How to Light a Charcoal Grill
There's an art to lighting charcoal. Here's five ways you can fire up the grill.
Cooking over charcoal is one of the most flavorful ways to grill, but many people struggle with the act of firing up their grill. Often, charcoal that has been exposed to moisture or is from the previous season can be fussy and challenging to properly ignite.
The key to a well-lit charcoal fuel source is lighting a small amount of it and allowing that to ignite the rest of the fuel until you reach your desired cooking temperature. Lit charcoal pieces will ignite unlit pieces provided that enough oxygen is available to keep the coals smoldering.
Here are a few ways to get your charcoal started and keep it lit, allowing you to concentrate on grilling the most flavorful food and hang out with your friends and family.
Types of Charcoal
Charcoal is basically wood, which has been ignited and allowed to smolder and cool. Charcoal is commonly defined as “a light, black residue, consisting of carbon and any remaining ash, obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents.” Most commonly, you will find charcoal available in two forms — briquettes and hardwood lump.
Most commonly recognized and available at nearly every hardware store, grocery store, convenience store, and even many bait shops, charcoal briquettes are probably the most common way to heat your grill. This is especially true for anyone grilling-on-the-go.
Briquettes have a consistent oval shape and typically lack corners or flat surfaces. The rounded shape allows briquettes to ignite in a pile while allowing air to flow freely among them, which is necessary for combustion. Charcoal briquettes are predominantly made of wood dust, shards of wood, and other fillers to retain shape.
Hardwood Lump Charcoal
Hardwood lump charcoal is typically made naturally from woods that have been ignited and extinguished. It resembles the leftover wood from a campfire and is much lighter than a normal piece of wood of similar size. Pieces of hardwood lump charcoal can range in size from a golf ball to a grapefruit but are not normally spherical. Pieces are inconsistent in size, like branches of a tree, and shapes vary radically from piece to piece.
5 Easy Methods to Light Charcoal
Having cooked over charcoal more than a thousand times, I have tried various methods for getting charcoal ignited quickly and efficiently. Some starters have worked quite well, while other methods have left me in the cold. Here are my top five recommended methods of lighting charcoal.
1. Charcoal Chimney Starter
One of the most popular accessories for grilling, a chimney starter resembles a tall coffee can that is about 14 inches tall and about 8 inches wide. Charcoal is piled into the chimney starter onto a grate that sits approximately four inches from the bottom.
Balls of paper are put in the hollow bottom of the chimney starter beneath the grate and ignited under the charcoal, allowing it to burn from the bottom up. Because the chimney starter gets quite hot, it has a handle that allows you to dump the lit coals onto additional unlit coals in your barbecue, igniting them.
Safety is of the highest propriety when using a charcoal chimney starter. Since you are lighting a fire underneath the coals, be sure to do it in an area where burning paper and sparks from lighting the charcoal will not fly out and catch other things on fire.
Pro Tip: Coat the paper that you use to light the chimney starter with a little vegetable oil. This will let the newspaper burn for close to 30% longer and get your charcoal started quicker.
2. Immersion Starter
Immersion starters resemble the heating element from an electric stove and are immersed in your pile of charcoal, making it easier for you to ignite. Immersion starters are electric, so a power source must be available to get the heating element red hot. Immersion starters heat extremely quickly and will begin igniting charcoal within three to four minutes.
Once the charcoal has been ignited, the immersion starter is removed and unplugged, but will still be red hot and should be handled accordingly. I find the immersion starter to be one of the quickest, safest, and most consistent ways to light charcoal.
Pro Tip: When you use an immersion starter, get in the habit of setting an alarm timer on your phone or handheld device for 5 minutes as a fail-safe reminder that it is in use. Failure to do so can result in an extremely hot charcoal fire around your immersion starter that will likely ruin a barbecue in just minutes.
3. Fire-Starting Blocks & Cubes
Fire-starting blocks and cubes are basically the same material an artificial fireplace log is made from. It is predominantly wood shavings and paraffin. Using fire-starting blocks and cubes is relatively simple. Place the item directly into your pile of coals and light a corner of it. The fire starter will burn for 15 to 20 minutes and when it is done, your charcoal is often ready to go.
Having used this method many times, I find that breaking the fire starter into three or four pieces and spacing the pieces on the charcoal is the most effective way to get the charcoal lit.
Unfortunately, this method often leaves behind residue from the fire starter that can make it difficult to clean. I would recommend that you burn off entirely before you start cooking. Personally, I find this method to be a bit wasteful compared to other methods, but it is a simple and effective way to get your charcoal grill started.
4. Oiled Paper Towels
If you are in a pinch, or just prefer to pinch pennies, this method for lighting your charcoal is going to be your ideal solution. It’s quick, cheap and easy to follow.
Simply spread some cooking oil on a paper towel, bury it partially in your coals and light it up. A good method is to take two paper towels and get them damp with oil, but not dripping or completely saturated. Stack and roll the paper towels and tie them in a knot before placing in the charcoal. Most households will have these items on hand.
5. Propane Torch or Weed Burner
A handheld propane torch or propane weed burner are both effective methods of lighting your charcoal quickly. Both can be purchased for around $20 and operate on the same principal. Simply light the torch or weed burner and immerse it directly in your coals until they catch fire.
This year, I purchased a weed burner and it’s worth noting that the heat it emits can be incredibly intense. It has worked so well, that I have had my charcoal ready to cook on in about 5 minutes. This is a quick and affordable method for getting your charcoal started in very little time.
Pro Tip: Although using a propane torch or weed burner to ignite your charcoal is both fun and effective, please note that sparks will fly due to the intense heat and it can be dangerous. Certain safety measures must be followed in this situation. Be certain to wear eye protection when using a propane torch, and it would also be wise to have a fire extinguisher close buy, just in case.
Regardless of how you get your charcoal grill fired up and ready to grill on, there is no doubt that you will find it to be a fun and delicious way to cook outside. Your friends and family will most certainly agree. The above methods to getting your coals fired up are just a few of my favorite. There are many other methods that work, for better or worse.