How to Start a Charcoal Fire Grill (Without Using Lighter Fluids)

I love grilling and want to share my best tips for lighting a charcoal grill. In the years before this, I used to just spray a lot of lighter fluid on the charcoals and attempt to light it. The flames would not stay lit for more that a few seconds. Even if the grill was vented outside, the smell of lighter fluid remained.

My preferred method of lighting a charcoal grill is not to use lighter fluid. We have a few rules that we follow. This is everything you need to light a charcoal barbecue.

Why not use lighter fluids?

I believe that lighter fluid is the best way to use coals. While lighter fluid can be great for creating a roaring fire that lasts a few seconds it is not the best choice. The main reason I don’t use it is because it alters the taste of my food.

There’s also the noxious odor. It’s easy to tell if someone is cooking in my neighborhood by the smell of barbecues.

Finally, lighter fluid is another thing that you need to continue buying.

A chimney starter is a great way to light charcoal.

Charcoal chimney starters are great tools to lighten charcoal. These look like large, heavy mugs made of steel with a big handle. The bottom has an open grate, the top is fully open, and there are strategically placed holes to promote airflow.

The heat from coals rises upward and this contraption helps to focus that heat inside the metal cylinder, which heats coals within the chamber instead of escaping into the atmosphere.

A chimney starter can be purchased for between $15-25, but they are durable and can be re-used.

Selecting the right charcoal type

We’re trying to avoid lighter fluid so I try to avoid buying briquettes with lighter fluid. These are usually marked with “easy light”.

To ensure that there are no fillers in coal briquettes , I prefer to not to use any charcoal briquettes . These briquettes are made from fillers and bindings. I don’t want them burning around me or in my food. Although they have the advantage of uniformity, which allows them to heat evenly simultaneously, it is not worth it for me.

I prefer natural lump coal. Since my local store carries it, I have been using Kamado Joseph coals. Briquettes tend to produce less ash than natural lump charcoal. The cheaper ones, such as those at your local megamart, can often contain a mixture of different wood species and come in large and small pieces. You may need a small hatchet to cut the larger pieces so that it fits into the chimney starter. It’s well worth the effort.

  1. Clear your grill

You can get rid of any leftover charcoal from your last grilling session and any charcoal dust. This can stick to food and cause it to get hot during cooking. The grill grate doesn’t need cleaning yet.

2. Install the grill and start the chimney

Place the grate on the grill again and then place the chimney starter. Then add charcoal to the chimney by placing a roll of toilet paper, or paper towel, in the middle. A typical grilling session requires that the chimney is filled to 80%. A little more space allows for easier rearranging of the coals later.

3. Starters under the chimney

Dryer lint can be a useful tool but it is only good for the initial lighting. The burn time is very short. I prefer to use about 1-2 sheets of newspaper, with 1 teaspoon of cooking oil. The paper is easy to light and the oil makes it last a bit longer. There are also little fire starter blocks that can be purchased at camping or BBQ shops. The ones from Weber look similar to wax ice cubes and others that look like compressed wood chips. These are a great way of lighting your coals.

4. Start the chimney

A BBQ lighter can help you reach the barbecue and allows you to relight later, without touching the heat source. For extra reach, you can use matches with tongs.

5. Keep the flames ablaze and ensure that the coals are hot enough

To keep the coals lit, they must be burned hot enough and for a long time. The chimney starter’s underside can be fanned to increase the fire size and burn. This is what I use, but you can also do it with a good manual fan.

6. Relight and add more starter

If your starters burn out in a matter of minutes, and your coals do not stay lit, then you will need to continue feeding material under the chimney starter. As a last resort, I prefer to feed in paper scraps, recycled paper, tp, paper towel rolls, or paper bags, or even cardboard.

7. When the coals are hot enough

Sometimes, there may be blazing flames. However, it does not necessarily mean that the coals have been prepared. This is a sign that the coals have caught fire and will continue to burn. The coals will be ready when at least some of the coals have some white. Sometimes, the top coals can lag when they get lit. I use long, stainless steel BBQ tongs to move the darker coals down or to hotter areas.

Now, pour your coals into your barbecue. The coals will burn for a while more. Once they have turned white, you can place them on your grill and cook.

8. Prepare the grates and prepare the food

I prefer to place the cooking grate now, so that it heats up for a few moments. It is easier to use a grill cleaning tool to scrape the grates once it has heated up. To get rid of any remaining bits, I usually have to make a final pass using a moist or oiled paper towel.

Here are some of my favourite recipes for charcoal grilling

How can you light charcoal while keeping it burning?

The problem with lighting charcoal is that it often goes out too quickly. You can help to reduce this issue by doing a few things. The first is to keep the coals closer together, so that more heat flows to other coals and not into the atmosphere. This can also be achieved by using a chimney starter, such as the one we used in the above method.

The second is to continue feeding the fire. You can continue to feed the fire with additional starter material if the oil or paper you used in step 3 is not enough.

Third, fan the fire while it is burning to increase its size and heat. A bigger fire can heat up coals and help them stay lit.

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