If you are like me, you love outdoor cooking on a charcoal grill or barbecue. There is nothing better than sitting outside on a nice summer afternoon or evening, enjoying the warmth of your grill or fire pit, enjoying a drink and grilling up some delicious food. The flavors and aromas imparted by real wood charcoal are irreplaceable. A charcoal grill or a wood fire pit and my favorites because of the real wood fire, smoke and aromas they give off.
However, charcoal can be hard to work with, especially if you don’t have much experience with it. So should you just give up the charcoal cooking and buy a gas barbecue? Not just yet! There are some tips for getting your charcoal going quickly which can help make the prep work on your outdoor grill easier.
I am going to cover three types of charcoal starter that can be used to fire up your coal and get cooking. Read carefully, because I have tips on how to use each one better and my recommendations on the best of the bunch, their advantages and disadvantages.
Ok, so here we go!
Lighter Fluid – Lighter fluid is the traditional way to start your charcoal. It works, but can be difficult and messy.
How to use it – Start by building a pyramid-shaped pile of charcoal in your grill or barbecue. It helps to have a small indentation at the top rather than a point. Turn your bottle of lighter fluid upside down and firmly squeeze for about 3 to 5 seconds, aiming the fluid into the indentation at the top of the pile of charcoal. Close and store your lighter fluid and then light the charcoal with a match. I recommend using long fireplace matches to avoid burning your hands! The coal will immediately ignite in flames. However, flames are not the goal, you want the charcoal to get hot enough to start burning themselves, developing hot, glowing embers. This takes some time.
Some tips are to give the charcoal some time and avoid wind. Wind will blow out your fire. However, you don’t want to cover your grill just yet because it needs oxygen to get ignited. Your charcoal is ready when most of the briquets have a layer of grey ash developed over most of their surface. If your charcoal stops burning before it is lit and does not seem to be progressing, you occasionally need to add more lighter fluid. Try to avoid using too much and be careful, it will flare up as soon as you spray more lighter fluid on those hot coals!
Pros – Lighter fluid is available everywhere, cheap and it does work, eventually.
Cons – Lighter fluid is much less reliable in getting your charcoal lit, often taking several tries before your coals are ready. It can take longer than the other methods. Also, you are using chemicals, like kerosene, to ignite your charcoal. While this does burn off before you add your food theoretically, I definitely don’t want chemical aromas or fumes in or near my food.
Electric Charcoal Starter – These are basically a metal loop attached to a handle which plugs into a standard power outlet. The electrical supply creates a current in the metal loop which heats it to very high heat, similar to an electric stove burner. This heat is used to ignite your charcoal. These electric charcoal starters are generally available in home supply stores and anywhere grills and barbecue supplies are sold.
How to use it – Spread a layer of charcoal briquets on your charcoal grate in your barbecue. Next, lay the metal loop of your electric charcoal starter on top of this layer of charcoal. Then cover the starter with more charcoal. Plug in the electric starter and wait. After about 8 to 12 minutes the coals around the starter have ignited sufficiently, getting a grey ash covering their surface, to get the rest of the coals around them started. Unplug your charcoal starter and remove it. You may need to wait a while longer before the rest of your charcoal has ignited and the majority of briquets have a layer of grey ash on their surface.
Pros – The electric charcoal starter is an easy way to start your grill. You don’t need to deal with flames, flammable materials or matches. There are no chemicals involved and it is reusable.
Cons – Obviously, you need an electrical outlet nearby your grill for this to work. If you are grilling at a park, beach or campground, this may not be practical. Occasionally these can take a bit longer to start your charcoal but are generally faster than using lighter fluid.
Charcoal Chimney Starter – This is my personal favorite way to start my charcoal! Chimney starters can also be found in most home supply stores and anywhere grills and barbecue supplies are sold. I recommend finding the largest chimney you can find so that all your charcoal can be started in one step. I personally use the large Weber brand chimney starter which is widely available. Otherwise, after the charcoal in the chimney is dumped out, you have to add more briquets that take time to ignite off of the initial charcoal. If you have a very large grill, another option is to use two or more chimneys at the same time to get your charcoal ready.
How to use it – The chimney is basically a large cylindrical metal tube with a large handle and a metal grate in the middle to hold your charcoal. The bottom edge has holes in the metal sides to light your fire. The first step is to fill the top portion of your chimney with charcoal. Fill to just below the top rim, but avoid over-filling it. Next, crumple up two or three pieces of newspaper and place them in the bottom part of the chimney from below (below the grate holding your charcoal). You don’t want so much that it is packed tightly as it needs some oxygen circulation to light easily and burn hot. Set the chimney down inside your grill on the charcoal grate. Now light the newspaper. This is best accomplished using long fireplace matches which you introduce through the holes in the bottom of the chimney. Light in multiple places to ensure all your newspaper gets ignited. If you don’t have long matches, you can lift up the chimney and use a lighter or small match to light the newspaper.
Now just sit back and wait! The burning newspaper inside the chimney will ignite the lower charcoal. As this burns the flames will ignite charcoal higher and higher in the chimney. Keep an eye on it, but wait until there are small flames starting to be visible near the top of your chimney and you can see the lower levels of charcoal glowing. At this point simply tip the chimney over and pour out your burning charcoal on the the charcoal grate in your grill. They are ready to use when there is a layer of grey ash covering most of the briquets.
Pros – The chimney starter is easy to use. It ignites all your charcoal quickly and does not require any chemical starters. It is reusable and lasts a long time.
Cons – Very rarely, your charcoal will not ignite with the first try and will require the addition of one or two more pieces of wadded up newspaper. Otherwise, the only downside to the chimney fire starter is that you need a few pieces of newspaper handy to get it lit!
Well there you have it! Three options for starting your charcoal for easier, quicker outdoor grilling. These are not the only ways to start charcoal, but they are the most common and in my opinion the more reliable and easy.
For other tips on outdoor cooking on a fire pit, grill or barbecue or even cooking in your fireplace, see The Fire Pit and Grilling Guru Guide.
Have fun and enjoy your charcoal grilling!