Many people are put off buying a charcoal grill because they believe that lighting them is difficult or sometimes even downright impossible. But actually once you know how to light a charcoal grill it’s actually a piece of cake.
Essentially it boils down to three different techniques: One with a chimney starter; one with an electric starter; or one with good old fashioned lighter fluid. All three have a lot in common in that they involve mounding the coals densely before lighting them and waiting for them to turn into a gray-like ash color.
However it’s not always that simple, and it’s important to know the quirks to each approach. We’re here to break down all three, with a step-by-guide to turn you from grilling amateur into bbq pro.
If you want to know more, don’t forget our full guide on how to use a charcoal grill.
What’s the difference between a charcoal grill and a gas grill?
Broadly speaking, bbq grills fall into two categories: Charcoal and gas. As should be obvious from their titles, they’re named after their main source of fuel.
Gas grills are fueled by propane tanks, which are refilled 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. See that famous smokey, crispy bbq taste associated with the great outdoors almost always comes from a charcoal grill.
While their lumpwood pieces do need to be replenished every few uses, and while they are much harder to light up and control… You just 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.
Yes it’s a skill, but one that we’re here to teach you today.
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.
#1. Lighting a grill with a chimney starter
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.
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
#2. Lighting a grill with 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
#3. Lighting a grill with 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 any more 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.
Don’t forget to check out my guide on how to keep your charcoal grill hot
Top 7 common charcoal grilling mistakes
#1. 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. Furthermore 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 rather know this: With every squirt you apply to your grill, the more you are depriving you and your guests of that authentic BBQ taste. Is it worth it? Probably not.
#2. 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.
#3. 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 pre-packaged 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 get 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.
#4. 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.
#5. You don’t get up close and personal
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).
#6. You mess up your quantities
You wouldn’t blindly guess how many burgers or hot dogs you’ll need for a 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.
#7. 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 bbq 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.
What tips do you have for lighting a charcoal grill? Let us know in the comments below!