How To Light A Charcoal Grill – A Simple & Easy Guide

Using charcoal is the most natural and traditional way to grill and let’s be honest it also feels the best. Depending on what you’re cooking and what charcoal you’re using you’ll want to be using the right charcoal arrangement and light it as effectively and easily as possible.

Let’s look at the best ways to light a charcoal grill.

Best Ways To Light A Charcoal Grill

Use A Chimney Starter

Hot Charcoal Briquettes

The easiest, most natural, and most reliable way to start charcoal is by using a chimney starter.

Step 1: Add Charcoal

Add your desired amount of charcoal into the chimney. You shouldn’t need to worry about arranging them unless you’re using charcoal logs then you want to stay them upward.

Step 2: Add Newspaper

Add a few pieces of newspaper, either by scrunching them up and placing them underneath, or poking rolled up scraps into the holes at the bottom. If you don’t have any newspaper you can use wood chips, paper, cardboard, or wax.

Step 3: Light The Chimney

Using a lighter or a long match light the newspaper in several places. The charcoal at the bottom will catch and start a reaction as the flames and heat flow through the chimney. 

Step 4: Pour Out The Charcoal

After 10-15 minutes the coals should be glowing and have started to turn white as they get covered in ash. Once you can see the white color on all of the charcoal pour it carefully into your grill and spread them out.

Step 5: Start Grilling

Place the grill grate back and if all the coals are covered in ash and visually white the charcoal is ready for use and it’s time to get grilling!

Use An Electric Starter Or Gas Lighter

Charcoal Cooking

If you have yourself an electric charcoal starter or a gas lighter you can place the charcoal in the grill and use your starter to light the charcoal. 

Using an electric charcoal starter may take a bit longer, but it’s a reliable and natural way to light the charcoal. No need for lighter fluid or anything else.

Step 1: Arrange The Charcoal

Add your charcoal to your grill and arrange it into a pyramid shape.

Step 2: Use Your Charcoal Starter

Plug in your electric charcoal starter using a safe durable outdoor extension cord. Place the charcoal starter into the center of the charcoal pyramid and it will begin to heat it. If you are using a gas lighter instead begin lighting from the center-bottom of the charcoal pyramid.

Step 3: Change The Position

Once you see that the charcoal is lit, move the electric charcoal starter from the centre and place it on any charcoal that isn’t lit.

Step 4: Remove/Stop The Lighter

Once all the charcoal is clearly lit simply remove the electric charcoal lighter and turn it off, or if you’re using a gas lighter turn it off now.

Step 5: Start Grilling

Once you can see that white ashy color on the charcoal you’re ready to go. Spread out the charcoal evenly before placing the grill grate back and get grilling!

Use Lighter Fluid

Lighter Fluid Charcoal Starter

Using lighter fluid is a classic and easy way to get the charcoal going. Just note, as lighter fluid is made up of flammable chemicals it could be potentially dangerous to use, and it can impart unwanted flavors if not used carefully. Always follow the instructions of the lighter fluid you are using, and follow these steps so you minimize any risk.

Step 1: Arrange The Charcoal

Arrange the charcoal into a pyramid shape in the centre of the grill.

Step 2: Pour The Lighter Fluid

Always be sure to follow the directions on the lighter fluid as potencies and use can differ. Pour accordingly.

Step 3: Wait

Once you’ve covered your charcoal, it’s very important to wait at least 30 seconds to one minute to ensure the lighter fluid has been absorbed.

Step 4: Light The Charcoal

Once you’ve exercised patience, light the charcoal with a long lighter or match. Light from the back and come forward lighting in multiple places to light evenly.

Step 5: Start Grilling

Once the charcoal has turned white and ashy, spread them evenly and start the grilling!

Use Quick-Light Charcoal

Quick Light Charcoal Burned

Quick-light charcoal usually comes small to medium size bags that you can just place in the grill, no other preparation needed. Although these are usually designed to be portable and for convenience, they are by far the easiest way to light your charcoal for grilling.

Step 1: Place The Charcoal Bag In The Grill

Read the quick-light charcoal instructions, but generally, it will just tell you to place it in the center of the grill.

