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How to Start a Charcoal Grill, Burning Charcoal

Burning Charcoal

Grilling with charcoal is a great way to treat yourself and the ones you care about to a flavorful and appetizing meal while demonstrating your prowess with the fine art of grilling at the same time. Unlike gas-powered grills where you just turn a knob and all the work is done for you, it takes a certain amount of finesse and skill to properly start a charcoal grill and maintain the temperature the coals produce afterward. How to start a charcoal grill questions pop up often so let’s get down to business.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill, Dry Charcoal

Dry Charcoal

How To Start A Charcoal Grill

While there are many methods you can use to get your grill going, today I am going to focus on two. One relies on a charcoal chimney starter and the other makes the coals blazing hot with the help of lighter fluid. When used correctly, both methods should produce a hotbed of coals with which you can then work your culinary magic. Here’s how to use both the chimney starter and the lighter fluid methods quickly and effectively.


Before anything else, you need to set things straight, both inside the grill and inside your mind.

You should always set up a new batch of charcoal inside a clean grill. This means that you’ll have to inspect and clean the grate, not to mention get rid of any leftover ash from last time. Not only will this make the coals spread the heat within faster, it will also prevent bad tastes from seeping into your food. Additionally, check that the vents at the grill’s bottom are open and free from obstruction to give the coals more air. The type of charcoal you use is also important; hardwood charcoal is best if you want a chemical-free and smoky taste.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill, Hardwood Charcoal

Hardwood Charcoal

Once the grill is squeaky clean, take a moment to consider the logistics of your next grilled meal. This means taking stock of what kind of food you’re going to cook and for how long, what temperature you’re planning to cook said food at, and the amount of coal needed to satisfy all of these requirements. Spending a few minutes on sizing up the situation might save you from a trip to the store mid grill, or from needlessly overcooked food.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill, Charcoal Chimney Starter In Action

Charcoal Chimney Starter In Action

Using A Chimney Starter To Light The Coals

Chimney starters are an easy-to-use and simple device that will light your coals up quickly and without much fuss and with no harmful chemicals whatsoever. The basic concept works like this. There is a hollow metal cylinder open on both ends and a grate on the inside towards the bottom. This is to prevent the coals from falling out while still allowing the air to flow. There are built in handles for picking the chimney up and pouring the charcoal out safely.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill, Basic Charcoal Chimney Set Up

Basic Charcoal Chimney Set Up

Start by filling the chimney with the correct amount of coals. This is where the part about planning ahead comes into play—will you need one chimney’s worth or two? The answer depends on the amount of food that is to be grilled. A general guideline you can follow is that about 100 charcoal briquettes fit into your standard starter, but you shouldn’t fill it to the brim anyway so the coals are easier to handle.

The Next Steps…

Now, you should insert some paper into the slot below the charcoal and light it. Any old newspaper will do; just make sure to check on the coals through holes in the cylinder to see if they’ve started to burn. Once their edges become gray, you know that it’s working. If not, light more paper until the coals catch fire.

Grilling Life’s Hot Tip: If you don’t want to add as much paper, sprinkle some vegetable oil on the paper before lighting it as this will make it burn longer.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill, Char-Griller Charcoal Chimney Starter

Char-Griller Charcoal Chimney Starter

The coals should be good and ready in about 10 minutes’ time. A telltale sign of this is the orange glow you can observe through the cylinder’s holes—if it has climbed all the way up to their edges, then all of them have reached the appropriate temperature. All that’s left now is to spread them out evenly inside the grill and allow them to reach a white hot color, coated with an ash-gray layer.

Overall, chimney starters are extremely easy to use and convenient. I would highly recommend owning one.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill, My #1 Recommended, Weber 7416 Rapidfire Charcoal Chimney Starter

My #1 Recommended, Weber 7416 Rapidfire Charcoal Chimney Starter

Lighting The Coals Using Lighter Fluid

It might not be as innovative as using a chimney starter, but firing the coals up with lighter fluid is nevertheless a quick and dirty way to get the job done.

How To Start A Charcoal Grill, Charcoal Lighter Fluid

Charcoal Lighter Fluid

The way in which you lay the coals out inside the grill is very important for this method. Don’t scatter them about haphazardly; instead, make a rough pyramid shape out of them. This will ensure a more even distribution of heat. Only a few light squirts of the fluid should be applied to the pyramid’s top and edges, and the coals can then be set on fire with a match. From there, the coals should be treated more or less exactly as outlined above, and are ready to cook on once they become gray in color and coated with a light layer of ash.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill, Lighter Fluid Doing Its Thing

Lighter Fluid Doing Its Thing

It needs to be pointed out at this point that using lighter fluid might not be such a good idea. Its smell is unpleasant, to begin with, and once it sets inside the food you are grilling, it pretty much destroys the flavor, replacing it with its distinct chemical odor. Lighter fluid will do in a pinch, but try to avoid it if you have the time and a chimney starter at hand.

Last Steps

How to Start a Charcoal Grill, Ready To Use Coals

Ready To Use Coals

Now that the coals are suitable to cook with, place them inside the grill and evenly space them out. There are special tools that will help with this, but an ordinary spatula will do. I have a set of sturdy tongs set aside just for handling coals.  These tongs are separate from the ones I use to grill with and handle food. Depending on the recipe you’re following and the ingredients you’re using, you may want to arrange the coals to one side to cook using indirect heat. This is called the 2-zone cooking method. When this is done, you can replace the grate and start the cooking process.


As you can see, there are a few tricks to starting a charcoal grill, but all in all, it is a straightforward task you shouldn’t have any trouble getting it done perfectly if you stick to these instructions. The challenging part of a successfully grilled meal comes when it’s time to start paying attention to the coals’ temperature and the current state of the meat, but with some experience, even this will become a part of the grilling experience you can look forward to.

No matter the lighting method you choose, remember that the key to lighting charcoal successfully is airflow. The better the airflow the quicker and hotter your flames will be. This is where keeping your vents open and obstruction free comes into play. Never close your grill lid until your coals are white hot and ready for use as you will extinguish the fire and you will have to start over.

As always, if you or someone you know could benefit from this article on how to start a charcoal grill or you find this information useful, please consider sharing it with your grilling friends or on social media!

If you would like to leave a comment or have a charcoal lighting technique of your own to share, please do so below. We always welcome your input.