How to Start a Charcoal Grill?

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Last Updated on February 2, 2021
lighting up charcoal

Outdoor grilling is a relaxing, social experience that brings friends and families together. As soon the weather gets warmer, many Americans rush out to buy charcoal to light their grill and enjoy an outdoor cookout. While it may be more convenient to light a grill using gas or electricity, it’s just not as fun, and the food just doesn’t taste the same.

Lighting a charcoal grill is an outdoor cooking skill that is rewarding to learn. As you master the techniques, they become second-nature, and you can have the flames burning in minutes. 

There are several effective methods for lighting the perfect charcoal grill.

Before You Start

heating up a charcoal grill

Aside from getting the perfect charcoal grill, preparation is the key to lighting a charcoal grill because it ensures the charcoal’s ideal lighting conditions. The first step is to thoroughly clean the grill, checking that there is no food or grease stuck to the cooking surface from the last use. Lift the cooking grate out of the grill so you can also clean the cooking chamber’s interior. 

An accumulation of ash can block the vents and reduce air circulation, reducing the amount of oxygen reaching the flames. If there is residual grease anywhere in the cooking chamber, it can cause a dangerous flare-up during ignition.

Next, choose high-quality charcoal that lights well. Sub-par charcoal can be challenging to light, not provide an adequate amount of heat, and extinguish quickly. 

Now you’re ready to light your charcoal grill, and there are various ways you can quickly get the flames burning.

Using Lighter Fluid

pouring lighter fluid on a grill

Many outdoor cooking enthusiasts find using lighter fluid to be a convenient way of lighting their grill. The most important aspect of using lighter fluid is not to use too much, as this could lead to a sudden and potentially dangerous burst of flame. While you don’t want to underuse the fluid, it’s crucial to take a safety-first approach. A systematic approach keeps you safe and gives excellent results.

1. Carefully arrange the charcoal for the best chance of a quick ignition. You can’t just dump the coal in and hope for the best. Fire wants to spread, so keep the charcoal lumps close together to help the fire move from one coal to the next. You can pile them into a pyramid shape to increase the amount of contact between each charcoal piece.

2. Apply an even layer of lighter fluid over the coals, making sure the fire can use the liquid to move over all the charcoal lumps. Allow around 30 seconds for the lighter fluid to seep into the coals for the best results.

3. Use a long-handled grill lighter or long match to ignite the fluid. Try to light the charcoal at several points, starting at the back and moving forward to avoid getting a nasty burn. Always keep your hands as far away from the charcoal as possible in case there is a flare-up.  

4. If your charcoal grill has a lid, keep it raised to let the oxygen fan the flames. Open any vents to increase air circulation, and wait for the coals to turn white. Evenly spread the charcoal to heat the entire grilling surface, and place the cooking grate over the top. Your grill is now ready for cooking.

Using a Charcoal Chimney

Using a Charcoal Chimney

Charcoal chimneys are a firm favorite among the outdoor cooking community. The chimney is a metal cylinder, with predrilled vents and holes at strategic points, increasing airflow through the chamber. A charcoal chimney is straightforward and extremely safe to use, so it is a good choice for beginners and more experienced chefs.

1. Fill your chimney with the correct amount of charcoal. The instruction manual describes the charcoal amount you need for each chimney, as they come in different sizes. Usually, you want the coals to reach the top of the chamber, but not overflow. 

2. Place your ignition material underneath the charcoal chimney. Many people use newspapers, but they aren’t as common with the advent of online media, so anything that lights easily is a solid choice. You can use bits of wood, wax, or anything made of paper to get started. 

3. Light the ignition material and watch to see how well the fire catches. You can look through the chimney vents and holes to see if the charcoal is beginning to turn gray. If the coals haven’t started to light after about 10 minutes, you can light more material to try again. If you soak the paper in cooking oil, it can help it to stay lit for longer.

4. When you see flames or glowing coals, use the handle on the charcoal chimney to pour the coals into the firepot. Leave them to turn mostly gray, and then gently spread them out for even heat distribution.

Use Pre-treated Charcoal

Use Pre-treated Charcoal

Some outdoor charcoal grill brands have created charcoal that already has the correct amount of lighter fluid on the coals. If you are unsure about using lighter fluid, this is a great way to keep safe. You still need to use good practices when handling the charcoal, ensuring the lighter fluid does not pass onto your hands, but it is a safe and effective charcoal lighting method.

1. Arrange the coals as before, building a pyramid or mound to increase contact between the individual pieces. Even though the charcoal has a flammable coating, the fire can quickly extinguish if it can not spread to nearby coals.

2. Go straight to lighting the charcoal, using a long match, electric lighter, or gas lighter, and you should quickly see the coals begin to glow. Because the coals have an even coating, the fire should continue to spread to neighboring coals. After the flames die down and the coals turn gray, you can spread them out, and you’re now ready to cook.

As a takeaway from this article, we would like to invite you to read about our top charcoal grills. Namely, the Weber Smokey Joe and the Weber 22” Original Kettle Premium. These grills from weber have been used for years in American homes.
Additionally, Kamado grills are also great charcoal grills to have. We’ve laid out the advantages of owning a Kamado grill in our Big Green Egg vs Kamado Joe grills review.