Best Way to Light a Charcoal Grill

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It’s not uncommon to wonder how to light a charcoal grill when you’re just starting out, but it’s actually a simple task. I find the easiest way to start a charcoal grill is to use a charcoal chimney. No need for petroleum-based fire starters like lighter fluid here. Clean, cheap and efficient is the way…

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Charcoal Grilled Ribeye Steak

It’s not uncommon to wonder how to light a charcoal grill when you’re just starting out, but it’s actually a simple task. I find the easiest way to start a charcoal grill is to use a charcoal chimney. No need for petroleum-based fire starters like lighter fluid here. Clean, cheap and efficient is the way to go. We will explain in detail our three favorite and safe ways to start a charcoal grill and also cover the methods you want to avoid.

I’ve been using charcoal grills for years now and also remember how my parents would light charcoal. Over the last twenty years I’ve come down to a tried and true method that everyone should be using.

Basic Requirements of Starting a Charcoal Grill

The right method to light charcoals should be fast, easy, and convenient. The goal is to get all the coals lit as quickly as possible. You also need to pay attention to fire safety and avoid methods that are dangerous or pose fire hazard risks. Don’t be a part of the statistic starting backyard fires from barbecue’s.

Importantly, any method you choose to light hardwood lump charcoals or charcoal briquettes should not impact the taste and aroma of your food in any way. It should also have no harmful health effects, either during use or storage as a result of consuming the food you make.

Common Methods of Lighting Charcoal

There are quite a few common methods to start a charcoal grill, each with its own pros and cons. Before we discuss them in more detail, let us take a look at these methods:

  • Using a chimney starter
  • Using an electric starter
  • Using paper and kindling
  • Using a fire starter
  • Using lighter fluid or starter fluid

However, these methods are not all the same in terms of safety and final results. Let us dive deeper into these methods and discuss our recommendations for the best way to light charcoal. Recently we published an article on the best charcoal starters.

Not Recommended – Using Lighter Fluid

While quite a few people use lighter fluid (also known as starter fluid) to get their charcoal going, this is a method that we strongly do not recommend. You’ll see it recommended to squirt lighter fluid on your unlit charcoal and to add more lighter fluid if needed after the lump charcoal is lit.

No to starter fluid

It is easy to understand the appeal of lighter fluid; these fluids light charcoal fast and are one of the easiest methods of getting your grill burning hot.

However, if you look beyond these apparent advantages of lighter fluid, it will become clear why we do not recommend this method.

Lighter Fluid Issues

The first issue with starter fluid has to do with fire safety. Lighter fluid is highly flammable and volatile, a combination that makes it extremely dangerous to store and use. There are quite a few methods of lighting lump charcoal that are far safer and the risk is not worth the reward.

There’s also a good risk, especially for charcoal grill beginners, that too much lighter fluid is added. We don’t need to explain how dangerous that can be, or how it ups the risk that the coals burn you or your food.

You would have to figure out a safe way to store the lighter fluid and ensure that there is no buildup of evaporated fluid before using it. This means that the only safe way to use lighter fluid would be in large, wide-open spaces with good circulation.

Lighter fluid is also volatile. That means you’ll be inhaling it and the chemicals it releases as the lighter fluid burns. Since starter fluid contains volatile organic compounds, this can quickly become a health risk, especially with long-term use or for people with sensitive airways or breathing issues.

The most important deal-breaker for us when it comes to using lighter fluid is the fact that it leaves a chemical residue on the food in many cases. For starters, this can alter the taste of your food and make it significantly worse. You would experience a burnt, acrid, and chemical flavor and aroma on your food, which can ruin a perfectly good meal. This is also a health risk as the chemicals usually generated by burning lighter fluid are really not things you would want to be putting inside your body.

Overall, while the lighter fluid method might look easy and fast at first glance, we do not recommend it for getting a charcoal grill going.

How To Start A Charcoal Grill Without Lighter Fluid

According to our humble opinion, using a charcoal chimney is unequivocally the best way of lighting your charcoal grill. A charcoal chimney or chimney starter is a simple cylindrical tube made of metal that holds your charcoal while you light them from the bottom. As the bottom lumps of charcoal burn, the heat and warm air rise to the top, effectively lighting all of the charcoal evenly without any external aid.

