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posted May 31, 2023

How to Start a Charcoal Grill

Lighting the grill is one of the more intimidating aspects of charcoal grilling, especially for beginners. Knowing how to safely and correctly light your charcoal removes a lot of that intimidation and opens up a more flavorful world of backyard BBQ. Let me walk you through my tips and tricks for how to start a charcoal grill so you can start cooking.

Charcoal in a chimney with text overlay - How to Start a Charcoal Grill.

Choose the Right Charcoal

There are a million different options on the market. You can read a lot more in my Types of Charcoal post, but here’s a quick overview to get you started.

Quick light

Quick light charcoal is just as the name describes. They are meant to light quickly. Some types of charcoal are designed to give you easy/quick lighting and are typically labeled “match light” or “quick light” on the package. These often require nothing more than a match to get lit because they are infused with a combustible chemical to make them easy to ignite.

I have noticed these types of charcoal put an “off” flavor on my food. I tend to avoid quick light for food that will have access to the charcoal smoke, but they work great for camping where you’ll be doing Dutch oven cooking or food in foil pouches.

Briquettes

Briquettes are the most common type of charcoal, and they are commonly available in most grocery and hardware stores. If you’re a novice, you’ll likely use briquettes. Briquettes are charcoal powder compressed into uniform-sized squares. They provide consistent heat due to their size and shape. They are a great choice for all types of charcoal grilling and low and slow BBQ.

Lump

Lump charcoal is made from whole pieces of wood that are ultra-heated to provide a clean burn. As a natural product, the sizes will be a little more inconsistent and can create hot spots. It does have the ability to burn a bit hotter than briquettes, so it works great for hot and fast grilling.

Charcoal chimney being lit with a lighter.

Tools for Lighting Charcoal

There are several affordable tools that I use to get my charcoal lit and ready to cook. Most are very affordable and handy to keep around.

Charcoal Chimney

A charcoal chimney is my first choice and top recommendation for lighting your charcoal. Most chimneys are simply a metal cylinder with airflow holes, a handle on the side, and a grate on the bottom to hold in the charcoal.

You fill the top of the chimney with your charcoal of choice and then ignite kindling under the chimney to get the coals heating from the bottom up. Using this method, your charcoal is typically ready to go in 10-15 minutes, or about the same amount of time it takes you to preheat your oven.

Kindling

Using the right kindling in conjunction with a chimney is the quickest way to a hot grill. I like to use “tumbleweeds” which are wax-coated wood shreds. I’m also a fan of fire starter cubes. Some brands are all wax-based fire starter cubes and others use a mix of wax and wood or cardboard pulp.

The benefit of both of these types of kindling is that they are designed to burn completely without leaving extra ash behind. When I’ve been in a pinch, I’ve also used balled-up newspaper in my chimney. It works great, but it leaves quite a bit of ash behind.

Propane or Electric Lighters

Electric grill lighters are generally a bit pricy, but they allow you to light up your charcoal without the use of a chimney. The downside is that you can’t light them and then do other prep while your charcoal ignites. You’ve got to stand by and hold the lighter until your charcoal really catches.

Charcoal being poured into a grill.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill

Once you have your charcoal selected and you have the right tools, you’re ready to light that charcoal! Here’s how to start a charcoal grill.

  1. Ignite your fire starter. Dump your desired charcoal into a charcoal chimney. Place crumpled-up newspaper, tumbleweed, or wax cube under the chimney and light.
  2. Let the charcoal catch. The fire starter will slowly ignite the charcoal from the bottom of the chimney to the top. This process takes about 15 minutes. You’ll see the smoke go from thick, white, and heavy to thin and blue as the charcoal catches. Your coals are ready to dump into your grill when they are ashed over and gray.
  3. Dump the charcoal. Use a heat-safe glove to grab the handle of your chimney and pour your charcoal from the chimney into the charcoal grate of your grill. You can arrange the coals evenly across the bottom for high-heat searing or arrange them on one half of the grill to use two-zone cooking.
  4. Replace the cooking grate. Set your cooking grate into position above the coals, close the lid, and allow your grill to come up to your target temperature.
  5. Control temperature. Use the lower vents and the top vents of the lid to drop the temperature of the grill down or drive it higher. More airflow equals more heat, so open vents mean higher temperatures and more closed vents mean lower temperatures it usually takes 5-10 minutes to get your grill to your desired temperature.
  6. Shut down your grill. When you’re finished cooking, it’s important to cut off all airflow to the grill. Close the lid and all vents and let the fire naturally extinguish. It can take up to 12 hours for hot coals to fully extinguish and cool. Never transfer hot coals to your trash or move a grill with hot coals into your garage. Transfer your coals to a metal ash bucket with a tight-fitting lid once cool and wait at least 24 hours before disposing.

Charcoal in a grill with fire underneath.

Knowing Your Charcoal Is Ready

One mistake many novice grillers make with charcoal is dumping the charcoal out of their chimney too soon or trying to cook on it before it’s ready. Both of these mistakes can lead to uneven cooking temperature, fires going out, and acrid, bitter, and over-smoked food. This can all be avoided by letting your charcoal have enough time to ignite. Plan at least 10-15 minutes to preheat your charcoal, but look for visual cues to know it’s ready.

Here’s how to know your charcoal is ready.

  1. Ashed over charcoal. When your charcoal is ready, you’ll see the hot red glow of the fire underneath the top layer and a majority of the top layer will be covered in gray ash. You won’t see too many black briquettes in the chimney when it’s ready to dump out into your grill.
  2. Thin smoke. In the early stages of ignition, your charcoal will release a lot of thick smoke, ranging from gray to white. It will continue to billow until your charcoal has become ignited. Once that thick smoke subsides and you’re seeing thin, light blue, and clean-smelling smoke, it’s likely ready to dump.

Charcoal on the grill grates.

Starting a Charcoal Grill

Now that you know how to start a charcoal grill, you’re ready to make some delicious BBQ! Browse around Hey Grill Hey and check out over 600 recipe posts, many of which are cooked over a charcoal grill!

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