How to Start a Charcoal Grill

Love the incomparable flavor of charcoal-grilled fare, but your grill-lighting skills are subpar? Try one of these two surefire ways of getting the grill going.

By Kat Hodgins and Tom Scalisi | Updated Mar 15, 2022 9:09 AM

how to start a charcoal grill

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For delicious grilled meats and vegetables, you really can’t beat cooking over a charcoal grill. The smoky notes imparted by the charcoal are more complex than can be achieved by cooking in a frying pan, or even over a gas grill. For many grill enthusiasts, though, the only real obstacle to a home-cooked, charcoal-grilled dinner is lighting the charcoal. If your grill-lighting methods take too long or don’t work at all, read on for a quick primer that will get those briquettes hot in no time.

There are many ways to light a charcoal grill, but some ways work better than others. We’ll focus on two of the most effective methods for lighting your charcoal grill: The first explains how to light a charcoal grill using lighter fluid. In the second, we use a charcoal chimney, which is one of the best grilling tools a barbecue enthusiast can own.

Method 1: How To Light A Charcoal Grill with Lighter Fluid

This approach to starting your charcoal grill involves using a petroleum- or alcohol-based lighter fluid. It’s a terrific option if you don’t have a charcoal chimney and want to start your grill successfully in one go.

When using lighter fluid to start your grill, following safety precautions and knowing how much lighter fluid to use are the keys to success. Using too much lighter fluid can be dangerous, and excess lighter fluid can also transfer a chemical taste to your food.

Follow the steps below to learn the right amount of lighter fluid to use to safely light your charcoal grill and avoid having the taste seep into your food.

how to light charcoal grill

Supplies

There are a few things you’ll have to collect before you can start a charcoal grill. Luckily, the list isn’t long.

STEP 1: Arrange the charcoal into a neat pile. 

Form your charcoal into a mound or pyramid shape. In general, small, portable grills use about 30 briquettes, and larger grills use between 50 and 75 briquettes. In general, the more charcoal you use, the hotter your fire. If it’s cold, windy, or rainy, or if you need more heat to cook your meat, you’ll want to toss additional briquettes on the pile. Having the lumps of charcoal in contact with each other at the outset helps the fire spread faster.

STEP 2: Add lighter fluid to the pile of unlit charcoal.

When starting a charcoal grill using lighter fluid, some barbecue chefs use way more lighter fluid than they actually need to get the fire going. At most, you should use ¼ cup of fluid per pound of charcoal. Always follow the directions on the bottle of lighter fluid you use.

Squirt the tops and sides of the charcoal pile, making sure to use more of the lighter fluid in the center of the mound, where the heat will be at its most intense. Never squirt lighter fluid onto hot or flaming coals. Doing this causes dangerous flare ups that can be difficult to control.

how to start a charcoal grill

STEP 3: Set coals ablaze quickly after applying lighter fluid.

Allow the lighter fluid to soak into the coals for a maximum of 30 seconds before introducing flame to the grill. If the coals are left too long without being ignited the fuel can evaporate, making the coals more difficult to light. Have your fire source ready to go, so you can set the coals on fire as soon as you douse them.

Use your grill lighter or a long match to light the coals in several places, helping the fire get started and spread over every coal. Do not add more lighter fluid after setting fire to the coals.

how to start a charcoal grill

STEP 4: Give the lighter fluid time to burn off and turn the coals gray.

As the lighter fluid burns off the surface of the coals, the charcoal will become coated in gray or white ash. If charcoal appears white on the outside, the heat hasn’t reached the middle of the briquette. Don’t start cooking until ash covers all of the briquettes and they stop smoking. This should take about 15 minutes.

STEP 5: Spread out the coals once they are ready to use.

Wearing safety gloves and using a charcoal rake, spread out the grey ash-covered coals. If you complete this step too soon and some of your briquettes are still black, it’s more difficult to control the charcoal grill’s temperature, and you’ll end up with uneven heating. After distributing the charcoal, cover the coals with your grate (and lid, if applicable), and let the grill preheat for 5 to 10 minutes. Then you’re ready to start cooking.

Method 2: How To Light a Charcoal Grill with a Chimney

how to start a charcoal grill

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It is possible to light a charcoal grill without using lighter fluid. Instead, you will need a chimney to heat your charcoal. This method is quick, too—you should have a flame in less than half the time that it would take to light the coals with lighter fluid. The most important thing to remember when starting charcoal grills using a charcoal chimney is that it involves manipulating a hopper full of red hot coals. Safety, therefore, should be top of mind while executing this task.

Supplies

Having everything you need assembled beforehand will have you ready to grill in minutes.

STEP 1: Make sure you are using the right charcoal. 

