How To: Start a Charcoal Grill
Love the incomparable flavor of charcoal-grilled fare, but your grill-lighting skills are subpar? Get your briquettes lit in just 5 easy steps.
When it comes to delicious grilled meats and vegetables, you really can’t beat cooking over a charcoal grill. The smoky notes imparted by the charcoal (and the flavor that sizzling meat drippings add) are more complex than we can achieve by frying pan, or even by 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. One of the most effective methods—and the one we’ll focus on in this guide—is to use a charcoal chimney, which is one of the best grilling tools a grilling enthusiast can own.
There are a few things you’ll have to collect before you can start a charcoal grill. Luckily, the list isn’t long.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN
This method of starting a charcoal grill is so effective that you don’t even need to soak the charcoal in lighter fluid. It’s quick, too—following these steps should take you less than half the time that it would take to light the coals in some other way. The one thing to be aware of is that starting a charcoal grill using a charcoal chimney involves manipulating a hopper full of red hot coals. Safety, therefore, should be top of mind while executing this quick task.
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 that type of charcoal is not required when 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.
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.
Related: How to Clean a Grill
STEP 4: Light the fire starter to ignite the coals.
Using matches or a barbecue lighter, light the fuel source from the bottom so it ignites quickly. (We recommend using a barbecue lighter because it will keep your hands safe from 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.
After dumping the coals, it’s best to close the lid and allow the grill to reach its optimal temperature.
This step-by-step guide If you’ve ever struggled with how to ignite a charcoal grill, we hope this step-by-step guide should have cleared things up. 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!
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