How to Start Your Charcoal Grill – A Step-by-Step Guide

We are going to get you going by teaching you how to start your charcoal grill.  The first only real ‘rule’ about lighting charcoal is that if you are going to cook food on the charcoal, never use lighter fluid.  No matter how much time you wait after starting a charcoal fire with lighter fluid, there is still likely to be residue on the coal, and the taste will bleed into whatever you’re cooking.

charcoal chimney starter 01
charcoal chimney starter 01

There’s a couple of ways to start your coals, but the best way is to use a chimney starter.  A chimney starter is essentially a metal tube with a grate to hold the charcoal,  a handle, and a few holes on the bottom.  The instructions for using a chimney starter are below.

How to Light Your Charcoal Grill, the Right Way

What you’ll need:

  1. You’ll need either a lighter, we recommend the long BBQ lighters, or you can use a long wooden match.
  2. You’ll need either 4 or 5 pieces of newspaper or a lighter cube.  We read the physical copy of Barron’s every week, so we usually use newspaper.
  3. Charcoal.  The chimney starter works for both briquettes or lump charcoal.  We like and use both.
  4. Space on your grill or another surface that you can light a fire on without any worry about burning what’s underneath.  We typically start our chimney right inside the grill, not on the cooking surface, since we eventually have to put the hot coals somewhere.

How to use the chimney starter to light your charcoal

  1. Before you follow these steps, make sure you clean out the grill from your last cook.  Get rid of the ash, get rid of any leftover charcoal that won’t really add much to the new fire, and start fresh.
  2. We will describe how to use newspaper to start your coals.  First, crumble up the newspaper and insert it into the bottom of the chimney starter.  Don’t cram it too full because we want a lot of oxygen flowing thru – but don’t make it too loose because your charcoal may not ignite.
  3. Fill the top of the chimney between 2/3 and 3/4 full.  You don’t want to fill it too high; you want to start your fire with just enough coal to get a good fire going.

  4. Place the full chimney starter in the grill or on your designated ‘fire surface.’
  5. Light the paper in a couple of places along the bottom of the chimney starter.  Lighting it in a couple of places around the bottom will allow for more coals to catch fire from the paper.
  6. Keep an eye on the coals to make sure that they ignite.  If they do not, repeat the first few steps, but be careful, the chimney could still be hot.  If the coals do begin to burn, wait until the top coals start to turn white.  This should take between 10 and 15 minutes, but it depends on how big your chimney is, how much coal you are burning, so it’s best to do this by sight.
  7. Once the coals are all white on top, you’ll be ready to set your grill up for cooking, but that’s another story.

Please note that we will not go into detail here about how to set up your charcoal grill.  There are several ways to do that, so we want to give each method its due. In addition, we will be putting together separate pieces on setting up your grill for indirect heat, direct heat, and concentrated heat.  [Those will begin to publish tomorrow as I’ll be taking the pictures to update this story tonight, and I’m grilling a steak, so direct heat it is.]

As you can see in the images above, we do use the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter.  It’s a little bigger than the ones that I’ve gotten at home depot and lowes, and I really like how they’ve built the handles.  It protects your hands from getting burned, but I have a lot of control over where I dump the coals.  I use the charcoal baskets a lot, which gives me the ability to target where the coal goes.

Be careful!

When you are working with fire, you should make sure that there are no little kids around, and you should make sure that there’s nothing else that might catch fire by mistake. For example, I usually keep a small pail of water around my grills when I’m cooking; you never know.  I can douse a flare-up, or you can douse a run-away fire.  [NEVER use water on a grease fire, though.  The water will spread the grease and the fire and make things worse.]

Be sure to check out our Best Charcoal Grills article.

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