5 minutes with a chimney
  • Bag details: Non-waterproof; open with string pull tab

What we liked: B&B’s lump charcoal is a blend of oak and “hardwood,” and produces a moderately smoky scent and flavor. It produced minimal ash, which made it easy to clean up. In our tests, we were able to light the charcoal with a propane torch, making this a good option for grilling newbies without a ton of gear, or anyone who doesn’t own a chimney starter.

What we didn’t like: Despite having a pull string, we found the bag difficult to open and eventually resorted to using a knife, which ripped down the side. There was plenty of popping and sparking when lighting. 

Price at time of publish: $36 for 20 pounds.

Key Specs

  • Wood type: Oak, hardwood
  • Time to light: 5 minutes with a propane torch
  • Bag details: Non-waterproof; open with string pull tab (bag prone to tearing)
a look at lump charcoal pieces at the bottom of a charcoal grill
Serious Eats / Andy Wilson

What we liked: The wood is sustainably sourced from El Salvador, and many of the pieces are large. (The brand claims 80% of its lumps are chunky, although we did notice a wider variety than that). During our low-and-slow test, the wood burned incredibly slow—we recommend using this for smoking and ultra-low heat grilling options. There was minimal dust in the bag, and little ash after the grill cooled, too, making cleanup easier.

What we didn’t like: It’s not a great choice for high-heat or quick grilling, due to the slow burn time. Of course, it’s pricey. It also popped and smoked a bit upon lighting.

Price at time of publish: $43 for 17.6 pounds.

Key Specs

  • Wood type: El Salvador-sourced oak, hardwood
  • Time to light: 12 minutes with a chimney
  • Bag details: Water-resistant bag with lighting instructions; open with scissors or a knife
a yellow bag of lump charcoal beside a charcoal grill
Serious Eats / Rebecca Sheehan

What we liked: This was one of the cleanest-burning lump charcoal brands we tested, with just a quarter-cup of ash being produced at the end of grilling. There’s a wide variety of sizes and shapes, making it easy to stack your grill with ideal pieces for the task at hand. We were able to light it easily without a chimney. The overall flavor and scent experience was moderate, pleasant, and, overall, we think pretty crowd-appealing.

What we didn’t like: The specific wood species is not listed. It popped and sparked intensely when initially lit.

Price at time of publish: $40 for 19 pounds.

Key Specs

  • Wood type: Unspecified hardwood
  • Time to light: 5 minutes with a propane torch
  • Bag details: Water-resistant; open with a string pull tab
a bag of lump charcoal beside a portable charcoal grill
Serious Eats / Katrina Cossey

The Competition

  • Mr. Bar-B-Q Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal: This bag had pieces that were extremely varied in size. It also had the most messy charcoal dust upon opening. 
  • Kamado Joe Big Block XL Lump Charcoal: Although reasonably priced, there were no standout qualities to this Kamado Joe’s charcoal. After testing, we struggled to detect smoky flavor, although the XL size piqued our curiosity for larger-format, slower grilling tasks.
  • Harder Charcoal Natural Restaurant Style Lump Charcoal: After a 35-minute struggle to light these lump charcoal pieces, and a not-small amount of ash collected at the end of our grilling session, we docked too many points from Harder to recommend it.
  • IPPINKA Kishu Binchotan BBQ Charcoal: We tried this Binchotan charcoal from Japan, but ultimately found it to be a completely different product and not comparable to lump charcoal.

FAQs

How do you light lump charcoal? 

The best method of lighting lump charcoal is with a chimney—just place a few crumpled pieces of newspaper or brown paper underneath the coals, and light it from the bottom. If you don’t have a chimney, you can use a propane torch and a fire starter, which will ignite and spread the burn to the charcoal.

How long does lump charcoal burn? 

Without adding more fuel to the grill, lump charcoal will burn for about an hour (on average) before becoming heat inefficient. In our test of lump charcoal, some burned out within half an hour, while others lasted 90 minutes. If you want to grill for a long time, have plenty of fuel on hand and steadily feed the fire to keep it hot.

When is lump charcoal ready?

As with charcoal briquettes, lump charcoal is ready to use for grilling when the top layer is lightly glowing with a pale, ash color. You can easily monitor this progress if you use a chimney to prepare your coals.

Where do you buy lump charcoal? 

All of the lump charcoal we tested can be purchased online, through sellers like Amazon and Walmart. You’ll also be able to find lump charcoal at well-stocked hardware stores, home improvement centers, and big box stores.


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