Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

What is Lump Charcoal and Why Use It?

In Around the web, Small Business Skills on July 24, 2010 at 7:46 am

From THE LUMP CHARCOAL DATABASE

[Years ago, when I learned Alice Waters over at Chez Panisse in Berkeley used Lazzari Mesquite Charcoal in her restaurant grilling, I converted from briquettes and have used only Mesquite since. The co-op now carries lump charcoal and so does the Farm Supply. I get large bags of Lazzari Mesquite from Harvest Market in Fort Bragg when we are over on the coast. Lamb sausage hot dogs, and lamb burgers, from Owens Family Farm in Hopland, over mesquite... oh, yeah! I'm headed to the Farmers Market right now. And: Is lump charcoal a local business opportunity? (see photos below) -DS]

What is charcoal?

In general, wood charcoal is a substance obtained by partial burning or destructive distillation of wood. It is largely pure carbon. Wood charcoal is prepared by heating wood in the absence of oxygen. In this process volatile compounds in the wood (e.g., water, hydrogen, methane and tars) pass off as vapors into the air, and the carbon is converted into charcoal. (Tar is a generic name for big, smoky, sticky molecules that form liquids when they’re cool. The tars, in particular, can contain carcinogenic compounds, like benzo-A-pyrene.) With the volatile component driven off, you are left with wood charcoal that is about 20 to 25-percent of the original volume of the wood. It’s chiefly carbon, with traces of volatile chemicals and ash. When it burns, it won’t produce as much smoke as burning wood, and it will burn long, hot and steady. Charcoal, being almost pure carbon, yields a larger amount of heat in proportion to its volume than is obtained from a corresponding quantity of wood.

What forms does charcoal come in?

As far as cooking is concerned, there are two main forms, lump charcoal and briquettes. Lump charcoal is charcoal which has not been formed into briquettes. Briquettes are the pillow shaped little pieces of compressed ground charcoal.

Which is better, lump or briquettes?

Well, this FAQ is about lump charcoal, so we aren’t going to wax eloquent about briquettes. But admit it. You really want to know what is in Kingsford briquettes, don’t you? Well, according to Kingsford, here is what is in their briquettes and what each ingredient is used for: wood char (heat source), mineral char (heat source), mineral carbon (heat source), limestone (uniform visual ashing), starch (binder), borax (press release), sodium nitrate (ignition aid), sawdust (ignition aid). If you hang out on any of the barbecue forums on the internet, you will find lots of folks complaining about the borax and coal and limestone. You don’t often hear of people complaining about the mineral char. What is mineral char? “A soft, brownish-black coal in which the alteration of vegetable matter has proceeded further than in peat but not as far as in bituminous coal. Also called brown coal. Has empyreumatic smell.” What is an empyreumatic smell? “The peculiar smell and taste arising from products of decomposition of animal or vegetable substances when burnt in close vessels.” Nuff said?

But back to the question at hand. Should you use lump or briquettes? There is no one answer for everyone. If you are using a ceramic cooker, the low ash production of lump charcoal is very important. Ceramic cookers have a fire bowl holding the charcoal. As the charcoal burns, the ash falls down into the bottom of the bowl. There isn’t room for a whole lot of ash.

Lump charcoal burns hotter and faster than briquettes, if given an unlimited air supply. If you can control the air flow through your cooker, lump will burn at whatever rate and temperature that you allow it to. If you can’t control the air flow in your cooker, then you may need to use the slower-burning briquettes in order to keep temperature under control.

Another consideration is that briquettes tend to be cheaper than lump charcoal.

What types of lump charcoal are there?

Basically, you will find three types of wood used to make lump charcoal: kiln dried lumber scraps, saw mill scraps, and pieces of wood not sawn or processed, such as limbs. I’ll call this “natural” wood, for lack of a better term.

Which type of lump charcoal is best?

I would place limbs/natural wood and saw mill scraps in the same category. They are both unprocessed wood. Flooring/molding scraps, of course, have the risk of having varnished scraps, but I’ve not found this. However, flooring scraps are made from kiln dried wood and seems to have less smokiness which some folks consider to be a plus. The flooring scrap tends to be less dense and thus doesn’t last as long. Some have reported that it also tends to break up more easily and thus you end up with more chips/dust than with natural wood lumps. The decision to use flooring scrap or natural wood is probably one you have to make for yourself.

What brands of lump charcoal are there?

There are literally dozens of brands of lump charcoal. The simplest answer to this question is to direct you to the Lump Database where many of the brands have been reviewed and rated.

How do they make lump charcoal?

Lump charcoal is made by taking wood, usually limbs, branches, slabs from lumber mills, scraps from milling operations, etc. and heating this wood in a closed container in the absence of oxygen. Here’s a link to a video that aired on KETC, the public television station in St. Louis: Charcoal Making. Note that this is the same company that was featured in an Episode of “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel.

What about funny stuff being found in lump charcoal?

Since making lump charcoal is often done under somewhat crude conditions, it is normal to find a few rocks or pebbles in lump charcoal. However, a few other oddball items have been found like a mouse, human hair, a tootsie roll wrapper, varnished wood, and black shiny objects commonly referred to as moon rocks. Personally, in over two years and hundreds of pounds of lump charcoal, I’ve found 3 rocks and a tootsie roll wrapper. It shouldn’t be a great concern.

How should I start lump charcoal?

