Lighting A Charcoal Fire Guide

Charcoal Grill Tips
Grilling Tips

Lighting A Charcoal Grill Tips and Fire Guide

Everyone knows how to light a charcoal fire, right?  Well, maybe, maybe not.  For charcoal lighter options, there may be more than you ever expected.  Depending on your grill, the item you’re cooking, the method of cooking you are using, and your own personal taste preferences, when it comes to actually lighting the fire, you have plenty of choices.


Lighter fluid

The most common charcoal lighter used.  Available everywhere charcoal is sold, lighter fluid requires you to douse down your charcoal before setting it on fire with a match or lighter.  Instant light charcoal may be a little more convenient, but is nothing more than charcoal with the lighter fluid already infused, which means it’s not the best charcoal for grilling.  It has most of the same disadvantages as lighting charcoal with lighter fluid.

Advantages

  • Readily available
  • Gives the instant gratification of seeing your charcoal ablaze, even if you do have to wait to cook on it

Disadvantages

  • Petroleum base gives off a strong odor and can affect the taste of your food
  • Is very flammable, and therefore dangerous if used incorrectly
  • Is very toxic
  • Is not environmentally friendly due to the hydrocarbons released
  • Doesn’t always get the fire started evenly and reliably
  • Can be difficult to get a good start in adverse conditions like wind, cold and rain
  • Should not be used in a kamado ceramic style cooker like the Big Green Egg, because the ceramic can absorb and retain the chemicals and odor

Charcoal chimney

Charcoal ChimneyThe starter of choice for many people concerned about the disadvantages of a petroleum-based charcoal lighter.  A charcoal chimney is a metal cylinder with a handle.  You fill it up with charcoal, stuff some newspaper in the bottom and light the newspaper. You wait for the charcoal to ash over, and then pour it out in your grill.

Advantages

  • No chemicals on your charcoal
  • One time purchase and no additional future cost
  • Available at most home stores
  • Lights charcoal evenly

Disadvantages

  • You can only light as much charcoal as the chimney holds, which can make it a pain to build a large fire
  • Sometimes takes several attempts and sheets of newspaper to get charcoal started
  • Newspaper ashes can make a mess
  • Need to have a safe place to put a VERY hot charcoal chimney both during the lighting process and for some time after you pour the charcoal.

Electric charcoal starter

Grill Dome Rapid-Lite 600-Watt Electric Charcoal LighterLights your charcoal without chemicals on the charcoal.  This consists of a heating element attached to a handle which plugs into an electrical socket.  The starter is plugged in and the heating element is placed under the charcoal until it lights.

Advantages

  • No chemicals on your charcoal
  • One time purchase and no additional future cost

Disadvantages

  • Can take a long time to light the charcoal, and doesn’t touch all the charcoal.  You have to wait for the lit charcoal to ignite the rest of the coals.
  • Your grill needs to be near an electrical outlet, but in a place where the cord won’t accidentally be tripped over
  • Heating element stays extremely hot long after you remove it from the coals and can easily burn something or someone. Arrangements need to be made to put it someplace where kids can’t come across it or where you might accidentally touch it.

Fire Cubes

Fire CubesA new charcoal lighter product that allows you to quickly light a reliable fire without any fumes or chemical taste added to your food. They are odorless, non-toxic fuel cubes that light easily, even when wet. Fire cubes are fast lighting, environmentally safe and smokeless. Can also be used in any well-ventilated indoor or outdoor wood-burning fireplace.

Advantages

  • No fumes
  • Can start large piles of charcoal
  • Very small to take on a camping trip or a picnic
  • Non-toxic
  • Nothing hot to move or dispose of to start the fire

Disadvantages

  • Some grills don’t make placing the tub under the grate easy, making it a little tricky to build the fire around the tub
  • Can be difficult to find (available online)

Conclusion:

Lighter fluid is certainly the most readily available method of starting a fire, but has too many disadvantages.  If you are willing to work with your fire a little bit and take precaution, a chimney starter is a pretty good option.  If you can afford to buy a charcoal starter on a regular basis and want a no hassle start, ordering fire cubes may be the best choice.


What Kind of Charcoal Do You Need?

Believe it or not, there are several different varieties of charcoal for backyard grilling.  Your local supermarket may only carry one or two of the most common kinds, but the other varieties of charcoal may be found at specialty stores, farmer’s markets or online retailers.  Which is right for you?  The answer has a lot to do with your grill, your meal and your personal tastes.

Charcoal briquettes

By far the most common variety of charcoal, and are available in most grocery stores.  The Kingsford brand briquettes are the one we are probably most familiar with, but all briquettes are manufactured and molded into identical and consistently shaped “cubes”. To attain and hold the consistent form, the charcoal base is mixed with other ingredients, such as limestone, sodium nitrate, sawdust and starch as a binder.

