How To Start A Charcoal Grill – A Complete, Step-By-Step Guide

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A black Weber Kettle 18" along with Weber Smokey Joe 14" and an ash can
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Charcoal grilling is different than gas and electric grilling. On a gas or electric grill, you can turn the fire on/off by simply pressing a button. With charcoal, it requires time and patience to get the fire going as well as to snuff it out. 

Because of that, I’ll show you how to start a charcoal grill properly in this article. First, we’ll walk through different types of charcoal grill and the accessories we need. Next is the 5 effective methods to light your charcoal, followed by what to do after it is lit. Then, we’ll end the article with extinguishing the fire after you’re done cooking.

If you just got a brand new charcoal grill, this article will help you avoid some rookie mistakes and speed up the learning process. If you already had some charcoal cooks under your belt, you might pick up a few useful tips or two.

Let’s get the fire started.

A Word Of Caution

You should always follow safe practices when lighting your charcoal grill to prevent any unforeseen accident. You should also consider any potential fire hazard from your chosen lighting method as well. Always remember to have a spray water bottle and fire extinguisher within reach. You’re playing with fire after all.

Health effect is another safety concern. In other words, does your lighting method leave any toxic residue on the charcoal, which subsequently affects the food you’re cooking? One advantage of grilling with charcoal is the natural wood-fired flavor. You really don’t want to lose that for some chemical off-taste that can make you and your family sick. 

Right off that bat, lighting your charcoal grill with lighter fluid is a no-no. This method has caused more harm than good. As an aviation fuel derivative, lighter fluid can leave a petroleum aftertaste on your meat and explode if you squirt it into lit coals.

Many folks might say that if you let the lighter fluid burn off completely, you won’t taste anything at all. While that is true considered lighter fluid being a popular method in the past, most people are busy and lack the patience in this day and age. And to save yourself from any unexpected fire danger, I suggest avoiding lighter fluid altogether. Besides, less chemical is always better.

Later in this article, I will show you other ways to start your charcoal grill without using lighter fluid. But before we get into that, let’s briefly go through the equipment, starting with your charcoal grill.

Your Charcoal Grill

Types Of Charcoal Grill

There are many types of charcoal grill. On one end, you have the most basic brazier grill, which only includes a cooking grate and charcoal pan. Similar to the Japanese hibachi, the brazier grill is known for cooking over direct high heat and its portability. 

On the other end, you’ve got the monstrous horizontal barrel grill (a.k.a offset smoker). This bad boy leans toward smoking rather than grilling. A commercial unit costs around a few hundred dollars while a custom-built one is more expensive. Despite that, once you master the offset smoker, it will earn you respect as a serious pitmaster.

Close to the center is the ceramic kamado grill. This grill is known for the heat and moisture retention. Big name brands include Big Green Egg, Kamado Joe to name a few. You can grill and smoke with a kamado. Its chosen charcoal is lump rather than briquettes.

Right at the center is the classic Weber Kettle. As an American icon, the Kettle sets the standards for charcoal grilling. Pretty much everybody starts out with a Kettle before moving on to other charcoal grills. From searing steaks to slow n low, you can do anything with a Weber Kettle.

Now, there are many more types of charcoal grills and they all share similar features like cooking grid, charcoal grate/chamber, and vents system. Let’s understand each component a bit better by using the Kettle as an example.

Different Parts Of A Weber Kettle

Cooking Grate

Cooking grate of a Weber Kettle charcoal grill

This is where you place your food. Weber also sells hinged cooking grate, so that you can add charcoal to either side of the grill without removing the food.

Charcoal Grate

Charcoal Grate of a Weber Kettle charcoal grill

Lit and/or unlit coals will be on here. Remember to have the rods on the topside. 

Tip: To prevent small pieces of charcoal or wood from falling through the grate, I recommend buying another charcoal grate and positioning it on top of the one you have to create a grid or checkerboard pattern. 

Vents System

Exhaust vent on the left. Intake vent on the right. Two red arrows pointing at the two vents

The vents system consists of two types of vent – exhaust and intake. You have to use both vents together to regulate the airflow and temperature of your Kettle.