Step 2: Light The Charcoal

Simply light the bag in multiple places, or as per instructions.

Step 3: Wait

Now the hardest part, waiting for it to be ready! Luckily it only takes 10-15 minutes to have the charcoal fully lit, white, and ashy

Step 4: Start Grilling

It’s that simple, spread the charcoal out and get grilling.

Before Getting Started

After you know which method you’re going to use for lighting, there are a few important steps to take to increase the quality of the cook and to make lighting the charcoal that much easier.

Preparing A Grill For Lighting

Before adding any charcoal make sure you’ve cleaned your grill thoroughly and removed any old charcoal or dust. By keeping your grill clean and the grill grates clear and well oiled you will prevent sticking, wear, and rust. Plus, it will help with the quality and overall experience of the cook.

Ensure you clear out the ash after use and always clean your grill grates thoroughly with a grill brush before and after every use.

Arranging The Charcoal - Direct Vs. Indirect Heating

The way you arrange your charcoal in your grill will determine how it burns, how high, and how long. When arranging it evenly you will get consistent direct heat across the whole grill, but if you are cooking something larger or for longer, you can set-up the charcoal to produce indirect heat. Each method has its strengths and uses depending on what meat you’re cooking!

Direct Heat

Direct heat is best if you’re cooking steaks, burgers, chicken, or anything that cooks quickly and needs a high heat. By stacking your charcoal into a pyramid you can light the charcoal much more easily. After it’s burning evenly you can spread the charcoal around the grill. Cooking the meat directly over the hot coals will allow you to cook at a much higher temperature which is perfect for searing.

Indirect Heat

Two Zone Method
Outer Edge Method

Indirect heat is a much more effective way for grilling and slow roasting larger meats, such as whole chickens or meats that cook better slowly, such as ribs. There are a few ways you can arrange your charcoal to create heat zones (above the charcoal) & indirect heat zones (not above the charcoal).

By avoiding the direct heat zones and putting your meat to the side, it will cook it at a much lower temperature, over a longer period of time.

Choosing The Right Charcoal

There are so many different types of charcoal around, such as logs, briquettes, or lump, and each type has a different burn quality, price, and use. So, when choosing the right charcoal for your next grilling session consider the benefits of each type, and match it with what you love to grill.

Lump Charcoal On Wood

Lump Charcoal 

Lump charcoal is an all natural option, made by starving wood of oxygen as it burns, leaving you with 100% natural and pure charcoal. The best lump charcoal for grilling will burn hotter and more consistently at higher temperatures than other charcoals. It’s also easy to light and produces less ash overall. 

However, because it can be inconsistent in size, it’s recommended to break it down into smaller evenly sized pieces for grilling with. Because it’s also all natural it does tend to be more expensive than briquettes. Although it’s more popularly used for smoking, it does burn hot, and is easy to light which makes it a great option for grilling with too.

Charcoal Briquettes

Charcoal Briquettes

Charcoal briquettes are designed to be an easy, modern solution for grilling. Unlike lump charcoal, briquettes are primarily made with sawdust, compressed and bound into evenly shaped nuggets with binding ingredients and additives. 

This process gives a perfectly shaped charcoal piece designed for easy use and even burning. The best charcoal briquettes should be made from high quality hardwood and light easily and quickly. Although they burn less hot than lump charcoal, they are excellent for shorter grilling sessions such as when grilling steaks, brats, or chicken wings.

Safety Tips

Lighter Fluid Safety

To avoid singeing off your hair or eyebrows never add lighter fluid to burning or hot coals. This is the easiest way to cause a very hot and dangerous flare-up. Always be cautious when using lighter fluid and always follow the recommendations on the product.

Grill Safety

Be sure to only use charcoal in a charcoal grill. These grills have been tried and tested to ensure they can resist the heat of the coals. Even though gas or electric grills may look like you can add charcoal, don’t do it! Always use the fuel source the grill is made for.

Always put out your charcoal grill after use too, this will reduce your carbon footprint and prevent any potential dangers.

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