Best Way To Light & Start Charcoal For A Grill

There are purist the world over who have heated debates about which is better, gas or charcoal? For many, it comes down to the simple point of personal preference. Those who choose charcoal often do so for the real fire and smoky flavor it imparts to the meat. However, gas grilling purists point out that starting charcoal and inevitably having to clean up the leftover ash, is inconvenient. Yet, I think you will find that with a few basic techniques a charcoal fire is easy to start and maintain.

What’s The Difference Between Briquettes And Lump Charcoal?

There are different manufacturers who sell charcoal with their own little tweaks on shape and composition. There are even some who sell briquettes that are infused with lighter fluid.

Lump Charcoal

Lump charcoal is the most natural form of charcoal intended for grilling. It’s made by heating pieces of natural hardwood without the presence of oxygen. It offers the most flavor and the best potential high-heat sear. However, it’s also prone to flareups and tends to burn out quickly, which means it might not be the ideal choice for grilling with indirect heat.

When you’re shopping for lump charcoal, look for the word “Jumbo” on the bag. It’s often a marketing term, but jumbo lump charcoal is more likely to have large pieces which will burn longer while also being less prone to flareups.

Charcoal Briquettes

Charcoal Briquettes are a modern invention created from the byproduct sawdust and fibers from processing hardwood timber. They are bound together with special, flammable adhesives and processed into small briquettes or cubes.

The consistent size allows for better heat control and less chance of flareups. Some manufacturers also include trace amounts of classic smoking woods like hickory or mesquite in the briquettes to impart an additional smoky flavor to the meat. This can also be a factor for people who use a charcoal smoker or multitask their charcoal grill to smoke meat.

What’s The Best Way To Start A Charcoal Grill?

The truth is, there are a few different ways to start a charcoal grill. The one that is right for you and your budget might just come down to personal preference.

Starting A Charcoal Grill With Lighter Fluid

Lighter fluid is the classic cliche way to start charcoal. More than one person has been heard to say “Now that’s a fire!” Right after the whoosh of a big ignition.

Of course, in many of these situations the person quickly sprayed the charcoal with a big blast of lighter fluid, then quickly lit it a moment or two later. What tends to happen here, is that the lighter fluid on the surface of the coals quickly burns away, and you are forced to apply some more to keep the fire burning. Sometimes the flames will burn so low that spraying more lighter fluid makes an unpleasant plume of fumes and steam, requiring you to have to start over again.

The Correct Way To Use Lighter Fluid

Ideally, you want the lighter fluid to soak into the charcoal before lighting it.

Step One: Lay down a flat base of 10 to 12 briquettes. Gently spray a modest amount of lighter fluid on them.

Step Two: Build a loose pyramid or pile over the bottom layer, and spray it with a modest amount of lighter fluid.

Step Three: Wait for two or three minutes. Maybe go pour yourself a refreshing beverage, while the lighter fluid soaks into the microscopic pores in the charcoal.

Step Four: Spray a tiny amount of lighter fluid on the lower coals, and light them with a stick lighter. There won’t be a dramatic “Woosh” but the coals will light and the fire will slowly spread throughout the pile

Step Five: Let the fire burn for a solid seven to ten minutes, or until you are starting to see a significant amount of white on the edges and corners of the briquettes.

Step Six: Use your tongs to spread the charcoal out into whatever pattern you want.

How Do I Use A Charcoal Chimney?

A charcoal chimney is essentially a metal cylinder with a large upper chamber and a small lower chamber, with an insulated handle helping to hold things together. It allows you to start charcoal without having to dump a bunch of lighter fluid on it. Not only does it save you money in the long-term, but it also provides you with a coal bed that smells like pure, clean charcoal.

One of the early complaints with charcoal chimneys was that newspaper alone tended to burn out quickly, and you would be left starting to reload the lower chamber. If you drizzle a little bit of cooking oil on the newspaper it will slow the burn, while also intensifying it, to more-effectively start the charcoal.

Step One: Remove the upper grill grate from your charcoal grill.

Step Two: Drizzle a tablespoon or two of cooking oil on two sheets of newspaper.

Step Three: Crumble the newspaper and loosely stuff it into the lower chamber.

Step Four: Fill the upper chamber with charcoal.

Step Five: Use a stick lighter to start the newspaper.

Step Six: Give the charcoal a solid ten minutes to light.

Step Seven: When the edges and corners of the charcoal look white, turn the chimney over and dump the coals out in the pattern you want.

Can I Start A Charcoal Grill With A Propane Torch?

Technically, you can start it with a propane torch. However, you will have to stand there holding it for five or six minutes. If you lock the trigger on and walk away, the upper plastic housing could light on fire, causing a major safety hazard.

However, there are some high-end grill manufacturers who have created a propane torch system for lighting their charcoal grill. With these, you can feel comfortable knowing that product engineers took the time to build with safety in mind. These systems tend to use a 1-pound propane cylinder to run the flame. You simply close the valve when the charcoal starts to turn white.

Can I Start A Grill With An Electric Element?

Electric elements were sort of the precursor to the charcoal chimney. They were invented in the days when lighter fluid was thought of as the only way to start a charcoal grill. You essentially place it in the bottom of your grill and then layer some charcoal overtop of it.

Electric current is then impeded as it passes through the loop of the element. This produces intense heat, which is then transferred to the charcoal.

It does work, and it spares you having to fiddle with lighters or open flame. The element itself can be a little on a little bit expensive for what it does. It also costs a little bit in your monthly energy bill, but not prohibitively. As long as you hang it somewhere safe to cool down, it’s less of a fire hazard than other methods.

Probably the biggest knock on this method is that as a resistor, the element will inevitably burn out, and need to be replaced. It’s hard to tell how long one will last. I’ve seen some that burned out in a little over a year, while others have lasted for years.

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