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How to Start a Charcoal Grill: Four Fool-proof Ways

By Luna Regina | Updated
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For first-timers, getting the fire going on a charcoal grill can be an intimidating challenge. But don’t worry, it is actually easier than it looks. With the proper tricks and techniques, you will get the hang of it in no time.

This guide will show you how to start a charcoal grill in the most effective, time-efficient way.

Charcoal Grill Starting

How to Start a Charcoal Grill: First Thing to Do

Charcoal grills don’t have all of the fancy and convenient fire-starters of modern electric or propane grills. They’re certainly less intuitive and most users have to rely on guides to learn how to use it correctly. But in return, the quality of the foods they provide is superb and well worth the extra effort.

Before you even start the grill, you will have to do some preparations.

How to Clean a Charcoal Grill

Cleaning the grill is especially important if you use an old grill that has been used previously. All of the grime and soot that collects on the grill can impede ignition if it isn’t cleaned off.

If you have a brand-new grill, cleaning before using isn’t very important. However, we still highly recommend you to do it. New grills just off the production lines typically have residues like paint chips or machining oil adhered to their parts. Those can be bad news if they seep into your food.

As for the cleaning process, start first from the outside of the grill.

Use a brush to wipe off all of the dirt or dust from the exterior. Begin from the top of the grill and work your way down to the legs.

Grill Cleaning Brush

Then, prepare a bucket of warm, soapy water. Soak up the soapy water with a sponge and use it to clean the inside of the grill and the grates.

Once the soap has been applied, you can use a garden hose to wash down the grill. Make sure all of the soap has been washed away before you put down the hose — you don’t want soap in your food either.

Charcoal Grill Washing

Give the grill some time in the sun for it to dry naturally. This should take around an hour or two.

Four Fool-proof Methods to Start Your Charcoal Grill

There are four methods that you can use to light your charcoal grill. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages, so choose the one that best fits your situation.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill with Lighter Fluid

Lighter fluid is a controversial thing in the grilling world. It is cheap, non-toxic, and convenient to use. Just drizzle some onto your charcoal and with the spark of a grill starter or match, the whole pile will catch fire.

Nonetheless, there is one issue that turns people off of lighter fluid. The liquid has a distinct, sharp smell when burnt. The smell can end up permeating the food even after it’s cooked. And since your senses of smell and taste are linked, this may result in a weird off-taste, too.

Lighter Fluid Grill Starting

But there’s no denying that it is very convenient to use. If you don’t mind the smell or taste that stems from lighter fluid, here is how to use it to start the grill.

Arrange the Coal

If you use briquettes, arrange them into a classic BBQ pyramid shape. The shape will allow lighter fluid to drip and spread evenly all across the fuel blocks.

Start by building a big foundation. As you build upward, taper off the shape by making each layer smaller.

Grill Pyramid Arrangement

For those who prefer hardwood lump charcoal, break it into smaller, more stackable chunks and arrange in the same layout.

Pour the Lighter Fluid

Pour lighter fluid over your fuel starting at the top of the pyramid. Control the flow of the fluid so that there’s enough to coat the entire pyramid with a thin, even layer. You want to avoid adding so much that lighter fluid drips and pools at the bottom of the grill.

Allow the Lighter Fluid to Soak In

Do not light the stack immediately. Instead, give the fluid some time to soak in. This should take around a minute.

Light

With either a grill lighter or a long match, light up the pile. Now that the fuel is loaded with lighter fluid, it should catch fire very easily.

Charcoal Lighter Fluid Fire

Wait Until It Turns White

Allow the fire to burn for a while. When the coal begins to turn white, it will be ready to use. Put the grates in place and begin cooking.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill With a Chimney

If the thought of using lighter fluid doesn’t sound appealing to you, an alternative to consider is using a charcoal chimney. Unlike lighter fluid, you won’t get the bad taste or smell associated with the chemical.

This method is a little bit more difficult and less convenient to light, but many people consider it worthwhile.

Charcoal Grill Chimney

Fill the Chimney

The cylindrical chimney will have a large compartment at the top. This is where you pour your selected form of charcoal into (either briquettes or lump hardwood).

The manufacturer will tell you in the user manual exactly how much fuel you should put into the chimney. In most cases, it’s safe to fill the chimney up to the brim.

Avoid filling it up to the point of overflowing.

Find a Fire Starter

A fire starter is anything flammable. You can use a ball of old newspaper, an old towel, a cloth, or maybe all those credit card advertisements you’ve been getting in the mail. As long as it can catch and hold a flame, it can be used as a fire starter.

However, we recommend using materials other than paper. Because it burns very quickly, a wad of paper may burn out before the charcoal can catch fire.