The kind of charcoal you use matters—a lot. Quality charcoal impacts how easy it is to light the grill, and the way the food you grill tastes. Some charcoal brands pre-soak their briquettes in lighter fluid to make them easier to light, but you don’t have to use that type of charcoal when lighting a fire using a chimney.

If you’re spending good money on meat to grill, it makes sense to use the best charcoal you can afford. Quality brands to look for include Jealous Devil, Primo, and Rockwood. (If you can find all-natural charcoal, all the better.) These premium products offer easier lighting, consistent heat, and better flavor without chemicals.

STEP 2: Fill the chimney with charcoal. 

Once you have good charcoal in hand, you’re ready to fill the chimney. Unlike gas grills, charcoal grills don’t have knobs to adjust if you want to increase or decrease the grill’s temperature. Instead, you regulate a charcoal grill’s temperature by adjusting the amount of charcoal you use.

For low-heat grilling or starting a smoker with coals, fill the chimney about a quarter of the way full. For medium heat, fill the chimney half full. For high-heat grilling and searing, fill the chimney all the way to the top.

Some charcoal chimneys require you to remove the interior grate and add the fire starter to the bottom compartment. If this is the case for you, switch steps two and three in this how-to guide.

how to start a charcoal grill

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STEP 3: Place the fire starter under the charcoal chimney.

To ignite the coals in a charcoal chimney, grill masters need a fire starter of some sort. Newspaper is a great option, or you can purchase specially designed lighter cubes.

Where you place the fire starter is important—don’t just toss newspaper into the grill and hope for the best! You want to place the newspaper or cubes on the charcoal grate, which is the lower of the grill’s two grates. This positioning allows you enough room to light the fuel source and place the chimney on top of it.

STEP 4: Light the fire starter with a BBQ lighter to ignite the coals. 

Using matches or a grill lighter, light the fuel source from the bottom, so it ignites quickly. (We recommend using a barbecue lighter because it will keep your hands clear of the flames.)

Once the fuel source is ablaze, place the chimney full of charcoal over the flame. For optimal airflow, leave the grid’s lid open and allow the flames to rise through the chimney. Hot air will rise along with the flames, and the fresh air that’s pulled through the bottom of the chimney will ignite the coals quickly. Chimneys make the whole grill-lighting process quick and easy, which is why we find them indispensable.

STEP 5: After about 15 minutes, pour the hot coals into the grill. 

As the chimney pulls fresh air in through the bottom, it ignites coals on its way up. After about 15 minutes, all of the coals in the chimney should turn to gray ash, including the ones at the very top. It’s at this point that you can slowly and carefully dump the hot coals onto the charcoal grate. Use a charcoal rake or grill tongs to distribute the charcoal for direct or indirect grilling.

After dumping the coals, it’s best to close the lid and allow the grill to reach its optimal temperature.

While there are plenty of barbecue tips and shortcuts that will improve your grilling game, there are few that beat using a chimney to get a charcoal grill going. You may well have a mouthwatering meal in hand by the time your neighbors finally get their coals fired up!

how to start a charcoal grill

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Final Thoughts

Learning how to start a charcoal grill is a skill that you will appreciate, especially once you taste the difference between food cooked on charcoal and gas grills.

For success with any charcoal grill-starting technique, make sure you use enough charcoal briquettes to generate sufficient heat to properly cook your food. After lighting your grill, allow 15 minutes or so for the charcoal to heat up, then replace the cooking grate and let it preheat before adding any food.

No matter which method you use to fire up your charcoal grill, safety must always come first. Follow the manufacturer-recommended amount of lighter fluid (if applicable), and use tools, like long-handled matches and a charcoal rake, to avoid burns.

how to start a charcoal grill

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FAQs About How to Light a Charcoal Grill

Many people are scared of using a charcoal grill because they don’t know how to light it and cook on it. Learning the ins and outs of lighting a charcoal grill will give you the confidence boost to become a grill master. To help, here are some of the most frequently asked questions and answers about how to start a charcoal grill.

Q. How long does it take for charcoal to be ready?

Depending on how much charcoal you’re using, it takes about 15 to 20 minutes for all of the briquettes to be ready to use. You know that they are ready once the charcoal develops a white or gray ash layer, and has stopped smoking.

Q. How long does charcoal burn?

The short answer is, it depends on the charcoal. Charcoal burns for different lengths of time depending on the quality of the charcoal, and whether you are using lumps of charcoal, or briquettes. In general, lump charcoals have a burn time of two to three hours, and briquettes can burn for up to four or five hours.

Q. How do you light a charcoal grill for the first time?

When lighting a charcoal grill for the first time, put on your protective gloves and load up your grill or chimney with charcoal. Before firing up the grill, open the vents, which supply the charcoal with the oxygen it needs to stay lit. Then you can start the grill using lighter fluid or the charcoal chimney, which we have outlined above for your convenience. Make sure to properly care for your grill so it lasts a long time.