  1. Exhaust vent – on the lid. The purpose of it is to let gases and smoke escape the grill. By doing so, it creates a vacuum inside the Kettle, which in turn pull more oxygen into the grill through the intake vent. You have to keep the exhaust vent opening by some degrees to prevent smoke from extinguishing the fire. Smoke is what gives your food flavor but more of it is not always better. It will make your meat bitter.
  2. Intake vent – near the fuel source or bottom of the base. You use it to control the internal temperature of the grill. Open it up to get more air to feed the fire while close it down to choke the fire (even if the exhaust vent is opened). This is also where the ash from burning charcoal goes. By turning the lever on the outside, you accomplish two things: clean up some loose ash and open/close the intake vent.

Tip: You should always close the lid and only control your grill’s temperature via the vents system. To keep track of the temp, use a thermometer. If your Weber kettle has a removable ash catcher pot, you can mark the opening of the intake vent using a Sharpie. Please see video below.

Now that you understand your charcoal grill a bit better, let’s move on to charcoal and other essential accessories, followed by some preliminary steps before lighting your grill.

Preparing Your Grill

The Fuel

A pile of lump charcoal and a pile of briquettes

People often think of briquettes as the only charcoal available. There is another type that is lump charcoal

Charcoal makers collect and burn raw wood in oxygen-controlled ovens or kilns for days. The end product of that process is this lightweight and flammable carbon a.k.a lump charcoal. 

To make briquettes, charcoal makers carbonize wood sawdust instead. The resulting sawdust charcoal or charcoal fines is mixed with other additives to hold its briquette form, enhance ignition, and prolong burning. 

Lump burns hotter but dies down quicker than briquettes. Moreover, lump is irregular in size and shape, making it inconsistent than uniform briquettes in terms of heat output.

When lighting your charcoal grill, you can use either charcoal type or both at the same time. Pay attention to the quantity you’re using, depending on what you’re cooking and what type of charcoal grill you have. It can significantly affect your temperature control of the grill.

There is also another fuel that can influence the temp control besides the quantity of charcoal. It is oxygen. You control this fuel by adjusting the vents system which I briefly mentioned in the last section. 

Other Necessary Tools

Accessories needed to start a charcoal grill

Lighter

You need something to start the fire. I prefer long reach lighter so my hand won’t be close to the fire in case I have to re-light something.

Grill Brush/Scraper

You should get a wire brush and a scraper. Only use the wire brush to clean the inside of your grill, not the cooking grate. Some of those bristles can get into your food and that’s dangerous.

Use the scraper to clean your cooking grate instead. It’ll take some time but it’s better than the wire brush.

Charcoal Rake

Use this to move your hot coals around. I use the metal shovel that comes with my ash can.

Cooking Utensils

Spatula and tongs. You need two pairs of tongs. One for your raw meat and the other one for your cooked meat. Cross-contamination. No, thank you!

Thermometer

You need a thermometer with probes to know your grill as well as your food’s temperature (meat is pricey and poorly cooked meat is unhealthy). You can get away with just an instant-read thermometer. Some grills do have a built-in thermometer attached to the dome. I usually don’t trust it. The temp at the dome is different than the temp at the cooking grate. 

If you can, get the instant-read thermometer and the one with probes altogether.

Gloves

Always protect your hands with a BBQ gloves.

Beer

As I mentioned earlier, lighting a charcoal grill requires some time and patience. What is better to kill some time than a cold one? My favorite is the Oatmeal Stout from a local brewery. 

Before Starting

Now that you’ve got all the equipment ready, here is a to-do list before starting your charcoal grill.

  1. Remove the lid and cooking grate. Keep the charcoal grate.
  2. Clean out the ash and scrape the dirt inside the grill (if it’s not new).
  3. Open the intake vent all the way.
  4. Pick your charcoal and check the weather. Cold wintery air can reduce the heat output of your charcoal while hot summery air can speed up its ignition. Different weather conditions can also affect different types of charcoal grill differently. For example, during the winter, the thicker ceramic wall of a kamado can retain heat better than the thinner insulated metal wall of a Weber Kettle. Depending on the circumstances, the amount of charcoal you’re using will vary accordingly.

