Though it can be a little more work, the we absolutely love grilling over charcoal. The smoky flavor and char sears cannot be matched by a gas grill. But before you can start making the perfect rack or ribs or juicy burger, you have to start the grill! We know that this can be a bit daunting, especially to those with less experience, but with this guide, you’ll have your grill ripping hot in no time.
Lighter Fluid Method
This is probably the method that people are most familiar. It's also the technique we that people tend to mess up (namely, using way too much lighter fluid). Not only can this be incredibly dangerous, but it can also ruin your food, giving it a fuel-y aftertaste.
To start the process properly, you’re going to want to arrange your coals into a neat mound or pyramid shape. Squirt or pour the lighter fluid over the coals, concentrating more on the center where the heat will need to be at its most intense. Use about 3 tablespoons of lighter fluid per pound of charcoal. Using too much fuel can result in flare ups.
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Moving quickly, using a long grill lighter or match to light the fuel. You want to do this quickly because the fuel can evaporate if left to sit on the charcoal for too long.
Never, and we mean never, squirt lighter fluid on a live fire. Though the resulting flare ups can be fun to look at, they can also be impossible to control and thus very dangerous. We promise, though it may not look like much, quickly lighting that first layer is enough to get the coals going.
Once the fluid burns off, the charcoal will continue to burn and will begin to form a gray, ashy outer layer. Once all of the coals are covered in ash (this should take about 15 minutes), they will be ready to spread out and start cooking!
Chimney Starter Method
Want to start a grill but a little freaked out by lighter fluid? Well a chimney starter may be the hands off method for you! A chimney starter is a cylindrical, metal device that allows for the charcoal’s heat to be more concentrated and for directional air flow to better feed the fire. Though it requires an additional tool, it is one of our favorite ways to get your coals from cold to red hot.
Fill your chimney starter with your desired amount of charcoal (a full starter is usually about 100 briquettes). Then in the bottom of your grill, place down some material to start the initial fire in an area no larger than the bottom of the chimney starter. Traditionally this is done with balled up pieces of paper but we find that using things that burn a little longer like cardboard or cotton balls can be even better. There are even products specifically designed for feeding a chimney starter like Weber’s lighter cubes or tumbleweed fire starters.
Light your fire starting materials and place the chimney starter over them. The flames from your fire starters will ignite the charcoal and within 10 to 15 minutes all of your coals will be covered in ash and ready to go.
Carefully, using strong tongs or fireproof gloves, pour the lit coals into your grill. Arrange the coals in your desired cooking arrangement, then cover and allow the grill to preheat to the temperature you need. Then you’re ready to get barbecuing.
Heat Gun/Looft Lighter Method
This is one of the least conventional but coolest (and maybe fastest?) way to get coals started. Heat guns and Looft Lighters are essentially super-powered hair dryers. Coils heat up the air to super high temperature, that is then propelled out to aim at coals or whatever else needs heating. Though it may seem weird to purchase something just for the purpose of starting a grill, heat guns can actually be quite useful tools in DIY projects and home maintenance.
To start your charcoal fire with one, start by arranging up a mound or pyramid of charcoal like you would if you were using lighter fluid. Then aim the heat gun or Looft Lighter a few inches from the center of your coals and start heating on the highest setting. Concentrate the hot air on the same spot for 60 seconds or until the coal starts to spark and glow. Then slowly move the lighter away from the charcoal by a few inches to distribute the heat a bit more. After a few more minutes the coals should be ashy and ready to spread around.
Once your barbecue is fully cookin’ make sure to try out one of these 75+ grilling recipes.
Justin Sullivan is the Assistant Food Editor for Delish, where he helps test, develop, and (of course) taste recipes like one-pot meals, easy desserts, and everything in between. He has worked in professional kitchens across New York, but his favorite role will always be as matzoh ball sous chef to his grandma. He loves diners and being from New Jersey, and when he’s not prepping and testing hundreds of Delish recipes, Justin travels the globe as the world’s foremost chicken finger critic.