How to Light a Charcoal Grill to Host the Hottest Summer Barbecue Bash
We'll admit it: Charcoal grills take more effort than gas grills. But invest a bit of time and the rewards are so worth it. The smoky flavor you achieve by cooking over charcoal is incomparable. We'll teach you how to choose the best grilling method for your menu, how to light a charcoal grill, and how to clean it, too, so your barbecue will be less stressful and more delicious than ever.
Choose Your Charcoal Grilling Method and Prepare Your Charcoal Grill
Direct grilling is best for items that grill in 30 minutes or less, such as tender, thinner, or smaller ingredients. The food cooks over an intense heat source with the lid closed, so the hot air circulates directly up and around the food. Flip halfway to ensure even cooking. For direct cooking on a charcoal grill, use enough briquettes to cover the charcoal grate completely with one layer. Pile these briquettes into a pyramid in the center of the grate.
Use direct grilling for:
- Pork chops
- Chicken pieces
- Hot dogs
Indirect grilling is best for items that require a longer cooking time. It involves lower temperatures and the food is positioned to the side (rather than directly above) the heat source. Cook with the lid closed and the charcoal grill will act similar to an oven with heat bouncing off the lid and circulating all around the food.
Use indirect grilling for:
- Large roasts
- Whole chicken and turkey
- Whole fish
For indirect cooking on a charcoal grill, grill size determines the number of briquettes needed. Follow these rough guidelines before lighting a charcoal grill to ensure you have the right amount of fuel.
- Grill diameter of 26¾ inches: 60 briquettes to start and 18 briquettes can be added for longer cooking
- Grill diameter of 22½ inches: 50 briquettes to start and 16 briquettes can be added for longer cooking
- Grill diameter of 18½ inches: 32 briquettes to start and 10 briquettes can be added for longer cooking
Charcoal Grilling Tip: Whichever method you choose, remove the grill cover and rack and open all the vents about 30 minutes before cooking.
How to Light Charcoal
To light coals, apply fire starter, use an electric starter, or place briquettes in a chimney starter. (If using a liquid starter, wait 1 minute before igniting the fire.) Never add more lighter fluid after the fire has started. There's no best way to light charcoal, go with whichever grilling tool you have or feel the most comfortable handling.
Lighting Charcoal with a Chimney Starter
For a chimney starter, add a few pieces of bundled up newspaper to the bottom. Fill the top with charcoal based on the guidelines above. Carefully light the newspaper and watch until the charcoal on top turns white. Once it does, pour lighter fluid on top of the coal briquettes still in the charcoal grill base and arrange as needed for your desired cooking method.
Let the fire burn 25 to 30 minutes or until the coals are covered with a light coating of gray ash before replacing the grill rack and cooking.
Related: Our Best Grilled Beef Recipes
Lighting Charcoal with an Electric Starter
To light coals with an electric starter (yes, it is possible to light charcoal without lighter fluid), place the starter on the grill grate then layer charcoal briquettes on top and around and heat for the manufacturer's suggested time. Unplug the starter and remove it from the coals. Place the starter on a heat-proof surface away from children and pets to avoid accidental burns.
Once the coals are lit, allow them to heat for 20 to 30 minutes or until they turn ash gray in daylight or glowing red at night.
Easy-lighting briquettes can be a real time-saver. They are pretreated with a lighting solution for a quick start and need to burn only 10 minutes before they are ready for grilling.
Cook Your Food and Keep These Charcoal Grill Safety Tips in Mind
Check the temperature using a thermometer or with our simple hand test. Start by holding your palm above the heat source. Time how long you can keep it there to configure the temperature below:
- High (400°F to 450°F): 2 seconds or less
- Medium-high (375°F to 400°F): 3 seconds or less
- Medium (350°F to 375°F): 4 seconds or less
- Low (300°F to 350°F): 5 seconds or less
Add your food to the grill and follow the recipe. (You can't go wrong with these healthy grilling ideas!) Weather can affect temperatures, so use times listed in the grilled recipe as a guide. Monitor the foods closely and adjust heat when the temperature gets too high or low.
Position your charcoal grill in a well-ventilated area at least 10 feet away from buildings, trees, and combustible materials. Keep kids and pets a safe distance away and have a fire extinguisher handy. Never leave the grill unattended. After you're done cooking, extinguish the coals by closing the vents and the lid. Allow ashes to cool 24 hours before removing and disposing them.
Charcoal Grilling Math: Plan to use about 30 briquettes or 1½ pounds of lump charcoal to cook 1 pound of meat. A five-pound bag of briquettes contains about 80 briquettes
Clean Your Charcoal Grill
Prevent flare-ups and sticking food by cleaning grates after each time you use your charcoal grill. Allow the coals to die down a bit before cleaning, but keep in mind that particles release easiest when the grate is still warm.
Slip on heat-resistant mitts for safety. Scrub steel racks with a long-handled, iron-bristle brush and enameled grates with a brass-bristle brush. (Or try cleaning your grill with an onion!)
No brush? No sweat. Try a long-handled metal spatula or grip a ball of foil with a pair of tongs. After the grate is fully cool, wash it using a mild soap and steel wool. Then allow the grate to dry before topping the grill with the lid and storing the grill away from the elements.