How To Start A Charcoal Grill

One quick tip before we start. If you have a brand new charcoal grill, I’d recommend lighting it without any food several times. The purpose is to get to know your grill better and burn off any manufacturer’s grease. That said, here are the 5 effective ways to light a charcoal grill without lighter fluid.

Charcoal Chimney Starter

A chimney starter on a charcoal grill

A charcoal chimney starter is a giant cylindrical metal drinking cup. It has two compartments separated by a grate. It also has a series of holes along its body to help spread the fire. 

The charcoal chimney utilizes the chimney effect to ignite your charcoal. You pour unlit charcoal into the top chamber. Light a fire in the lower chamber. The bottom charcoal catches on fire and slowly ignites other coals. As the heat travels upward, it pulls more air from the bottom as well as all the holes. After 20 minutes, you will have a chimney of lit charcoal. 

You can buy this device at any hardware store or the place you buy your grill. If you have the time, you can even make one on your own. To use a chimney starter, all you need is a couple of wadded up newspapers and a match/lighter.

Here is a quick tutorial.

  • Step 1 – Pour charcoal of your choice into the top compartment.
  • Step 2 – Crumple a few sheets of newspaper. Then stuff them into the lower compartment.
  • Step 3 – Place your chimney on any heat-proof surface (the charcoal grate of your grill is an ideal location). Light the newspaper and let it rip.
  • Step 4 – After the coals are fully engulfed in the chimney, pour them out into the charcoal grate and voila!

The charcoal chimney method is the cheapest, safest, and easiest way to light your charcoal grill. It works for all types of charcoal grill, except for the kamado. The kamado is its own chimney starter. You can just light your charcoal inside the kamado so skip the chimney.

The first downside of the charcoal chimney is that it’s slow. Good ball-park is around 20 minutes. Second downside is the ash from burning newspaper can be a potential fire hazard. Though people substitute it for other cleaner-burning fire starters such as paraffin wax. 

Potential Accident/Fire Hazard – Low to Medium

  • Substitute newspaper for other cleaner firestarters.
  • After dumping the hot coals, place the chimney somewhere safe, heat-proof, and away from children and pets.

Health Effect – Low 

  • Unless you use instant-light briquettes or douse lighter fluid into the chimney.

Type Of Charcoal Grill – Any (except the kamado)

Heat Gun/Looftlighter

A heat gun and Looftlighter on a charcoal grill

The second method to light your charcoal grill is to use a heat gun. Any regular heat gun at Home Depot will do the trick. Now, if you want something a touch cooler with a built-in bottle opener, try the Looftlighter. 

The Looftlighter is the combination of a hair dryer and heat gun. It blasts very hot air at your charcoal. In 60 seconds, that spot of coal will ignite. Light a few more spots and your grill will be ready in 3 to 5 minutes.

Here is a quick tutorial of the Looftlighter. Same for regular heat gun.

  • Step 1 – Make a pile of charcoal on the charcoal grate of your grill.
  • Step 2 – Find a spot where two pieces of charcoal meet. Plug in the heat gun/Looftlighter. Touch the tip of it to that spot. Press (and hold, for the Looftlighter) the button.
  • Step 3 – After seeing some sparks, smoke (briquettes), or the coals start to glow, pull back the heat gun/Looftlighter a few inches, but continue to aim at the same spot for at least 1 minute. 
  • Step 4 – Once that spot of coal ignites, do a few more around your charcoal pile. You will be ready to grill in no time.

Unlike the chimney starter, the heat gun and Looftlighter require an electric outlet to be of any use. They also create a lot of sparks from the charcoal. However, they start your grill faster than the chimney. Better yet, you can actually sear steak with a Looftlighter.

The heat gun is less expensive than the Looftlighter. It has two levels of heat and you don’t have to hold the button to operate the gun. The Looftlighter, on the other hand, is longer so your hand will be away from the fire. Its length is actually perfect for the deep and narrow kamado grill.

