How to Light a Charcoal Grill For Beginners

If you have never started a charcoal grill, this can seem like a bit of a trick. In the following article we will cover the three easiest ways to accomplish this task.

Whether you are looking to cook tasty cuts of meat to perfection or grill vegetables, the charcoal grill represents one of the healthiest ways of cooking. Grilling outdoors is a fun and delicious tradition that makes summers magical. Knowing how to accomplish this task is an art and science that predates history. If you have never done this before, have no fear. You have the blood of early hominid ancestors in your veins and this will come naturally to you once you understand a few important pointers.

The good news is that this is not an especially difficult thing to accomplish. Not with the considerable technology and domination of fire that we possess nowadays in any case. Once you have completed this task a couple times, you will be a step closer to perfecting grilled cuisine — best of all you may get the chance to hold the place of utmost honor at the next cookout, Grand Grill Master.

charcoal grill

A Few Tips Before You Get Started

If you are not actually familiar with this task, you may find it a little daunting, so let’s begin with a few things you should keep in mind. First of all, charcoal is a little more rudimentary than gas and electric grills. But this only means you will have greater control over what is happening in your grill and a lot more fun in the process.

So, let’s begin.

  1. Set up in an open space

You will be creating a fire. If you are not familiar with this element you should know it gets very hot very fast and tends to pass these characteristics to the surrounding area until the entire countryside is ablaze. Avoid this by controlling the flames. Set you fire up away from trees, fences and anything that could accidently get set on fire.

Exercise improves control by keeping a source of water close at hand. This could be a large bucket or fire extinguisher. Also, keep small children and pets away from the flames. Keep yourself from burning accidents by using a set of long tongs with insulated handles for interfacing with the foodstuffs being cooked over the coals.

  1. Buy good-quality charcoal

Quality charcoal will provide better heat, improved flavour and an overall enjoyable experience. You can find coppiced wood available from the forestry commission. This wood ignites easily, produces an even heat, will not pass undesirable flavours to the food — charcoal with pre-applied accelerants is a bad choice as they can make your food taste like lighter fluid. Never cook with woods like pine or cedar which can release resins and oils into the food that can be poisonous if consumed in large amounts.

Rookies dump all the charcoal into the pit and hope for the best from there. But they are missing the best part of the task. What a thrill to begin practicing your own charcoal construction designs and seeing which ones set fire the best and can pass this fire to the rest of the charcoal as it is added. You can experiment with different arrangements. Some will work better with a chimney type grill and others will work better with lighter fuel as an accelerant.

  1. Direct or Indirect Heat

The way that you arrange the coals will provide you different heat zones and improved control over your cooking.

Direct heat

If you think of your grill as a stove top, lighting an even layer of coals across the grill is like cooking everything at high heat. This is not a bad idea depending on what you will be cooking. For example, if you will be cooking hotdogs, thin meats and grilling veggies, this could work just fine. But if you will be cooking anything with a multidimensional form, you will end up with scorched food cooked to death and there will be no rejoicing in your cooking skills.

Indirect heat

Now if you are looking to master the grill, you will need to master the capacity of providing a proper amount of heat suitable to the foods being cooked. This begins with pushing all the coals to one side of the grill. Hot coals on one side will give you a lovely gradient of temperatures where some food is searing and locking in those delicious flavors, the mid-range where the meats can roast to perfection and finally the end zone where food is kept warm before being lovingly served to your guests.

This method will allow you to cook for a larger crowd of guests. You can keep things warm and outsource the task of serving food while you focus on the cook making its way from the full heat to the mid-range before being served.

  1. Learn to recognise when your coals are ready

It takes some finesse to get a feel for when those coals are ready for the foods to be added. Add the food too soon and it will burn, too late and the food will not cook properly and be equally undesirable. But here is a simple colour-coded reference guide to gauging the heat of your coals.

Black or grey with flames — not going to be ready for bit, probably have time for another beer and chat while the fire does its work.

Glowing white hot with red centres (blow gently to check) — Ready for direct heat cooking.

Ashy white but still very hot — Ready for indirect heat cooking

light a bbq
  1. Use a thermometer

Of course, another good way to gauge the heat of the coals is with a standard kitchen thermometer. We recommend Thermopens. They have a small temperature probe that can be neatly tucked away when not in use.


It goes without saying — but we are saying it anyway — make sure your grill is set up on a stable flat surface where it is not likely to be interrupted.

How to Light a Charcoal Grill with Lighter Fluid

Lighter fluids I one of the most effective ways of starting the fire, although a true master of flame has no need for these accelerants. As a matter of fact, anyone with a sense of style would never think of using lighter fluid. In addition to being especially dangerous as a fire hazard, lighter fluid creates an uneven flame and many people will use way more than necessary.

But because it nis certainly the easiest way to turn those lifeless black chunks of coal into something red hot, we will include directions for using lighter fluid right here.

