An Absolute Newbie’s Guide to Lighting a Charcoal Grill

(Image Credit: J.R. PHOTOGRAPHY/Stocksy)

Charcoal grills, in a literal trial-by-fire, can teach you everything you need to learn about cooking over a fire. The first step? Lighting the charcoal. Here, I’ll walk you through two ways to light charcoal for your grill, and how to extinguish the fire safely after all the cooking is said and done.

What Kind of Charcoal Is Best For Grilling?

Charcoal is wood that has been slowly burned in a low oxygen environment. In the supermarket, you generally find it in two forms: briquette and natural lump charcoal. Lump charcoal is often touted as the best choice, because it creates less ash than briquette. But briquette are easier to measure and to light — and contrary to sources that say they are full of fillers, most briquette are just lump charcoal bound with cornstarch. The best charcoal for grilling is whatever is readily available to you — even BBQ champions just buy whatever is on sale.

(Image Credit: Flickr user Michael Dietsch under the Creative Commons license)

How to Use a Chimney Starter to Light Your Charcoal Grill

A chimney starter is an excellent tool for lighting charcoal faster. Chimney starters cost about $20 and hold up to 3 quarts of charcoal — enough to cook a beer can chicken or several rounds of burgers and dogs. Here’s how to light it:

  1. Pour 1 teaspoon of oil onto 2 sheets of newspaper and crumple into a compact but not tight ball. (The oil helps the paper burn longer). Tuck this into the bottom of the chimney.
  2. Set the chimney on top of the lower grill grate and fill to the brim with charcoal. It is good to have a small mound that sticks up out the chimney.
  3. Light the paper using a stick lighter or a long match. Light three sides of the paper for even burning.
  4. Let the charcoal catch fire and get ashy before carefully emptying the charcoal onto the lower grate. It can take 30 to 40 minutes for the charcoal to be fully lit and hot.

How Can I Light Charcoal Without a Chimney Starter?

Remember when your parents would just set an entire bag of briquettes on fire at the lake campground? Well, that’s about as minimal as charcoal lighting gets. You’ll just need some paper, a little fuel, and the charcoal.

  1. Pour 1 teaspoon of oil onto 2 sheets of newspaper and crumple into a compact but not tight ball. (The oil helps the paper burn longer). Set in the center of the lower grill grate.
  2. Mound about 2 quarts of charcoal on top of the paper. Don’t pack the mound too tightly or you won’t be able to light the paper.
  3. Light the paper using a stick lighter or a long match. Light three sides of the paper for even burning.
  4. Let the charcoal catch fire and get ashy — this can take 20 to 30 minutes, after which you can add more charcoal to build a bigger stronger fire.
(Image Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn; Food & Prop Stylist: Emily Ezekiel/Kitchn)

Safely Extinguishing a Charcoal Fire

Charcoal stays hot and can hide embers strong enough to start a fire for up to 24 hours after cooking, so it is really important to carefully close out a fire. When you’re done cooking, close all the vents — lower and upper — on the grill. Then spray the charcoal with water and use long tongs to stir and extinguish the fire. Cover the grill tightly with the lid and let it cool for several hours before moving or storing.

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