All in all, both the heat gun and Looftlighter offer a non-chemical way to light your grill. You just have to be careful where you put them after that. 

Potential Accident/Fire Hazard – Low to Medium

Health Effect – Low

Type Of Charcoal Grill – Any

Electric Starter

An electric starter on a charcoal grill

The next method is to use an electric charcoal starter. This device is a metal heating prong attached to a handle. Once you plug it in, it will get hot automatically. It doesn’t have any thermostat to tell you when it is overheated. Therefore, you have to unplug after 10 minutes or so.

Here is a quick tutorial.

  • Step 1 – Get your pile of charcoal ready inside your grill.
  • Step 2 – Bury or sandwich the heating prong inside the charcoal pile.
  • Step 3 – Plug in and watch out for it. After 10 minutes, unplug the device. You can remove it from your charcoal pile or keep it in there for a bit.
  • Step 4 – Once the coals are glowing, remove the starter and start mixing your hot coals with the unlit ones.

Similar to the heat gun, you need an outlet for the electric starter to work. Another drawback is that it only ignites the charcoal it touches. Because of that, this tool might take a bit longer than the previous methods to get your grill ready. In fact, the electric starter doesn’t seem to be popular at all.

Nevertheless, using an electric starter is a good way to light your charcoal grill without using any lighter fluid. It’s slow but will get the job done. Just remember to put it away from your family once you unplug it.

Potential Accident/Fire Hazard – Low to Medium

Health Effect – Low

Type Of Charcoal Grill – any

Propane Torch

Using a propane torch is another method to start your charcoal grill. Light fire with fire. Any weed burner or Bernzomatic torches will be good enough for the job. 

If you buy Bernzomatic, look for the one that has a pressure regulator. That way, you can invert it to position the nozzle near the charcoal. The one that isn’t pressure-regulated, it will go out when tipped upside down.

JJ George and BBQ Guru have their own version of a propane torch that is made specifically for lighting grills. They both have a long neck so no hot embers will touch your hand. Besides their main purpose, you can also use them to kill weeds, melt ice, and many more. 

Here is a quick tutorial

  • Step 1 – Get your charcoal pile ready.
  • Step 2 – Attach your torch to a propane tank.
  • Step 3 – Aim the nozzle at the charcoal, about 2 – 3 inches away. Don’t bury it in the charcoal. That will cause the nozzle to burn out real fast.
  • Step 4 – Turn on the gas and press the built-in igniter.
  • Step 5 – Within minutes, you’re ready to roll.

Propane torch is the fastest way to light your charcoal grill. When burned, propane doesn’t produce any unpleasant smell or taste like lighter fluid.

That said, this method is a bit of an overkill. You have to use fuel to get your grill going and that fuel isn’t free. The torch also creates a good amount of sparks and it is loud (watch out for your neighbors).

If you end up using one, please be careful and follow safe practices. Wear gloves and eye protection. Have a fire extinguisher within ready reach. That thing can be a fire danger.

Potential Accident/Fire Hazard – Medium to High

Health Effect – Low

Type Of Charcoal Grill – Any

Fire Starter

Kamado Joe lighter cubes on top cooking grate

The last lighting method is fire starter. There are many of them to choose from. My personal favorite is Kamado Joe Firestarter.

The majority of firestarters is made from paraffin wax. They burn clean and don’t produce any ash. Unlike lighter fluid, they’re chemical-free.

You can use them to light any charcoal grill, especially the kamado. They also make a great alternative for newspaper in your chimney starter. Firestarters don’t cost much. But if you’re out of them, you can make them yourself or substitute with Doritos chips

Here is a quick tutorial on using firestarters. 

  • Step 1 – Make your mound of charcoal.
  • Step 2 – Get your choice of firestarter. Bury a couple of them in your charcoal mound. Make sure ¼ of the starters are visible so you can light later.
  • Step 3 – Light them firestarters up.