Advantages:

  • Because of the consistent form and strict manufacturing process, briquettes give off a predictable, consistent amount of heat.
  • The identical pieces also make it fairly easy to get accustomed to exactly how much to use for a particular fire.
  • Charcoal briquettes burn as a slightly lower temperature and burn for a longer amount of time
  • Charcoal briquettes are available everywhere

Disadvantages:

  • Many connoisseurs of barbecue insist that all the additives in briquettes give your food a less-than ideal flavor
  • Because briquettes are designed to burn for a long time at a consistent temperature, it can be very difficult to regulate the temperature.  If your recipe calls for cooking for two hours at 225 degrees, and one hour at 300 degrees for example, that can be difficult with briquettes.
  • Charcoal briquettes leave a lot of ash, which can be a problem if you are slow-cooking food over a long period.  The ash builds up under the charcoal grates and can restrict the air flow necessary to manage your fire properly.
  • Charcoal briquettes are prohibited by manufacturers’ instructions for kamado cermamic smokers like the Big Green Egg.

Lump charcoal

This charcoal may or may not be available in your local stores, but differs visually from briquettes.  Unlike uniform briquettes, lump charcoal looks like black chunks of wood, in all different sizes and shapes.  This is because that’s exactly what it is.  Lump charcoal burns hotter and faster than charcoal briquettes. Lump charcoal is also the preferred charcoal for kamado grills.

Advantages:

  • 100% charcoal, with no additives that could potentially affect flavor
  • Much easier to control temperature by adjusting your air vents
  • Less ash, which is better for long cooking times and for cleanup
  • specified for use in all kamado ceramic cookers like the Big Green Egg.

 Disadvantages:

  • Can be difficult to find
  • Burns faster, meaning you are more likely to need to add more charcoal over longer cooking times

Conclusion:

Despite the fact that many people insist that lump charcoal is the only appropriate way to grill or barbecue, both have their place.  Especially if you are grilling, charcoal briquettes are more than appropriate to give the reliable, even heat you need to grill hot dogs, hamburgers, pork chops, steaks or whatever.  Most people don’t discern any negative affect on taste, especially since those items are grilled with the lid open.

If you are going to be slow cooking, smoking, or indirect grilling with the lid closed, you may well want to experiment with lump charcoal.  You will better be able to control the temperature as needed, end up with less ash buildup, and won’t run the risk of anything but pure charcoal influencing the taste of your food.

Of course, if you have a kamado ceramic grill and smoker, always use lump charcoal as specified by the manufacturer.

Read more on lump charcoal.

Tips for Building a Charcoal Fire

When building a charcoal fire, no matter what charcoal lighting product you use, be sure to read and follow the manufacturer’s directions.  Also be sure to check the instructions for your grill to see if a particular charcoal or lighting product is specified.  The Big Green Egg and other kamado style ceramic grills and smokers for example call for only lump charcoal started without petroleum based lighter fluid.

  1. If you do start your fire with a lighter fluid when building a charcoal fire, be sure to follow these steps:
  2. Stack your charcoal into a pyramid on your charcoal grate
  3. Try to douse all charcoal pieces with lighter fluid, but don’t flood them
  4. Wait about one minute for fluid to soak in before lighting
  5. Never add fluid to a partially lit fire.  If the fire is only partially or unevenly burning, try fanning the charcoal to spread the fire
  6. Never start grilling until the coals are ashed over and gray, to be sure the chemical fluid has burned off and the smoke won’t affect your food as severely
  7. To determine how much charcoal to use, spread charcoal one layer deep along the bottom of the charcoal grate or pan.  You should have charcoal covering enough space to be below and extend slightly beyond the surface area the food will cover on the grill.  Then pile up the charcoal or load it into your charcoal chimney to light it.
  8. Before grilling, use a long pair of tongs to spread the burning charcoal out in a single layer
  9. Charcoal is ready to begin grilling when pieces are ashed over gray or nearly so.
  10. When direct grilling, it can sometimes be helpful to set up zones.  Pile charcoal two layers high for a hot zone, and a single layer for a medium zone.  Food can be seared on the hot zone and finished on the medium zone to avoid burning.
  11. Extinguish your charcoal after cooking by closing the air vents in the top and bottom of your grill to suffocate the fire
  12. Let charcoal sit 48 hours before disposing it with garbage, to be sure it is 100% out.  If you grill frequently, leave the ashes until before the next cookout.
  13. If you need to replenish charcoal during cooking, you may want to start them in another location before adding them to your fire.  Briquettes especially can give off a smoke as the binders burn off, and that is not necessarily pleasant for your food.  Many people keep a mini portable style grill to light and let briquettes ash over before adding them to their grill.  A side fire box or a charcoal chimney can do the trick as well.
  14. Before cooking, allow your meat to come to room temperature before putting it on the grill.  Be sure to leave it out for no more than one hour, when bacteria growth could become a risk