Your fire starter goes in the smaller space below the charcoal chamber.

Light the Fire Starter

Light up a long match and stick it through one of the many ventilation holes all around the fire-starting chamber. Ignite the fire starter within.

The fire starter will eventually burn away. When you see the coal in the larger compartment begin to turn hot and catch flame, you know you have succeeded.

Wait until the charcoal flame becomes intense, then proceed to the next step.

Charcoal Chimney Fire

Transfer the Burning Coal to the Grill

All charcoal chimneys will come with a handle made of a material that won’t get too hot. When the coal begins to burn, pick up the chimney using the handle and bring it over to the open grill.

Chimney Charcoal Transfer

Pour the flaming charcoal into the grill. Allow the charcoal to settle inside.

Place the grate over the burning charcoal. Now you’re ready to cook!

How to Start a Charcoal Grill Without Lighter Fluid or Chimney

If you have neither lighter fluid nor a charcoal chimney to get a fire started, there is one other method.

Cut out two large pieces of paper towels and twist them into rolls. Soak the rolls with vegetable oil. The oil will allow the paper towels to burn longer, giving time for the charcoal to catch fire.

Place the oil-soaked paper towels into the grill and arrange your charcoal around them. Light the paper towels.

It should take the surrounding charcoal a couple of minutes to catch fire and burn. Wait until the paper towels have burnt away entirely before placing the grates on to start cooking.

If the coal hasn’t caught flame by the time the paper towels burn themselves out, repeat the process. This time, try using larger cuts of paper towels.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill with an Electric Charcoal Starter

Electric charcoal starters are new additions to the market. Although they are pricier than normal charcoal chimneys, they are generally more convenient to use.

There are two types of electric charcoal starters.

The first is the electric chimney starter. This type has the same overall design as a normal charcoal chimney. What’s different about it is that instead of a fire-starting chamber it has an electric heating element. When plugged in, the heating element will light the charcoal.

The second type is simpler in design. Usually, it has a handle along with a metal loop at the other end.

Charcoal Grill Electric Starter

When you plug it in, the metal loop will heat up. Bury this loop in the pile of the charcoal and eventually the charcoal will ignite. It takes some time, but it’s a convenient method. You just have to plug it in and wait for the fire to spread.

How to Season the Grill

If you have a brand-new charcoal grill, it must be “broken in” before it reaches its full potential. In other words, you have to season them.

Seasoning will ensure that your brand-new grill doesn’t contain any substances that can affect the flame. Additionally, the seasoning process will eliminate harmful manufacturing residues like leftover paint.

The overall taste of foods made using the grill is also going to be enhanced by the seasoning. Fat from the grilled meat will eventually mingle with the seasoning oil when it drips down. When you cook with the grill later, the extra flavors will become imbued in your foods. This explains why older grills seem to create better, richer flavors in meats than new ones.

Last but not least, seasoning will extend the longevity of the grill. It protects the grill from rust and prevents food debris, fat, and other substances from staining the inside surface.

If this is the first time that you use a charcoal grill, seasoning is a great opportunity to practice your ignition skill. While seasoning, you will also have to fire up the grill. Despite what it seems, your charcoal or briquettes aren’t going to waste.

Read the User Manual

Every grill is different. Therefore, it is essential that you read the user manual that comes with your new grill. Inside, you can find information about what you should do and what you should not do with the grill. Even if you are a veteran charcoal grillmaster, you should still read the manual carefully.

All of the information in there will save you a lot of trouble in the future.

How to Season Your New Grill

In order to season the grill, you must have the correct type of seasoning oil. Use oils that have a high smoke point such as grapeseed oil or flaxseed oil. They are among the most popular types that people use to season their cookware.

Charcoal Grill Seasoning

Pour the oil onto the surfaces of the grill. If you get excess oil on the grates, use a cloth to wipe them off.

The next thing to do is start the fire and allow the oil to heat for around 30 minutes. After that time has elapsed, close off the grill’s air intakes to smother the fire. Give it time to cool naturally. Now you’re ready for the next barbecue!

Conclusion

Lighting a charcoal grill for the first time can be a rather intimidating experience. But as you can see, learning how to start a charcoal grill properly is not as hard as it looks.

Practice as frequently as you can and soon enough it will be like second nature.

Luna Regina

A writer and entrepreneur, Luna’s day doesn’t start at the computer keyboard, but in the kitchen. Half of her working hours are spent on mixing ingredients for her recipes. The other half involve working with the tech team to research and test the tools and appliances that promise to make kitchen work effortless and mess-free. From a kitchen knife or water filter to the Instant Pot, if it can help save time and effort for the home cook, Luna and her team are on it. Luna’s extracurricular pastimes include camping, travel, and photography.