Barbecue University™

Crash Course: How to Light a Charcoal or Wood Grill

Chimney starters in the dark

Photo by Rob Baas.

3 Ways to Light a Charcoal Grill

In the United States, you often hear the complaint that a charcoal grill takes too long to light. The truth is that if you have the right tools, charcoal is quick and easy to light, requiring little—if any—more time than it takes to preheat a gas grill. Here are three tried-and-true methods.

Chimney starter with charcoalA chimney starter: A chimney starter looks like a large coffee can or an upright metal box with a perforated partition inside. The charcoal goes in top; a crumpled newspaper or paraffin fire starter goes in the bottom. You position the chimney starter on the bottom grate of your grill or on a rock or cinderblock—never on a wood deck—and light the newspaper or starter. Thanks to the chimney’s upright shape and unique thermodynamics, the charcoal lights quickly and evenly in 15 to 20 minutes. Briquettes take a bit longer to light than lump charcoal.

An electric starter: An electric starter is a loop-shaped heating element you place under a mound of charcoal and then plug in (electric starters are especially useful for vessel grills, like the Big Green Egg). Like the chimney starter, the electric starter has the advantage of eliminating the need for petroleum-based lighter fluid. However, it’s not quite as fast as a chimney starter and you do need an outlet to plug it into.

Accelerants: Back when I was a kid, we simply doused the coals with lighter fluid. In France and the French West Indies, grill masters often light lump charcoal with wood alcohol. Accelerants have fallen out of fashion in these eco-minded days, and there’s always the risk that, if your coals aren’t completely lit, your food may acquire a petroleum aftertaste. So make sure the coals are completely lit (glowing orange and beginning to ash over) before grilling.

6 Ways to Light a Wood-Burning Grill or Fire Pit

Forget the great (grate?) charcoal versus gas debate. The most flavorful fuel is wood. And more and more people are discovering the pleasure and taste dividends from grilling with wood. So how do you light the fire?

Chimney starter method: Yes, you can light wood in a chimney starter. Buy hardwood chunks and light them in the chimney starter, just as you would charcoal.

Teepee method: Build a small teepee of twigs over a ball or twist of loosely crumpled newspaper, leaving enough space in the front to insert a match. Build a larger teepee of sticks over the first teepee, again leaving a space in the front. Finally, build a third teepee of split logs over the first two. Using a long match, light the newspaper.

Box method: Build a small box of twigs, as you would a log cabin, over a ball of loosely crumpled newspaper. Build larger boxes of twigs, sticks, and split logs around it. Light the newspaper with a long match.

Charcoal method: Start with a mound of lit charcoals. Arrange your wood—twigs first, then sticks, then split logs—on top.

Lighter fluid and paraffin fire starter cubesBasket method: The basket method is widely used in South America; it requires that the grill have a cesta, a U-shaped metal basket. Fill the cesta with twigs, then sticks, then split logs, placing crumpled newspaper under the metal bars of the basket. Light the newspaper. As the wood catches fire, keep adding logs, until you have a basket full of burning logs and wood embers. As the embers fall through the bars of the basket, rake them into a pile and do your grilling over them.

Accelerant method: Fireplace shops sell various petroleum- and alcohol-based igniters. Top one of these with twigs, sticks, then split logs, then ignite it. Make sure the accelerant has burned away completely before you start grilling.

Adapted from Planet Barbecue! For more information on the tools, fuels, and techniques of grilling, click here.

Planet Barbecue cover

Learn more:
A Crash Course on Gas Grills
Types of Charcoal for Grilling
Grilling and Smoking with Wood