I had one of those rare “free” nights last week where everybody had other plans for the evening and I had the house to myself. I decided to pick up a couple bottles of my favorite beer and a thick Rib-eye steak on my way home from work and throw it on the grill.
Smile on my face and the plan set in motion, steak seasoned and beer in hand, I headed outside to light the charcoal lump I had arranged in my grill. This is when it all came to a screeching halt. I had forgotten to pick up more easy to use fire starters that I usually have on hand for lighting the charcoal.
As I stood staring down at the unlit charcoal at the bottom of my grill, several names along the lines of ‘big dummy” came to mind. That’s the clean version :). Luckily I know several different charcoal lighting techniques and have backups on hand or I would have been a sad puppy that night.
Since that day I kept thinking to myself, “I know I am not the only one who has done this before, I need to share what I know”. Sometimes real life lessons are the best learning tools.
Ok, enough about me and my “DOH” moment. Let’s get right to the different charcoal lighting techniques, and those I would never recommend!
Let me start by explaining that there the two types of charcoal. They are either lump charcoal (pieces of hardwood, with no additives, that have been charred into uneven lumps of charcoal) or charcoal briquettes (briquettes are manufactured wood by-products compressed into uniform shapes with additives that help them light and burn consistently). Either one is a good option.
Charcoal Lighting Techniques
Chimney starters are basically a hollow metal cylinder open on both ends and a grate on the inside towards the bottom. There are built in handles for picking the chimney up and pouring the charcoal out safely.
You start by rolling up several pages of newspaper and stuffing them in the open bottom under the grate. You could alternatively use cube fire starters or the like instead of a newspaper but the latter is the cheaper choice. Next, you add the charcoal to the open top.
Now place the chimney directly on the bottom charcoal grate in your grill and light the newspaper. The flames from the paper will suck in oxygen and cause the hot air and flames to rise through the coals which will light them rapidly. The top of the chimney will become extremely hot so be careful.
They will put out a lot of smoke at first, similar to a chimney but once the fire is going, the smoke will die down. In about 15 minutes, the coals will be white hot and ready to transfer directly to your grill.
The only downside is that when the newspaper burns, it will create ash and on windy days can blow out of the grill. You need to pay attention so that any nearby bushes or low hanging trees don’t catch a spark. (Quick tip: drizzle a little vegetable oil on the newspaper. They will burn slower, last longer and not create any ash.)
A typical chimney starter can hold up to 80 briquettes. After a little practice, you will figure out how many briquettes you need for your desired temp. My suggestion for a chimney starter would be a Weber brand chimney starter. They are reasonably priced at $14.99 and built to last.
Overall, chimney starters are extremely easy to use and convenient. I would highly recommend owning one.
There are several types of fire starters on the market that you could choose from. They are usually in cube or pyramid shape (although I have seen round, pencil, and other shapes), and light quickly and easily. They usually come in a box of 12 or 24 and if used properly, one per cookout is all you’ll need.
You start by stacking the desired amount of charcoal in a pyramid shape in the center of the grill grate. The pyramid shape will allow for the maximum amount of air flow and cause less smoke.
Light the fire starter (you can use one or two cubes) and when there are no more flames and your coals are a nice white hot color with a little ash on them, they are ready.
Using long-handled tongs and a heat resistant glove, spread the coals out evenly on the grate and put on the top grilling grate.
I usually just buy what is on sale as long as they are smokeless, odorless, made for grilling and environmentally safe. The packaging should have that information. Once again though I most often end up using the Weber brand Lighter Cubes for around $3.98.
The Looftlighter is a Swedish invention that lights your charcoal with super-heated air. They are electric fire starters so you will need a power source near to hand when using them. While the Looftlighter is the most well know and popular version of the electric hot air lighter, there are several knockoffs out there as well.
Again you start by stacking the desired amount of charcoal in a pyramid shape in the center of the grill grate. Touch the pyramid with the tip of the Looftlighter. When you start to see sparks appear, pull it backward a few inches and continue to aim at the same spot for 60 seconds or so. After about 15 minutes your charcoal will be ready to use.