With this method, you can get all your coals glowing and hot really fast and without any effort. Here is a short breakdown of the method:

How To Light a Charcoal Grill with A Chimney

  1. Remove any grill grate in your charcoal grill and place the chimney starter at the bottom of your grill.
  2. Fill the chimney with charcoal. According to the amount of heat you want and how long you want your charcoal to burn, you can fill it fully or partially. A common question is “Can I reuse my charcoal”? Yes you can! If you have leftover half burnt charcoal from the previous cook, use it. I first throw in a bit of new charcoal then the used charcoal and top it off with new charcoal. Why waste the unburnt charcoal?
  3. Add a fire starter to the bottom of the chimney. You can use common items like paper (if paper towels, avoid the ones with colored patterns), wood chips, and wax.
  4. Light the starter (we suggest using a long lighter to safely light at the bottom of chimney starters).
  5. As the heat rises and the top coals become hot, you can now dump them in the charcoal grill and spread them out. This takes about 10-15 minutes. Do not dump the charcoal until all the heavy white smoke is done emitting.
  6. You can add more coals directly to your grill later if needed.

The chimney starter usually has a handle for ease of use, as well as other accessories like an integrated bottle opener. Due to the simple construction, these devices are usually extremely inexpensive. In fact, this might be the most inexpensive way to get your charcoal started if you factor in that it does not require electricity or other chemical additives. The simple, sturdy construction also means that a newly purchased chimney starter will last you a very long time, possibly decades.

Using a chimney starter is also a very safe and convenient method of getting your charcoal started, especially if you’re new to charcoal grilling. Since it does not require any chemical additives, the taste of your food remains unspoiled and you do not have to inhale chemical vapors.

Since it does not require electricity, you do not become tethered to a wall socket. In short, a chimney starter can be used anywhere and accomplish its task efficiently, easily, and with very little expense. It is this combination that makes it our top recommended method of lighting your charcoal. It’s all we use at AngryBBQ!

A Great Alternative – Using an Electric Starter

A gas grill has an advantage: a grill lighter that you push to start the flames and quickly get the grill’s temperature where you want it. Charcoal grills don’t have that, but an electric starter gets you pretty close.

The electric charcoal starter can be a great alternative to the chimney starter if you are looking for a fast, failure-proof method of getting your charcoal started for the grill. In essence, this is a simple device; the burner element of a standard electric stove, bent into a “U” shape, with an attached handle. It is this “U” shaped burner that gets your coals hot while the handle provides easy usability and safety.

With this simple device, you just need to place the lump charcoal in a heap on the main heating element, plug in the cable, and wait a few minutes for the charcoal to get hot. You can then dump it in your charcoal grate, add more when needed, and start cooking. The entire process is fast and simple.

However, this is not all. If you do not mind spending a bit more, you can get more sophisticated versions of the electric starter to level up your charcoal grilling, like the Homeright Electro-Torch. This combines a heater and an air blower in a cylindrical tube with a handle and don’t allow Tim ‘the Toolman’ Taylor anywhere near your heater or air blower. The heating element, instead of directly heating the charcoal, heats the air and blows it over the charcoal, lighting it very quickly and uniformly.

For such a device, all you need to do is place your coal in a lump or a heap directly in the cooking grate. Plug in your electric starter and bring its nose close to the coals. You can adjust the distance as the coals start to ignite. Once all the coals are sizzling, you can spread them out and start cooking immediately.

The advantage of electric fire starters is speed and convenience. They are hard to beat in these areas and can really make the process of getting your charcoal grill started a simple affair. Since you are not using any additive, chemical or otherwise, to get your charcoals started, you do not have to worry about unpleasant residues, whether it is chemical fumes or residues on the food or extra ash in your grate that floats around and sticks to the food.

Among the downsides, electric starters do require the use of electricity. This means that you would only be able to use one where you have access to an electrical outlet. You also have to account for the electricity used as a recurring, running cost. Electric starters are not an option for the grillers that camp in the middle of nowhere. If you are one of those adventure seeking campers, stick with the Charcoal Chimney.

