The 4 Best Ways to Start a Charcoal Grill

Lighting a charcoal grill takes a little getting used to, but the work is definitely worth it. Once you’ve got it down, you open up a whole world of flavor and dinnertime delights. Charcoal gives that delectable smoky taste we think of when we hear “grilling,” so we’ll take a little extra effort to learn how to light a charcoal grill if it means we’ll get that scrumptious, mouthwatering result. Plus, you can show off your skills to all your friends and family.


In this article, we’ll go through the best ways to light charcoal so you can get to grilling in no time.  

Photo by Jinomono Media on Unsplash

Before You Light Your Charcoal Grill 

There are a few things to do that will make your life a whole lot easier before you learn how to start a grill. 

First, buy the right charcoal.

There are lots of different types of charcoal to choose from. Some burn cleaner and some burn smokier. Some have a woody flavor, while others are more neutral. More important than the scents or flavors, though, is that you select a high-quality charcoal, like Natural Rockwood charcoal. A low-quality charcoal will be hard to light, which will make your job a lot harder (and more frustrating). It can also impact the fire, temperature, and taste. 


There are two main types of charcoal: lump and briquettes.

  • Lump charcoal has a natural composition of simple hardwood like cherry, mesquite, maple, or oak. It’s not compressed, so it burns hotter, faster, and less ashy. Lump charcoal is best for low and slow smoking BBQ

  • Briquettes are made of sawdust and binding ingredients for a uniform shape that’s easier to layer and regulate. They burn less hot, so they’re a good option for direct heat and meats with faster cooking times like fish and burgers. 


Pro tip: Your grill’s manual will probably say which type of charcoal is recommended for your grill.

Second, clean your grill before use— even if it’s a new, never-before-used grill.

You don’t want any gunk or goo on your grill grates when grilling. “Grate grime” can worsen the flavor of your food with a burnt, old taste, and it can even cause fire flare-ups. So, make sure you thoroughly clean your grill before using. Before and after each cook, use a grill brush to get rid of grease and caked-on food. We also recommend deep scrubs of your grill once a season (at least) to keep it spick and span. Learn how to safely and successfully clean a charcoal grill here.  

Finally, get a Kick Ash Basket. 

We know we’re biased, but we’re not the only ones who love the Kick Ash Basket. Just put your charcoal in the Kick Ash Basket so it’s easy to light, and then shake out the ash after you’ve finished cooking for super easy cleanup. If you want to make grilling with charcoal way easier, you’ll definitely want a Kick Ash Basket in your grill kit. 


Don’t forget a pair of charcoal prep gloves, too (one is included with your Kick Ash Basket order!). They’ll keep your hands clean and safe while you’re loading fresh charcoal in your grill. (Note that these are not heat resistant, but we have heat resistant gloves with protection up to 932 degrees F for cooking and cleaning as well.)


Read: How Does Grilling Work?

4 Different Ways to Light a Charcoal Grill

1. How to light a charcoal grill with an electric starter

This is probably the safest and cleanest way to light charcoal, but it requires some equipment (aka an electric firestarter). Check out this ultimate guide to electric charcoal starters from Outdoor Mancave to find the right starter for you.


Here’s how to use an electric charcoal starter:


1. Arrange your charcoal in your Kick Ash Basket in a pyramid shape. 


2. Place the tip of the electric starter directly inside the middle of the coals. The starter will begin to heat up the coals. 


3. Once the coals begin to spark, pull the lighter out of the pyramid and hold a few inches away. Keep the firestarter there or slowly move it around the outside of the stack until all of the coals are heated and a fire starts. 


4. When a fire starts, remove the starter from the coals and turn it off. 


5. Once the coals have turned a grayish white (usually after about 10-15 minutes), they have “burned” enough and are ready for grilling. Spread them in an even layer in your Kick Ash Basket, put your grill grate in, and get to cooking. 

2. How to light a charcoal grill with a coal chimney 

Charcoal chimneys are a useful way to light coals because they allow for adequate ventilation while heating, and you can move them around easily as need be. 


Here’s how to use a charcoal chimney:


1. Purchase a charcoal chimney. The Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter is a really popular option. 


2. Fill your chimney according to the instructions. You’ll usually fill the chimney nearly to the top with charcoal, but don’t let it overflow. 


