How to Get Your Charcoal Started
Quickly and Easily
and How to Use a Charcoal Starter
Starting charcoal doesn't have to be a chore with the right charcoal starter! Beginners may bemoan the messiness and time of getting charcoal going on your charcoal grill, but this is largely just a case of not having all the information! Starting your fire can be fast and easy with any of methods below, but especially with a charcoal chimney.
Tips for starting your charcoal grill:
- Clean out your grill well before each use! A pile of charcoal ash in the bottom of your grill or on the charcoal grate will not allow adequate airflow to your charcoal, no matter what charcoal starter you use. Your coals will light easier and burn hotter with adequate air circulation
- Use enough charcoal. Many beginning grillers start out with too little charcoal. The more charcoals the more heat. Too few and your grill may not get up to adequate heat. This is particularly important if you have a larger sized grill. The best way to judge this, other than through experience, is to have a grill thermometer to check that the interior heat is adequate before beginning to cook.
- Leave your lid open while the charcoal is starting. This allows it to get adequate oxygen and it will get hot faster.
- Use your air vents on the sides and/or lid of your charcoal grill. During cooking, you can alter the heat of your charcoal somewhat by changing the amount of oxygen it gets. More air = more heat!
Charcoal Starter Options
- Lighter Fluid - This is the traditional way to start your charcoal. Anywhere you buy charcoal you can find charcoal lighter fluid. While this can be a bit messy, requires the use of chemicals and can take longer than other methods, it does work. It can take several tries before your coals are ready for cooking. I personally prefer to avoid any chemicals or fumes near my food, although charcoal starter fluid is theoretically non-toxic.
How to do it:
Safety Note: Only use charcoal lighter fluid specifically designed for this purpose. Do not use turpentine, kerosene, paint thinner, gasoline or any other flammable substance! They can be toxic and explosive.
- Make a pyramid-shaped mound of charcoal in your grill with a small indentation in the top.
- Squirt about 3 to 5 seconds worth of charcoal starter lighter fluid into the middle of the indentation and ignite with a long match or lighter after closing and storing your lighter fluid bottle.
- Flames with immediately engulf your briquets but fire alone is not the goal, you want embers! By the time the flames die out your charcoal in the middle should be lit enough to light the rest of the briquets around them.
- If not, you may occasionally need to use a small amount of additional lighter fluid. Be careful adding additional fluid as it will immediately flare up.
- Your coals are ready when they have a layer of grey ash on their surface, as seen in the picture below. Spread them out on your charcoal grate before adding your grill grate and starting to cook.
Note: Pressed charcoal briquets have a ash greying agent which ensures that they turn grey on the surface as they ignite and become embers. This helps you know when your coals are ready. However, most lump charcoal does not have additives and will not have as much of a grey ash develop. In this case you will need to watch for the development of glowing embers and gauge the heat produced to determine if your charcoal is ready to cook on.
- Match Lighting Charcoal - Some charcoal is made to be "match light" because it is impregnated with lighter fluid. These only require a long match to ignite and then time to really start burning as hot embers. Follow the same process as above without the lighter fluid.
How to do it:
Follow the same process as above, building a pyramid of coals. There is theoretically no need to add lighter fluid, simply light with a long match or lighter. In my experience, some types of charcoal will not light that easily and may need lighter fluid anyway or at least some kindling (such as crumpled newspaper) to produce enough heat to get the briquets ignited.
- Electric Charcoal Starter - This is a device with a handle and a metal loop which heats up when plugged in to a standard electrical supply. The current in the metal heats the element up similar to an electric stove top burner coil. These are widely available and reusable. The only downside is that they require an available electrical outlet nearby, which can be hard to come by in some backyards and certainly in a park, campground or beach.
How to do it:
- First spread a layer of charcoal briquets on your charcoal grate.
- Lay the metal loop of the charcoal starter over these coals.
- Then cover the loop completely with a pile of more charcoal.
- Plug in the electrical starter and wait about 8 to 12 minutes until the coals in contact with the starter have developed grey ash on their surface.
- Unplug the charcoal starter and carefully remove it.
- Wait until these initial coals have ignited the majority of your briquets and have a layer of ash on them as well or are glowing red.
- Charcoal Chimney Starter - This is the Fire Pit and Grilling Guru's personal favorite charcoal starter! Why? Because it is easy, very fast and does not require any additional chemicals or lighter fluid. All you need is the charcoal chimney starter, a few sheets of newspaper or other easily ignitable tinder or kindling and a match or lighter. For more information see my charcoal chimney starters page.
How to do it:
- Fill the top portion of your charcoal chimney with briquets. Do not overfill, just fill to within a couple inches of the top.
- Crumple up two or three sheets of newspaper and wedge them in the lower section below your charcoal. Do not over pack the paper, you want some air for your fire to burn. Alternatively, you can use any other tinder or kindling (dried twigs, wood sticks, leaves, etc.) which will ignite easily with a match or lighter.
- Sit your chimney in your grill on the charcoal grate.
- Use a long fireplace match or lighter to ignite the newspaper either by tilting up the bottom or through the holes in the sides of the chimney. Light it in multiple place to ensure it gets ignited completely.
- Now sit back, grab a beer and wait! The burning paper will ignite the charcoal.
- Usually within 5 to 15 minutes you will see flames start to flicker visibly at the top of the chimeny and you can see glowing coals beneath.
- Tip your charcoal starter over and dump out the glowing coals on your charcoal grate. Unless you need to add more charcoal for a large grill you are ready to cook! In the rare event that the charcoal does not ignite after lighting your newspaper, you may not have added enough paper or you over-packed it and it did not burn properly. Simply try again with another couple pages of newspaper.
- Other Charcoal Starter Options - There do exist other charcoal starter options. For example, some companies, such as Weber, make chemical fire starters which basically consist of some solid, lighter fluid containing chemical. In the case of the Weber fire starters, they are small cubes which you light and place under your coals. They burn intensely for enough time to get your charcoal started and then burn out and are non-toxic. Another option that is available are entire bags of charcoal which are made in a size to simply sit in your grill. You simply ignite the bag itself and the charcoal ignites and is ready a little while later. Generally these other options do include use of chemical fire starters.
Thats it! Between these options you should be able to find a charcoal starter option which fits your style and preferences. Any of them are relatively easy once you've tried them a couple times. Again, my preference is for the charcoal chimney or electric charcoal starter because they don't require chemicals and are reusable. However, any are valid options so use what works for you and which is most available.
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Done learning about your charcoal starter options?
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