Alternative Charcoal Starting Method – Fire Starters

Using a readymade fire starter can be a quick, easy, and convenient way to get your charcoal going. These can work anywhere, in all possible weather conditions, and this charcoal starter can get even the hardest and most stubborn coals started properly.

Fire starters are usually made of flammable material like wood chips, wood sticks, cardboard, or compressed paper that has been saturated with paraffin wax. These do not leave any chemical residue when burned and do not produce much ash either. This makes them a safe way to ignite your charcoals while also avoiding any unpleasant taste or aroma in your food.

How To Start a Charcoal Grill without a Chimney:

  1. Place the charcoal in a heap directly in the grill grates and place the fire starter directly on the charcoal.
  2. Ignite the fire starter.
  3. As the starter burns, you can move the coals around for even exposure to the heat.
  4. When you have hot coals, spread them around, add more if needed, and get cooking.

The fire starter can come in different shapes and sizes. These are extremely easy to ignite and can burn at a stretch for up to ten minutes. You can even combine some methods to make lighting charcoal even easier: If you have a chimney starter, this can also be a great way to get that going. You can simply place the fire starter in the bottom of the chimney, ignite it, and all your coals will be uniformly hot and ready in a couple of minutes.

The quick and consistent burn of fire starters can be a godsend if you find yourself having to coax your charcoal to ignite in rainy weather. You might also have extremely hard or wet coals that just refuse to light up. In such cases, using a fire starter can make the task easier.

Fire starters are usually inexpensive. All you need to do while purchasing is check whether the flammable material in use is a natural product like paraffin wax or vegetable oil. Avoid a product that uses a chemical component and you should be perfectly safe.

Final Words

As we discussed before, there are certain important criteria when it comes to the best way to light a charcoal grill. Keeping those in mind, these are the best methods you can use that give you excellent ease of use and convenience and bring fast results without forcing you to negotiate fire safety hazards and undue health concerns. 

The recommended methods also have zero impact on the final product, everything will taste and smell like you intended with no added unpleasant flavors or aromas in the food cooked. We’ll leave you with a final reminder that lighting a grill with lighter fluid will leave residue that impacts the taste of everything from steaks to hot dogs.

Setting your charcoal alight is the first hurdle you need to cross before starting to cook with your charcoal grill. Once you master this part of the process, you can really start getting the most out of your grill.

As you experiment with these methods, you would also be able to fine-tune your measurements and find ways for cooking meat with both fast sears and low-and-slow cooking techniques using indirect heat.

We thoroughly recommend using a chimney starter as our preferred method of igniting charcoal. You can also check out some of the other alternatives we suggested. We also recommend steering clear of using starter fluid due to the many concerns that can come with its use.

Now all that is left for you to do is get those coals hot and start whipping up delicacies on your grill.

Check out our best rated charcoal grills.


Do you leave the grill open when lighting charcoal?

Your charcoal grill should be open when you place and light your charcoal. Once the coals are lit and are holding a steady temperature, you can put the lid back on. If you’re slow cooking something, you can use the vents to control the internal temperature to get it lower or arrange coals to one side to create an area of indirect heat.

How long should I let charcoal burn before I cover it?

You want consistent heat from your charcoal before you cover your charcoal grill. A visual cue to look for is a gray ash covering the briquettes. It should take 5-10 minutes to get to this point.

How much charcoal do you need to start a charcoal grill?

If you’re using a chimney starter, which we highly suggest, simply fill the entire chimney with charcoal briquettes. If you’re high-heat grilling, you don’t want to burn through your supply too quickly. More charcoal will burn longer, less charcoal will require you to add coals—potentially affecting your internal temperature. It gets easier to estimate what’s enough charcoal with time and practice.

Is it OK to use old charcoal?

Yes, you can use old charcoal. For the best result, you should scrape as much gray ash off of the briquettes as possible and add more coal (new ones!) to make sure the charcoal starts. If you’re storing old charcoal, make sure it’s stored away from wet weather.

AngryBBQ Team

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