Don’t use starter fluid. Why? It isn’t cool. It pollutes the air and is banned in some localities. If you don’t allow it all to burn off, it will flavor your food. And, because you don’t have to. There are many other ways to start lump charcoal. You can use parafin fireplace starter blocks. Weber starter cubes. The green gel from Wal*Mart (an alcohol gel made from starch). Electric starters. Propane sticks. Weed burners. Propane torches. MAPP gas torches. Chimney starters. Heck, Martha Stewart says you can even use twigs. So why use fluid? In any event, whatever method you use to start the charcoal, follow the instructions to be found on the product you use.

Personally, we use many different methods, just because we can! If we want a hot fire for searing steaks, we’ll put a starter at the bottom of the charcoal (under the grate in a ceramic charcoal cooker) so as to get the entire load of charcoal burning. If we want a medium fire, we’ll put the starter in the pile of charcoal near the top so as to only start the top charcoal. If we are cooking low and slow, we’ll get a chimney of lump roaring hot and dump this on top of the charcoal in the cooker. This ensures that a good fire gets started so that the fire doesn’t go out. By the time we add our ceramic barrier and the cold meat, the temperature of the cooker drops significantly and we can then adjust the temperature to the desired low and slow setting we want. You may find that different methods work better for you than others.

What is the shelf life of lump charcoal?

If you keep it stored in a dry location, the shelf life of charcoal should be indefinite. For what it’s worth, Martha Stewart lump comes in a reclosable bag, and Martha says that it will keep for 10 years if you reclose the bag. She doesn’t indicate what will happen if you don’t reclose the bag.

Why are some bags full of chips and dust?

There are several theories regarding why some brands or even individual bags of lump charcoal contain a lot of chips and dust, while others do not. The most prevalent theory you will hear is the gorilla theory. Supposedly overly-muscled and underly-brained gorilla-type mesomorphs are the only persons allowed to handle charcoal at large meg-stores like Wal-Mart and they purposely toss the charcoal around at specified intervals, stomp on it with large hob-nailed boots at specified intervals, and just in general abuse the bags of charcoal. So, what left the manufacturer as pristine 100% whole pieces of lovely charcoal is pulverized into chips and dust by these goons. Well, ok, I sort of exaggerated the theory. But you get the idea, right?

Well, our personal theory is that while any bag of charcoal which has obviously been abused may indeed contain more chips and dust than when it left the manufacturer, in actuality it has more to do with the original sorting, screening and bagging of the charcoal by the manufacturer. We have seen some bags of charcoal contain horrible amounts of chips and dust, while other bags from the same load, from the same manufacturer contained very small amounts of chips and dust. We have seen multiple bags of charcoal from the same manufacturer arrive containing charcoal which is in pristine condition. Frankly, we strongly suspect that when you get a lousy bag of charcoal, it is because the manufacturer bagged a lousy bag of charcoal. Either they fail to adequately screen the charcoal to remove the chips and dust or they fail to screen it at all. Frankly, if Picnic Charcoal can get a bag of charcoal from Argentina to Texas to North Carolina with barely a few tablespoons of chips in the bag, there is no reason why other manufacturers can’t provide similar quality.

Can I use lump charcoal that has gotten wet?

We have never gotten any lump charcoal wet, so we don’t speak from first hand experience, but we have read several sources that say if you lay it out in the sun in a thin layer, it will dry out and can be used.

What are all these warnings about storing wet charcoal?

We have seen these warnings on various fire department “Summer Safety” webpages, etc. and can report that it is all urban legend. If you want the details you can read The Myth About Storing Wet Charcoal.

Can I use lump charcoal to cook indoors?

No, no, one thousand times no! Most charcoal FAQs start out by telling you why you shouldn’t do it, and then at the bottom of the answer, they finally tell you not to do it. We chose to tell you not to do it first and then explain why. First of all, Why does every bag of charcoal under the sun contain a warning not to use it indoors? Don’t do it. People die. It gives off carbon monoxide (CO) which is odorless and can kill you. Don’t do it! (Ok, if you have a properly ventilated installation, you can probably cook with charcoal indoors, but don’t do it unless you have an expert install proper venting, etc. etc. etc.) Did we mention, don’t do it? Here is what Tom Clancy has to say about carbon monoxide: “[Carbon monoxide] forms a bond with the red blood cells. This bond is actually stronger than the bond that hemoglobin forms with the free oxygen that the blood conveys to the various parts of the human body. The overall effect on the human consciousness is rather like that of alcohol–euphoria, like being pleasantly drunk, followed by unconsciousness and, if it goes too far…death from oxygen starvation of the brain.” — Red Rabbit, by Tom Clancy, page 409

Can I make my own lump charcoal?

Well, lots of people seem to think so. We have never tried it, but Big-R on the Big Green Egg forum has made lump. Here is Big-R’s Guide To Making Lump At Home. And then here are several links to pages on the web that seem to indicate that other people have tried and succeeded:

Are all these South American charcoals bad for the environment?

We don’t have any specific information as to whether or not the charcoal made in South America and imported into the US for barbecuing is destroying rain forest. However, we have published this letter to our readers about our position on including company environmental records into our ratings, and providing environmental information as a part of our reviews.
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A local business opportunity? See here.

From WIKIPEDIA

Wood pile before covering it by turf or soil, and firing it (around 1890)

An abandoned charcoal kiln near Walker, Arizona, USA.

A charcoal powered bus being “fired up” in post war Japan (late 1940s)

Modern charcoal retorts

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  1. Don’t mean to start a run on another local resource, but dry, dead (not rotten) manzanita makes for a great barbeque, and will essentially convert to charcoal with a couple of hours of low-O2 burning right in a covered grill.

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