How to Start a Charcoal Grill: Proper Coal Lighting Techniques and Alternative Methods

8 mins read
How to Start a Charcoal Grill
How to Start a Charcoal Grill

Using a charcoal grill can be a rewarding experience. However, lighting the charcoal briquettes and getting the grill started can be a difficult task.

For many people, grilling is a summer tradition. While some may choose the ease and simplicity of a gas grill, there are still those who prefer charcoal grills.

Before Grilling – Tools Needed to Start a Charcoal Grill

When grilling, the cook will need several items to start the grill:

  • A grill designed for use with charcoal
  • Charcoal
  • Lighter fluid (if desired.)
  • Matches, or a grill lighter.
  • Newspaper

How to Start a Charcoal Grill

Charcoal Grilling Tips

  • Use about 30 briquettes for every pound of meat you plan to cook
  • It takes about 25 – 30 minutes for briquettes to develop white-gray ash.
  • Be sure to open both the top and bottom vents on the charcoal grill cooking over direct heat on a grill, or barbecue is the oldest form of cooking.

Ultimately, it is the simplest. However, getting the fire started, and hot enough to cook in a timely fashion can be the hardest part. Whether it’s for a tailgate party at a football game in December or a family campout in July, mastering lighting the grill is the first step to getting your barbecue off to a terrific start. Once the fire is lit and able to heat up the grill, you’ll be ready to cook just about anything from corn on the cob to salmon to beef ribs. The options are as endless as the fun.

Here is what you need to get started. You’ll need a bag of charcoal briquettes. A five-pound bag of charcoal contains about 75 – 90 pieces. For every pound of meat, you plan to cook, you’ll need 30 briquettes. Use that to determine the amount of charcoal you will need. Secondly, you’ll need either lighter fluid if you don’t mind using a chemical accelerant to start your fire, or a charcoal chimney can be used. If you plan to use a charcoal chimney, then you’ll also need some crumpled newspaper. Non-chemical fire starter cubes are available, but more costly than newspaper. Lastly, you’ll need matches to start the fire.

Step 1: Prepare the Grill

Prepare your grill by opening the vents both at the bottom and the top. Oxygen is required to feed the fire. The more oxygen the fire receives the hotter it will burn. Therefore, it’s important to make sure both of the vents are open. Remove the cooking grill. This is the large grate at the top of the grill. There is also one at the bottom upon which the charcoal stacks. Leave the bottom grate in the grill.

If you are using a chimney starter or charcoal chimney to start your grill, it will be placed on that bottom rack. Crumple up the newspaper and set it on the rack with the chimney starter setting on top. Into the top portion of the chimney starter, fill with the charcoal you will be using for the amount of meat you plan to cook.

If you plan to use lighter fluid to start your grill, stack the charcoal onto the grate into a cone. However, at the top of the cone leave a slight indention rather than forming a pointed top to the pile. In that indentation, you’ll spray the lighter fluid letting the can squirt for 3 to 5 seconds.

A final option is to use an electric starter, which is a metal loop attached to an insulated handle. This starter plugs into a standard outlet and uses electricity to make the metal loop very hot and therefore able to ignite the charcoal. Spread a layer of charcoal down and lay the electric starter loop across those briquettes. Then spread the next layer over the top of the starter continuing to create your pile.

Turn the starter on and wait for about ten minutes for it to have sufficiently started the briquettes it is in contact with so that they will start the ones around them. Unplug the starter and remove it. This method has the strong disadvantage of needing a power outlet.

Step 2: Light the Charcoal Grill

Once the briquettes are arranged either in the chimney starter or in their pile with lighter fluid, they are ready to be lit. Using care, light the matches, and push them through the openings at the base of the charcoal chimney in order to light the newspaper that is beneath the charcoal.

If the lighter fluid was used, it is advisable to have matches with a long stem. Once lit, place the flaming end of the match into the indentation of the briquette pile where the lighter fluid has soaked through. The fluid soaked into the briquettes will immediately ignite into flames which can easily you’re your hands if they are not far enough away as with long matches.

Even with the distance, caution is advised. Unfortunately, using lighter fluid is not always foolproof. Flames are not the goal. The flames of the lighter fluid are attempting to create enough heat that the charcoal itself will ignite and begin to burn to create glowing hot embers. If this does not happen using the lighter fluid method, it may need to be repeated several times before enough heat is generated that the charcoal sustains its own fire.

Step 3: Maintain the Fire and Allow To Smoke

When the charcoal is lit properly, it will begin to burn on its own. It takes about thirty minutes for the briquettes to form a layer of white gray ash around the edges that says they are hot enough to cook food placed on the grill above them. The original conical pile formed before lighting with the lighter fluid will start to settle down and spread producing an even wave of heat across the grill grate.