In my experience, if you have a big pile of charcoal, lighting with the firestarters is the slowest among the 5 methods here. Besides that, I can’t think of any other drawbacks. Although some people did report foul chemical smell associated with some firestarters out there, please make sure you read the label and buy the ones that only have non-toxic, organic ingredients.

Potential Accident/Fire Hazard – Low

Health Effect – Low

Type Of Charcoal Grill – Any

After Your Coals Are Lit

Using any of the above lighting methods, you will have a pile of hot coals (white-gray and ashy all over) after approximately 30 minutes or less. But we’re not done yet. There are a couple of things to do before cooking. 

Different Coals Configurations

Depending on what you’re grilling, you need to arrange your coals accordingly. One common way is to spread them out evenly across the grate. It is called direct-heat cooking. This setup is great for thin and quick foods such as burgers and brats. Also great for feeding a large crowd.

Another popular configuration is two-zone indirect-heat grilling. This is where you pile hot coals on one side and leave an empty zone on the other side. This setup is known for cooking the perfect steak with a nice crusty sear. I highly recommend this setup for all of your grillings. It not only saves on fuel but also is a good way to control flare-ups.

If you have a thicker cut of meat such as brisket or pork butt, you need to arrange your coals for slow n low temperature (225F – 250F). Two popular methods to achieve that is the Minion and Charcoal Snake. They will turn your charcoal grill into a smoker and maintain the desired temp for hours on end.

Preheat Your Grill

Once you figure out the coals setup, it’s time to…

  1. Put back your cooking grate.
  2. Close the lid.
  3. Open your exhaust vent all the way (make sure your intake vent still open).
  4. Preheat your grill for 5 minutes. Then clean your cooking grate.
  5. Readjust the vents system depending on what’s for dinner.
  6. Wait until the targeted temperature stabilizes then put your food on.

The grill’s internal temperature will be around 400F and slowly dies down as the coals combust. By preheating the grill, it will burn off any bacteria, gunks, and leftover food stuck on the cooking grate from the last grilling session. It also makes cleaning the grate an easier job.

Clean Cooking Grate

A pair of tongs with wadded up aluminum foil to clean grill grate

There are several ways to do this. If you have a grill scraper, go ahead and use it. It might take a couple of minutes. Avoid using a wire brush. It’s only for the interior of the grill. If you don’t have any of these, what you can do is to crumple aluminium foil into a ball. Grab it with tongs and start scrubbing. 

After cleaning the cooking grate, you need to oil it up as well. The purpose is to prevent food from sticking. A bit of oil on a piece of paper towel. Grab it with tongs and start wiping over the top of the grate. 

Now, some folks say that doing the above will make the grate stickier rather than non-stick. They suggest oiling your food instead. Personally, I haven’t had any problems with my food sticking if I oil up my grate. And I have yet to try the other method. You’re welcome to experiment with both. Either way, as long as you try to keep your grill clean after every cook, you should be good.

Note: Check out my detailed guides on how to clean different types of cooking grates.

Cast iron – https://bbqinprogress.com/how-to-clean-cast-iron-grill-grates/

Stainless steel – https://bbqinprogress.com/how-to-clean-stainless-steel-grill-grates/

Extinguish The Fire After Cooking

Once you’re done with the cooking, quickly scrub your grate. Then close the lid and all the vents to snuff out the fire. Avoid using water to choke a charcoal fire. The hot steam can burn you and damage the internal wall of your grill.

Wait a few days before you clean out the ash. You can reuse the leftover charcoal depending on what type. Lump is reusable while briquettes tend to fall apart after the first use. 

Remember to cover the grill and keep it dry and ready for the next cook.

Conclusion

I hope you find this article useful. A chimney starter is always the best tool to light your charcoal grill. No lighter fluid needed. 

Pay attention to your charcoal setup. It makes a big difference for what you’re cooking. Always try to keep your grill clean. Your food will taste way better as a result. 

And don’t forget to send this article to your BBQ spouse or any backyard grillers that you know. If you have other techniques on how to start a charcoal grill, please comment below and share them with the world. 

Take care now!

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