This is another great product all but a more expensive option. The Looftlighter goes for around $64 on amazon but I have seen similar products ranging from around $35 to over $100 as well.
The only con to this option is if; you do not have a power source nearby your grill, you are mobile or it is wet outside (yes, some of us are crazy enough to grill in light rain or snow).
Electric Charcoal Starters:
Not to be confused with the Looftlighter type fire starters, Electric charcoal fire starters have a looped type heating element on one end and a plastic handle on the other. You place the starter in a mound of charcoal and plug it in.
After about 8 to 10 minutes (it is not recommended to leave them in the charcoal pile any longer due to overheating and explosions according to the manufactures warnings), you pull the lighter out. 10 or so minutes later, the coals should be ready for cooking.
This product also works well but has a few drawbacks. It is a little more frustrating to try and stack the charcoal so the heating wires are covered. Pulling the starter out makes the charcoal tumble and you will have to rearrange them again with your tongs. These are electric so the same power source issues with the Looftlighter apply.
Price ranges for these are anywhere from $15.50 to $35.
If you really want to go full blown Tim the Tool Man Taylor and get “More Power”, then a propane charcoal torch is for you. Propane burns cleanly with no odor or taste.
Build your pyramid of briquettes, start your propane torch and point the flame to the middle center of the pile. Hold the flame steady until you see the inside center of your pyramid turn white. Your coals will be ready in 15 to 20 minutes.
Handheld propane torches run around $15 to $20 and the gas cylinders cost about $4. Each cylinder will give you around 10 to 20 lights.
Take a wad of 3 or 4 newspapers or paper napkins and put them on your charcoal grate. Drizzle cooking oil on the paper (optional). Now build your charcoal pyramid on top of them. Light the newspaper and wait for it to burn off. This method might take a little longer as the paper usually burns out quickly. You may have to add additional paper. When ready, spread the coals out evenly and grill.
Again be aware that sometimes glowing newspaper ash can blow out of the grill.
Now To The Two Methods I Would Not Recommend (But Work Just As Well)
Probably the most commonly used method for the novice griller. Lighter fluid is not only dangerous but can add a bad chemical taste to your food.
Start with the charcoal pyramid, liberally coat each piece with fluid. Allow up to 3 minutes for the fluid to soak in. If you light it right away and the fumes have not all escaped, you can create a big flash that can be dangerous. Another reason to wait is if you do not let the fluid soak in, once you burn the fluid off the top of the briquette the fire will most likely go out.
Make sure to let your briquettes burn until a white hot and ashy state before adding food. This will help burn off most of the lighter fluid chemicals.
Never add lighter fluid once the coals are already lit. This can cause a flame up and serious injury. Always use a long-handled lighter or drop a lit match onto the coals. Do not use a cigarette lighter unless you want to risk your sleeve catching on fire. Lighter fluid costs about $4.
Easy Lighting Charcoal:
Another favorite of the novice griller is the matchlight style briquettes. They are very easy to use and could be lit quickly with a simple match.
These have been soaked in mineral spirits until they are saturated all the way to the center. This means that the chemicals are in the smoke all the way to the end and will not burn off like lighter fluid. This is the smoke that your food is cooking in.
As with the other pyramid style lighting methods, once the flames have died down and the coals are a white hot color and ashy, they are ready to be spread and used.
I will not hide the fact that I am generally against using this type of charcoal, but even I have used it in a pinch. If you still think this is a good option for you, just open the bag and take a good whiff. If that doesn’t change your mind, nothing will. A medium bag of easy light charcoal goes for about $7.
No matter the lighting method you use, remember that the key to lighting charcoal successfully is airflow. The better the airflow the quicker and hotter your flames will be. Never close your grill lid after the lighting process as you will extinguish the fire and have to start over.
That is all I have for today. If anybody else has a favorite method I missed, or a fun and creative option they would like to share, please do so in the comments.
I hope this information was helpful to you and you are one step closer to joining me in “The Grilling Life”!