From the type of smoker to the type of smoke or ingredients you'll use, there's no one way to smoke a meat.
But does this apply to the fuel source that cooks the cut and creates the smoke?
Just like any other consideration for meat smoking, there's not a quick answer. In fact, the answer to that depends on a few factors – smoker type, length of smoke, and your level of involvement.
For our purposes, we'll compare the two fuel sources for your ugly drum smoker: lump charcoal vs. briquettes.
A Closer Look at Both Smoker Fuel Sources
As with all decisions in meat smoking, knowledge is power – why leave anything to chance?
Let's first take a look at both options for bringing the heat to your next smoke session.
This is the easier one, and even if you're brand new to the world of meat smoking, you probably already have experience with them.
Pre-formed squares and typically made from charred wood, coal dust, and a binder, if you've ever cooked on a charcoal grill you've likely used briquettes.
In addition to being widely available (seen at your grocery store, favorite convenience store, or even hardware shop, they're easy to work with. With a little lighter fluid, a match, and some time, they get going quickly and produce heat for a long time (more on this later). What's more, because they're intended for grilling (another more on this later), they usually burn hotter.
What is lump charcoal?
Also known as natural charcoal or hardwood charcoal, lump charcoal is made from chunks of real hardwood that have been charred.
The process of making lump charcoal involves heating hardwood pieces in the absence of oxygen through a process called pyrolysis or carbonization. During this process, volatile compounds are driven off, leaving behind a product free of chemicals or other compounds that negatively impact a smoke. The result is irregularly shaped lumps of charcoal that retain the natural flavor and aroma of the wood from which they are made.
Some of the common hardwoods used to produce lump charcoal include:
Just like with the woods you'll use to create that beautiful blue smoke for your meats, each type of lump charcoal wood imparts its unique flavor to the food being cooked.
Further Reading: Curious to learn more about smoker wood selection? Check out our article, "Smoking Wood Showdown & The Decisions You'll Make."
4 FAQs About Lump Charcoal Vs. Briquettes
If you're trying to figure out which fuel source to go with for your smoker, we commend you. As far as we're concerned, there's no such thing as a small decision when it comes to preparing a smoked meat.
To help you out, we've rounded up a few of the most common questions (and their answers) those in your shoes ask. Let's dig in:
1. Can You Smoke With Charcoal Briquettes?
Yes! They are designed to burn at a consistent temperature and produce a steady, high heat while they burn (usually between 4-5 hours).
However, for those looking to have the purest meat smoking session possible, briquettes can be a bit problematic. As they are a more "processed" fuel source, they are made with a binder that can produce off-flavors (which some describe as "chemically") in the smoke.
Those off-flavors do make their way into the meat, and there’s no hiding them. In addition, charcoal briquettes do produce more ash than lump charcoal – just something to be aware of as it can contaminate food.
2. So How Long Does Lump Charcoal Burn Vs. Briquettes?
Or does lump charcoal burn longer than briquettes?
Generally speaking, lump charcoal burns for about 2-3 hours and at a lower temperature.
When you use lump charcoal, it does mean more involvement on your end when you smoke with lump charcoal.
For most amateur and professional smokers, that isn't a problem – chances are they are going to be overseeing their meat smoking sessions anyway. Moreover, the lower burn temperature usually isn't a problem either – meat smoking is supposed to take time at lower temperatures (usually 225℉).
Or as it's been said, "Low and slow, steady as she goes."
3. Can You Mix Lump Charcoal With Briquettes?
It's not that you can't, but you probably shouldn't.
While there are benefits to each fuel source, mixing them together opens the doors to complications, such as:
If you're asking us, the combo approach isn't worth the effort or risk of spoiling your meat as it smokes.
4. Is Lump Charcoal Better Than Briquettes?
The grand finale of our FAQs!
We'll give a mixed answer – it depends on the application.
When it comes to a longer smoke session with an ugly drum smoker, there's no question that lump charcoal is the way to go. Despite its length of burn and level of involvement to keep the fire burning, lump charcoal does exactly what you need to prepare a perfect smoked meat.
However, when it comes to grilling or instances where space is a consideration, it's briquettes all the way. For instance, briquettes are a good choice for our TG Series Grill when you're using it as a grill or griddle. They also work well in an ugly drum smoker or TG when you're using the pizza oven kit and you need temperatures to get and stay high.
Lighting and Maintaining Your Charcoal – Lump or Briquette
Regardless of which option you choose to create the all-important heat for your ugly drum smoker, the process to getting the fires going (so to speak) is the same.
Starting charcoal, whether it's lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes, in an ugly drum smoker can be a straightforward process when using a chimney starter and a heat gun.
Here's a step-by-step guide on how to do it and some general tips for maintaining the charcoal throughout the smoking process:
Gather your supplies: This should include:
- Charcoal (lump or briquettes)
- Chimney starter
- Heat gun or handheld propane torch
- Fire starters or newspaper
- Load the chimney starter: Fill the chimney starter with the desired amount of charcoal. The amount you need will depend on the size of your smoker and the cooking time you're aiming for.
- Add fire starters or newspaper: Place a couple of fire starters or crumpled newspaper at the bottom of your chimney starter.
- Light your charcoal Ignite the fire starters or newspaper – the heat will quickly spread upwards, igniting the charcoal.
- Wait for the charcoal to ash over: Let the charcoal burn in the chimney starter until the coals are covered with a layer of ash. This typically takes around 15 to 20 minutes.
Pour the charcoal into the smoker: Carefully pour the hot coals from the chimney starter into your smoker’s charcoal basket.
|Have you seen the Smokin' Ugly Charcoal Chute Kit? It makes loading & replenishing your charcoal a breeze!|
- Adjust the airflow: Ensure the intake and exhaust vents of your ugly drum smoker are open to allow for proper airflow. Adjust the vents as needed to control the temperature.
- Replenish as needed: As the charcoal burns and the temperature drops, you may need to add more charcoal to maintain the desired heat level.
- Do a Cleanout: After you're done smoking your meat, don't let your spent charcoal and its ashes sit there – be sure to clean out your charcoal box as soon as possible (when it’s fully cooled down, which means you’ll be waiting a while). As charcoal burns, it leaves behind chemical resins that are corrosive, meaning your charcoal box might meet an untimely end sooner if your charcoal remnants are left in it longer than necessary.
Fueling a Great Meat Smoking Session
Like any other element of meat smoking, when it comes to fueling your ugly drum smoker, there's no one-size-fits-all answer.
Ultimately, the choice between lump charcoal and briquettes comes down to the style of cooking and the flavor profile you desire.
Build Your Best Ugly Drum Smoker
Check out our catalog of Smokin’ Ugly drum smoker kits and accessories: