How to Start a Charcoal Grill: Our 3 Favorite Methods

charcoal grill with fire touching steaks

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So you’ve got a brand spanking new charcoal grill and a bag of charcoal.

You’ve probably heard not to use lighter fluid, but how do you get the charcoal lit so you can get grilling?

This can seem like a daunting task if you’ve never done it before, but don’t worry, I’m going to share the best three methods for lighting a charcoal grill.

The first method doesn’t require any accessories, but if you plan on lighting charcoal often you should look at options two and three to save some time. And be sure to check out our full guide on how to use a charcoal grill like a pro.

How to start a charcoal grill: three easy methods

1. Light the charcoal with newspaper

Lighting charcoal with newspaper is a quick, easy way to get your grill going. All you need is some newspaper and your coals and you’re good to go.

The method is relatively easy, just follow these simple steps:

  • Crumple up some newspaper into a ball. You can also add small twigs, wood chips, sawdust, and even the bag from your charcoal.
  • Surround the ball of paper with coals, but try not to smother the paper and tinder.
  • Light the paper and wait until the flames have caught on to the coals.
  • Once the flames have taken hold, carefully pour on a handful of charcoal onto the grill, making sure not to put them too close to your tinder.
  • Don’t put the lid on the grill, as this will reduce the amount of oxygen and could put out your fire.

Lighting a grill with newspaper is the simplest and most low-tech approach to lighting your grill, but it is the least reliable and slowest method we’ll cover.

2. Light the charcoal with a chimney starter

Chimney starters are the most popular and easiest way to light charcoal. They work by using an open flame to light the charcoal, which in turn creates a chimney effect and draws all of the oxygen to the coals.

charcoal chimney starter with lit lump charcoal

To get your coals started, all you need is a chimney starter, some newspaper or two to three firestarter cubes, and your charcoal of choice.

  • Fill the chimney starter about two-thirds full with charcoal
  • Place a few firestater cubes on your grill grates
  • Light the cubes and place the chimney over the flame. Crumpled newspaper also works.
  • Wait 15-20 minutes until the coals turn a white ash color
  • Once the flames have died down, carefully dump out the hot coals into your grill and start cooking!

3. Light the charcoal with an electric or propane starter

Electric and propane starters create a much hotter flame than the newspaper method, so it will take less time to get your coals going.

Electric starters work by using a stream of superheated air to light the charcoal. Propane starters work by shooting a jet of gas onto the coals, which causes them to ignite

The Looflighter works by using a stream of high-pressure, hot air to light charcoal or wood pellets.

To use the Looflighter, you just need to connect it to an electrical outlet. Point the nozzle of the Looflighter at the base of the chimney starter, or grill and press the trigger to release a stream of hot air.

The Red Dragon is actually a weed and brush burner, but it also works great for starting charcoal. It has a long nozzle that you can use to direct the heat onto the coals, so they will light quickly. It also works on standard propane much like a standard propane grill.

Using a propane starter is remarkably easy. All you need to do is turn on the propane tank and light it with the piezo starter. Then point the Red Dragon at the base of coals and press the trigger. The propane starter will produce a lot of heat, which will quickly light the coals.

Don’t use self-lighting coals

Many companies provide self-lighting charcoal briquettes. We don’t recommend these, as they are usually soaked in lighter fuel, which can add an unpleasant taste to your food.

If you’re using regular charcoal briquettes, there are a few ways to get them started. We’ll cover three methods, which run from a simple, no tools, approach, to using some of the more common charcoal lighting tools on the market.

How to use lighter fluid if you really have to

We do not recommend using lighter fluid to start your charcoal grill. Lighter fluid can give your food an unpleasant taste, and it’s also a potential fire hazard.

Are the effects of lighter fluid on the final taste overblown? Yes, almost certainly. But the reality is that lighter fluid can taint your food and it’s not as safe or efficient as some of the other methods.

However, if lighter fluid is all you have and you’re determined to use it, then here’s how to do it:

  • Bank your charcoal over to one side of your grill
  • Soak the charcoal in about one cup of lighter fluid
  • Wait for around five minutes to let the lighter fluid soak in
  • Light your charcoal
  • Leave for about 20 minutes until the coals are all ashed over and the lighter fluid has completely burnt off

Does lighter fluid really affect the taste?

Yes, it certainly can. Lighter fluid isn’t specifically designed for use in grills, and it can leave a slight taste of petrol in your food. It’s also not as safe as some of the other methods, so if you can avoid using it, that’s probably for the best.

If you are going to use lighter fluid, you can minimize the downsides by making sure you wait at least 20-minutes after lighting for the coals to ash over before cooking. This will ensure that the majority of the lighter fluid has been cooked off and will reduce any potential impact on your food.

The easiest ways to light a charcoal grill

So there you have it, three easy ways to light your charcoal grill. Whichever one you choose, just make sure you give yourself plenty of time before cooking to get those coals to a nice even heat.

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