For those using a charcoal chimney, the newspaper will have started the lowest level of charcoal to burn. This in turn sets the next higher briquettes on fire as it works its way up. When you see that the flames appearing at the highest level of charcoal and the lower coals are burning red, it’s time to gently tip the chimney overspreading the burning charcoal out over the bottom grate of the grill. Wear a long sleeve oven glove to be able to push the coals around on the grate so that they are evenly distributed.

Once the coals are burning embers with a gray edge and spread across the charcoal grate, replace the cooking grate above them. Now your grill is ready for cooking. It’s time to break out the steaks, corn, or chicken and cook up a feast.

Ideally, charcoal would ignite on its own with little help from the cook. Unfortunately, this does not happen and often leads to a lot of frustration concerning charcoal grills.

First, charcoal must be piled in the center of the grill. Many people suggest stacking the coals in a pyramid shape to help ignite the coals, whereas others say that simply dumping the coals into a pile works just as well.

If arranged in a pyramid shape, a piece of newspaper should be placed between every few layers. If arranged in a pile, the newspaper can be placed near the middle of the pile, beneath the coals.

After the cook is satisfied with the placement of the coals and newspaper, the newspaper should be lit. Ideally, the newspaper will catch the coals on fire and no further action will be needed.

Often, many combine newspaper with the use of lighter fluid. Once the newspaper is half engulfed in flames, squirting a small amount of lighter fluid onto the grill will engulf the coal briquettes in flames. Occasionally, it will take several squirts of lighter fluid to get the coals burning. Please follow the instructions on the can.

Ok so you have dumped in your charcoal and you go to light the pile, but the charcoal just won’t keep the flame. I know how that goes, I used to hate using charcoal for just that reason. That is why I am writing this to help you. I have come up with a few great tips and steps on how to keep that fire going just long enough to get those charcoals on their way to cooking bliss. See how to start a charcoal grill and keep the fire going below!

Ok, the first thing you need to do is stack the charcoal. This is probably your most important step so make sure to do this. Dump your charcoal in the grill and start stacking. Make your stack as tight as possible and make sure all the charcoal is touching. This will help you keep a flame and get the charcoal to be ready in the most efficient manner.

The second thing you need to do is use some lighter fluid, you can be generous. Some people say they can taste it but I think that is just a myth. I cooked for a group of people one time and they watched me put the lighter fluid on and complained after I cooked that they could taste it. The next time I cooked for that group I told them I did not use lighter fluid (even though I did) and they said it tasted much better. I think it’s all in the mind. If your cooking for a group keep the fact that you use lighter fluid a secret.

Next, you want to make sure and have your match or lighting utensil ready. The fluid burns off quickly and loses its potency the longer you wait. Have your match in hand and throw it on immediately after pouring the fluid. This will help your fire burn longer.

Make sure to buy quality charcoal. If you buy the generic kind it’s much harder to start and for some reason, they make it much larger so it takes longer even once you do have it burning.

On a windy day here is a great tip for how to start a charcoal grill. If you have a lid for your BBQ, (which you should) grab a piece of wood or anything to wedge between your cooking surface and lid. You want to leave about 3-6 inches of space. This will be enough room to keep the fire going but also keep the wind out.

Once you get the grey edges on your charcoal open everything up. The more air that gets to your charcoals the faster they will be ready to cook. It’s kind of like using a bellow on a fire that’s about to go out. It stokes it up and makes the coals burn faster. The same goes for when your cooking, the more air you allow the hotter your coals will burn.

Ok this is the big secret, are you ready? You do not need the fire to burn for very long. There I said it. If your fire burns for about 5 minutes you should be good to go. As long as most of your coals have grey around the edges they will eventually become entirely grey without any flames. After your charcoal achieves the grey around the edges avoid dumping anymore lighter fluid on. This could actually dampen the part you have already started and you would be starting over.

There you go, now get your meat and veggies on the grill and enjoy a delicious meal! I hope this helped you in your quest on how to start a charcoal grill and keep the fire going.

Other Methods for Starting a Charcoal Grill

Some people may find it difficult to start a charcoal grill, become frustrated, and give up completely. For those who prefer charcoal flavor but hate the difficulty of starting a charcoal grill, there are a variety of products available.

One such product is called a chimney starter, or charcoal starter. The charcoal starter is shaped like a hollow can with holes along the bottom half. Charcoal is placed into the upper half of the charcoal starter and newspaper (or other paper, though newspaper works best) is placed in the bottom. Once both sides are filled, the charcoal starter should be placed on a flat surface, preferably cement.

The newspaper should be lit using a match and will then start the charcoal. After approximately 15 to 30 minutes, the charcoal should be ready and can be carefully dumped into the grill for use.

Coals should be grey in appearance, with a red, smoking center. This means the coals are ready for cooking. If done properly, cooking on a coal grill can be a rewarding experience.

Agnese is an Italian author and researcher. She has worked in the publishing industry for many years and has written several books on various subjects. Her latest work is a research project on the history of the book in Italy. Agnese is also a regular contributor to several journals and magazines.

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