How to Light a Charcoal Grill [3 Easy Ways]


Need help getting the grill started? We’re here with a step-by-guide to turn you from grilling amateur into BBQ pro. Here’s how to light a charcoal grill.

How To Light A Charcoal Grill

One of the biggest challenges facing charcoal grill owners is the task of lighting it and getting that fire roaring. The good news is that it’s not as difficult as it seems, and once you know how to light a charcoal grill it’s a piece of cake.

There are three main techniques to lighting a charcoal grill. The best way is with a charcoal chimney (also called a chimney starter). Another is by using an electric starter. The last resort is to use lighter fluid. All three methods need the coals to be densely packed together before being lit, and waiting for them to turn into a gray ash color.

They’re three very simple techniques, but there is a learning curve to each and some quirks that can catch you off guard. This guide is here to break down all three, with step-by-guides to turn you into a charcoal grill pro.

If you want to know more, don’t forget our full guide on how to use a charcoal grill.

how to light a charcoal grill

Use a Charcoal Chimney

A chimney starter is quite an unusual-looking tool, with its huge coffee mug-like appearance and holes along the bottom, but it serves a great purpose and works in an ingenious way.

coals lit in chimney starter showing embers and ash

It makes it easy to light up your charcoal by packing it in densely into a container while they’re lit from the bottom. Being in the container also prevents the elements, namely wind, interfering with it during the heating up process.

Check out my guide to the best charcoal chimneys

Here’s how to use a chimney starter…

  • Stuff wads of newspaper in tightly underneath the starter
  • Pour charcoal into the top, filling it close to the brim.
  • Light the newspaper in a few different places with your choice of match or lighter
  • Place the chimney starter on the grate of your grill while the charcoal starts to smoke.
  • Leave for 10-15 minutes to allow the charcoal to smoke and light evenly across all the coals. Flames will begin to appear at the foot of the starter.
  • Wait for the smoke to die down and for the coals to turn a little bit white.
  • Pick up the starter by the handle and, while keeping it at a good distance from your body and (more importantly) face, slowly pour the hot coals into the base of your grill.

See my full guide on how to use a charcoal chimney

Use an Electric Starter

If you thought that the chimney starter looked odd, then get ready for this next one. An electric starter has a strange-looking large metal loop that you feed underneath the charcoal. It’s then plugged in and heats up the coals while placed in a similar chimney-like vessel.

It’s particularly great for vessel grills, like the Big Green Egg, and while it doesn’t get to work quite as quickly as a chimney starter it is very easy to use.

Here’s how to use an electric starter…

  • Put charcoal in the chimney, filling it close to the brim
  • Put the hoop end of the starter in the chimney, making sure it is submerged by the charcoal
  • Plug in the starter and leave for 10-15 minutes
  • Unplug the starter but be careful not to touch it anywhere else (the hooped end will be hot)
  • Leave for 5 more minutes, allowing the heat to spread and for the charcoal to start to turn white
  • Remove the starter from the charcoal completely, ensuring not to touch the hooped end
  • Transfer the coals to the base of your grill
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Use Lighter Fluid

Good old trusty lighter fluid. While much cheaper than investing in either a chimney or electric starter, this is by far the least reliable means of lighting charcoal. Plus, to me it feels a little bit more dangerous than the other methods, largely owing to the extremely flammable nature of the fluid. Furthermore, it’s definitely the least eco-friendly of the three options, and does risk leaving a petroleum-like taste to your food. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

How to light charcoal with lighter fluid…

  • Pile the charcoal into a pile or mound at the base of your grill. Keeping them as densely packed as possible is important to maintain coal-to-coal contact so that fire can easily spread between them, and helps protect them from wind.
  • Very carefully squirt lighter fluid over the coals, along the sides and top
  • Immediately light the fluid. DO NOT attempt to squirt anymore fluid once you have lit the coals
  • Wait for the coals to start to turn white. This takes about 15 minutes. Once ready, you can move the coals around a bit to help distribute heat more evenly.

Those are our three easy ways to light a charcoal grill. However, mistakes do happen so here’s our guide on what to look out for and how to avoid them.

Top 7 Common Charcoal Grilling Mistakes

With charcoal grilling, there’s plenty of room for error. Get your cooking right by making sure you don’t fall into any of these common traps.

Too Much Lighter Fluid

Ah the easiest mistakes are the hardest to quit. Being a grill master makes it all the more tempting to drown coals in lighter fluid, showing them who’s boss. After all, when something’s seen as a quick fix, how much harm can it really do?

Well I won’t lecture you with all the potential safety hazards (although it never hurts to be reminded of them), but know this: With every drop of fluid you apply to your grill, the more you are depriving your food of that authentic backyard grill taste. Is it worth it? Probably not.

Your Grill is Dirty

Oh boy. While cleaning your grill or chimney starter after a heavy BBQ session is never an enjoyable task, skipping it altogether can really hamper your cooking next time out.

Leftover burned food, as well as old ash and charcoal, can not only spoil the flavor of your new food, but it can also prevent oxygen from efficiently fueling your fire. Ashes in particular can trap moisture, which in turn can lead to corrosion.