Step 1: Arrange the charcoal

While you will be able to experiment with a wide range of fascinating constructions, for using lighter fluid, the pyramid can’t be beat. Simple begin with a large base and then keep stacking progressively smaller layers until you have reached an apex.

Step 2: Pour lighter fluid over coals

Add lighter fluid according to the directions you see on the package. Typically, this involves pouring the lighter fluid over the pyramid.

Step 3: Wait half a minute

Allow a full half minute to pass as the charcoal absorbs the lighter fluid. You can then safely strike a match without causing your eyebrows to go up in smoke.

Step 4: Light charcoal

Using a grill lighter, match or some other source of flame, ignite the bottom of the pyramid. Do not — REPEAT “DO NOT” — add more lighter fluid to a lit fire as the consequences can bring grief to your family.

Step 5: When coals turn white return the grate

Now the coals will begin to slowly burn. Once they have reached an ashy white, they are ready for cooking service. Spread them out however you wish, or gather them to one side and you are set to begin grilling.

How to Use a Charcoal Chimney Starter

The other way to start the fire involves using the Chimney Starter method. Begin by filling the chimney starter all the way to the top, or with as much charcoal as you think you will need for cooking the food you would like.

Set the lighter cubes on the grate and set them on fire.

Now set the chimney on top of the burning lighter cubes. These will begin to burn upwards and in a few minutes the charcoal will be burning. You will know the charcoal is ready for action once the coals at the top have turned an ashy white.

Now you can remove the coals from the charcoal grate and arrange them into the base of the grill however you think is best. The charcoal is ready!

How to Start a Charcoal Grill with an Electric Starter

Make a small pile of charcoal in the centre of your grill. Now place the electric starter flat on top of a layer of charcoal in the centre. Now begin laying more charcoal across the lighter until it is completely covered.

Plug in your lighter to a power outlet to an extension cord if you think that will be necessary. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Typically, you will need to keep this power plugged in for about 8 to 15 minutes. Once you see the heating iron glowing red hot, you can be sure the coals will soon follow suit. When a few coals are already heated and glowing, you can kill the power and then remove the heating element from the fire. Be very careful, that iron is hot enough to melt skin and flesh. Place it somewhere safe and out of reach of children, pets, and anything that could conceivably ignite. It is an electrical component so killing the heat in a bucket of water is not a good idea.

Mistakes to Avoid When Lighting your BBQ

Using Briquettes

Yes, those fancy little briquettes seem to light so well and stack nicely too. But there are so many components in those briquettes that you never know what you are placing on your food. Choosing to use real hardwood charcoal will always work out the best for you. Not only does real charcoal burn hotter and more evenly, it tastes better in the food and contains no nasty chemicals.

Too Much Lighter Fluid

Using excess lighter fluid is the biggest problem with using lighter fluid at all. Any chemical that you will muse on your charcoal will eventually find its way into your food. So, if you would not pour lighter fluid into your food, why would you even consider placing this chemical into your fire. This completely ruins the point of using a hardwood option.

You’re scared to get too close to the grill

It may sound ridiculous, but it is important that you get comfortable around fire. People who are not comfortable around the fire will try to do everything from a distance, they will throw the food onto the grill instead of carefully laying it out on the spot with the ideal temperatures.

Of course, it is perfectly understandable that some people will be a bit apprehensive about cooking. No one likes to inhale such large quantities of smoke into their lungs. But some of the vital details of outdoor grilling simply can’t be accomplished from a distance. As you practice grilling more and more often, you will get used to working around fires and your confidence will increase. But make sure you are using the right mitts, tools and grilling gear, this will protect you from the various hazards of grilling on an open fire.

Dump the Coals Wherever

Before you attempt to place your charcoal onto the heated grill, use an oven mitt or a kitchen towel that can withstand extremely high temperatures. Now, if you are making a two-zone fire, pil al of the coals into one side as you pour, you will find that this is a lot harder to do if you wait till they are glowing red hot.

You don’t clean the grill.

You didn’t clean the grill, it is tough work to light the fire, run the grill and serve all the guests, but the task is not over until the grill has been properly cleaned. All the excess ash, grease and bits of carbonized food will begin to gum up the works and can affect the even flow of air to the charcoal making your tasks harder in the future. Make sure you take the time to clean the grill thoroughly after each use. Consider this part of preserving your investment and making your next job a little bit easier. You may not be grilling again for a couple of weeks or months, but by the time you get back to grilling, you will be glad you properly cleaned out the grill.

You don’t place the charcoal evenly on the grill

After you have lit the coals and are getting ready for the grilling process, it is important to scatter the charcoal evenly over the grill. If the bits of charcoal are not evenly laid out across the grill you will end up with uneven cooking. This means that your food will not be cooked with precise timing, some of your steaks and burgers will be completely cooked well past the “well done” point while others will just be warming up.