3. Add starters below the chimney. You can use newspaper or old paper, but these burn quickly. For a slower and more even burn, use things like wood chips or dryer lint (finally, there’s a use for your dryer lint). You can also drizzle cooking oil on newspaper for a longer burn. Some purchasable charcoal starters have a scent and flavor if you want to add a little gusto to your cook.


4. Light the starters under the chimney using a grill lighter or blowtorch. Watch the coals for about 10 minutes, or until you see flames coming through. If the coals aren’t burning, you may need to add more starter underneath. 


5. Once you see flames, you’ll need to flip the chimney. Follow the instructions to do this safely. Grab the handle and carefully pour out the coals. 


6. Let the coals finish burning and turn a grayish-white color. Using heat resistant gloves and grill tongs, spread the coals in an even layer in your Kick Ash Basket, put your grill grates on, and start cooking. 

3. Best way to light charcoal: BLOWTORCH

Just say the word blowtorch and we’re in, no questions asked. (We probably should ask a few questions, but where’s the fun in that?) The JJ George Grill Torch is the easiest, fastest, and funnest way to light your grill. You don’t need to blow air on the charcoal, which reduces sparking, and it has no annoying cords. It uses a self-ignition for easy start, and the flame is adjustable up to 1300 degrees C (that’s VERY hot, so be careful). Attach it to any standard 14oz propane or MAP gas canister, and light from up to 20” away, which is great to also keep you away from dangerous fire and smoke.


We’re honored to sell the JJ George Grill Torch in our inventory because it’s one of our favorite ways to show off our grill skills and streamline the charcoal lighting process. 


When using a blowtorch to light up your grill, we suggest lighting a few pieces of old charcoal (that you can grab from your Kick Ash Basket) rather than fresh charcoal from the bag because old charcoal sparks considerably less than brand new charcoal.

Photo by Vincent Keiman on Unsplash

4. How to light a charcoal grill with lighter fluid

Lighter fluid is a common way to light charcoal, but it can be a little tricky if you add too much fluid or light it unevenly. It’s fast, but make sure you take precautions if you go this route. We try to avoid using lighter fluid because it can also add a chemical taste to your cook. It also may not be as healthy as just using a non-chemical based sort of fire starter like a chimney, electric starter, newspaper, or blowtorch. 


It’s important to note that you should never use lighter fluid in a ceramic style grill because it can contaminate the porous ceramic, which, in turn, would cause some disgusting flavor issues for all your cooks.


If you don’t have a ceramic style grill and are comfortable with lighter fluid, check out these lighter fluid options here. Again, if possible, try the other methods before you reach for lighter fluid. 


Instead of lighter fluid, did you know you could use whiskey? If you’re okay “wasting” a little bit of the good stuff, the sugar content in whiskey can help ignite charcoal, too. 


Here’s how to use lighter fluid:


1. Arrange the coals in a pyramid shape. You want the coals to be touching one another so the fire will spread easily. The pyramid shape will also help the lighter fluid distribute more easily and consistently. 


2. Carefully pour the lighter fluid on the top and sides of the pyramid. Follow the directions on the package. Less is more when it comes to adding lighter fluid; you don’t want to douse your charcoal in it. Also, never add lighter fluid on hot coals or fire.


3. Let the coals absorb the lighter fluid for about 30-60 seconds before lighting to create a more even and uniform fire. 


4. Use a grill lighter or blowtorch to light the coals in several places. Always be extra careful if you’re grilling on a windy day


5. You can start grilling once the coals have turned a whitish gray, usually after about 15 minutes of burning. Once covered in ash, you can use long grill tongs and heat resistant gloves to arrange the coals in a single layer for easier cooking. Keep the charcoal on one side of your KAB divider if you’ll be using a two-zone direct/indirect cook. Finally, put your grill grate on top and you’re ready to start grilling. 


Note: Don’t add more lighter fluid after they’re lit. This could cause a serious and dangerous flare-up. 

How Do You Start Your Charcoal Grill?  

What do you think is the best way to light charcoal? Share this article with your friends and family so they can learn the art of grilling, too!