Clean your grill and starter after every use to avoid any potential impairment.

You Don’t Use Real Charcoal

Well all know lighting hardwood charcoal is tough, but it’s really important to stick at it and not cut corners.

Avoid the temptation to use prepackaged briquettes. While convenient to use, they’re often loaded with fillers, binders and chemicals which not only is bad for the environment but it will heavily affect the flavor of your food.

Instead, be sure to get real hardwood charcoal. These are completely made of wood and burned until they form carbon. They burn much hotter, and give you a beautiful, natural smokey flavor with absolutely no chemicals. Grilling perfection.

You Don’t Distribute Charcoal Properly

Once you’ve heated up the coals and poured them into the base of your grill it can be easy to forget the most important step: Spreading them evenly underneath your grate.

Doing this helps prevent any cool spots on your grill surface, helping you to cook much more efficiently and safely.

You Don’t Get Up Close

Hear me out. Yes, when you light your coals you need to be careful not to burn yourself, particularly if you’re operating the piping-hot metal of an electric starter. However, when it comes to distributing your charcoal it’s really important to do it properly. And to do this, you need to get close to the grill.

At this point however, the fire and smoke will have died down so it’s reasonably safe to get close and work to start evenly spreading them. Just be sure to always use good quality grilling tools, and don’t be ashamed of using kitchen mitts (I’m serious).

You Mess Up Your Quantities

You wouldn’t blindly guess how many burgers or hot dogs you’ll need for your guests, so why would you for the amount of charcoal you need?

You wouldn’t blindly guess how many burgers or hot dogs you’ll need for your guests, so why would you for the amount of charcoal you need?

Make sure you think about how much food you’ll be grilling, how long for, and how hot the charcoal will need to be. For a guide, pay attention to what your charcoal packaging advises, but do keep in mind that it’s always better to have too much than too little.

You’re Using Old Charcoal

While it might seem cost-effective to reuse charcoal, it can be detrimental to the quality of your cookout. Old charcoal can prevent your grill from heating up properly and equally, can result in it burning out quickly.

Always try to use new coals to ensure the best barbecue experience possible.

How Long Will a Charcoal Grill Stay Hot?

Charcoal grills need a good mix of airflow and coal management to keep them going. If you leave it with the vents open and no new coals, it’ll only stay hot for between 15 and 30 minutes.

Charcoal briquettes generally burn at a steady temperature for about one hour. Lump charcoal is less predictable because it varies in size from piece to piece, but generally lasts for about 30 minutes.

Do You Shut the Lid on a Grill?

If you are using high-heat grilling or searing for cooking meat like burgers, it’s ok to leave the lid off. If you are planning to barbecue smoke ‘low and slow’ then it is best to keep the lid shut. This will help to keep temperatures stable, and allow you to control heat better through the use of your grill’s vents or dampers.

How Much Charcoal Should I Use?

To start with, you do not need to exceed the volume of your charcoal chimney. If your temperatures are too low after lighting the grill, you can add more.

Different meats require different heats, as well as cooking times. As a result, the food you are cooking will also determine how much coal is needed.

  • For delicate meats that only require low heat, like fish, start by using one-quarter of your chimney’s volume.
  • For low and slow cooking requiring steady temperatures, use half of your chimney.
  • For hot and fast meats, like burgers or chicken kabobs, use three-quarters of your starter’s capacity.

How Do You Keep the Charcoal Fire Going?

Lighting your grill is one thing, but keeping it going is another. For the best results, use a grill thermometer to monitor temperatures. If your cooking heat rises or falls from where you want it, you will need to adjust the vents or accordingly, or add more coal. Check out our complete guide to keeping your charcoal grill hot.

Charcoal Grill Vs. Gas Grill: What’s the Difference?

Outdoor grills broadly fall into two categories: Charcoal and propane gas. As should be obvious from their titles, they’re each named after their main source of fuel.

Gas grills are fueled by propane tanks, which are often refilled after every 15-20 uses. They’re quick to fire up and very easy to control the temperature for.

However charcoal grills are popular for good reason. Put simply, the food cooked by gas grills just doesn’t compare (source). The famous smokey and charred taste that we associate with the great outdoors almost always comes from charcoal cooking.

While their lump wood pieces do need to be replenished every few uses, and while they are much harder to light up and control… You just simply can’t beat that authentic barbecue taste.

So while I’m sure charcoal fans might seem crazy to some, the time and effort it takes to get a grill started is completely worth it just to get that payoff.

lighting a charcoal grill

When it comes to grilling, there are three different ways to light charcoal. Here’s an overview of each method and the steps you need to get your barbecue on the go.

Why Won’t My Coals Stay Lit?

If your charcoal won’t stay lit, the most common reason is that your grill’s vents aren’t set correctly. Check the vents (also called dampers) at the top and bottom of your grill’s chamber, ensuring that they are open enough to feed your flame with oxygen, but not open wide to allow wind disruption.

Last update on 2024-06-21 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

About the Author

Ben Isham-Smith

A BBQ obsessive, Ben is behind 250+ of The Online Grill’s recipes, as well as countless barbecue guides to help barbecue newbies get to grips with the world’s best form of cooking.

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