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Three Ways to Light Charcoal: Pros and Cons

Posted by Chef Perry P. Perkins on

I was five or six years old, and we were having a family get together at Uncle Vern’s house.

My Uncle Raymond, who was, almost assuredly, several mason-jars into the party already, decided that the charcoal in the battered old Weber (which was sitting on a plywood-covered, screened porch – them’s my genes, folks!) wasn’t heating up as quickly as he’d like.

Indignant, he walked over, peered blurrily at the coals for a moment, and then nonchalantly tossed the contents on his half-full cup, onto the open flame.

I was five…and I still remember the fireball.

I also remember Uncle Vern and my father grabbing up the garden hose and dousing the smoldering mosquito netting that surrounded the porch. I’m pretty sure they were speaking in tongues… at least a tongue that I wasn’t familiar with at that tender age.

Needless to say, there are right ways to do things, and there are wrong ways to do things…

Let’s take a look at some “right way” options for lighting charcoal.

I use the top grills on my La Caja Chinas…a lot, and I’ve found that one full charcoal chimney, piled heavy under one side of the grill, and rakes down to a single layer to the other, makes for a near-perfect two-zone grilling surface.

Firstly…let’s get one thing out of the way… “self-starting” or “quick-light” charcoal should never be allowed to defile your grill. 

Pre-soaking the coals enough to achieve an instant flare-up, guarantees that the chemical flavor goes all the way through the charcoal, and will not “burn off”, as self-applied charcoal starter will, it also burns up much faster...which, of course, makes it much more expensive.

No pre-soaked charcoal…ever.

Oh, and all of these methods assume that we’re using a charcoal chimney starter, like this one.

You can, of course, just pile your charcoal on the grill grate and fire ‘er up, but I’ve found that coals come to cooking heat much faster, and more evenly, in a chimney.

Chef’s Note: If you’re going to be doing a lot of grilling, a good rule of thumb is to light a second chimney full of charcoal 15 minutes after dumping the first one. Repeat as needed.

Method #1: Charcoal Lighter Fluid

This is my least favorite method, but it’s also the one that I, along with millions of other backyard barbecue buffs, grew up with. I’m not going to poo-poo this method with the same vehemence I give to the quick-light…stuff, mainly because I’ve grilled up some pretty dang good food over fuel-squirted coals.

Pros: It’s convenient, and quick, and pretty-much fool-proof…

Cons: Well, it’s still a nasty, stinky chemical that’s involved in food I’m feeding my family…as well as a half-gallon jug of explosive liquid that I’m using in an open-flame situation…and I’m clumsy.

If you’re going to use charcoal lighter fluid:

1.     Make sure you give yourself plenty of time, and ventilation (ie: no lid) to allow it to burn off, once lit. Those coals need to be solid white, before any meat goes over them.

2.     Likewise, don’t put your grill-grate(s) back over the coals until you’re sure the fuel has burned off. You don’t want to be laying raw meat on a fuel-blackened grill…yuck.

3.     Use plenty of fluid…you want it to light properly the first time, and don’t ever squirt more fluid on already lit coals…remember Uncle Raymond? Boom.

4.     Close the lid on your fuel bottle, and then go put it away, before lighting the coals. Two reasons. First, this gets that bottle of rocket-fuel away from you, or any other little hands that might be nearby. No matter how safe I think I am…that fuel isn’t going to ignite if it’s back up in the cabinet, in my garage. Secondly, this time-lapse allows the fluid to soak into the charcoal a bit (not a lot) and decreases the chance of it flaring, or igniting fumes, when lit.

Method #2: Newspaper as Fire-starter

his method is, in my not-so-humble opinion, better than using lighter-fluid, but I still can’t get over the idea that I’m coating my coals with burned ink fumes and residue.

Pros: It’s a pretty easy and safe way to go. Just stuff a piece or two of crumpled newspaper in the bottom side of your charcoal chimney, fill the top with charcoal, and then light the newspaper. In about 10 minutes, you should have hot, burning coals.

Cons: That first minute or so, while the paper is igniting…creates some pretty gnarly grey smoke, so light-up well away from your guests, or anything they’re likely to eat.

My other issue is that it’s 2016…who gets a freakin’ newspaper anymore? Not me, I get all my news digitally…and I don’t think my iPad would work nearly as well for this.

Method #3: The Electric Fire-starter

Lastly, and in my opinion, the best way, to light your fire, is to use one of these babies. Charcoal doesn’t require open flame to burn, it just needs enough heat.

Pros: Flameless, odorless, this is probably the safest, cleanest method available to start your coals. Very easy to use.

Cons: You gotta have electricity close by, and…well, it’s a gadget, so there’s always a chance that it just plain won’t work…when you’re already running late…on the night your new boss is coming over for bbq. You know what I’m talkin’ about.

Still, I’ve had mine for years, and it’s never failed me once.

Lastly, it’s probably not something you want to play with in the rain, or while standing in water…unless you want a Darwin Award.

To use, just pour about 1/3 of your charcoal into your chimney, set the (unplugged and unheated) electric fire starter inside, and fill in around it with the remaindered of your coals. Now, set the chimney in a safe place, and plug that baby in!

Be sure to keep any plastic parts away from direct contact with the coals, and keep a close eye, as you’ll need to pull that starter out as soon as the coals start going. Do not leave it in the chimney until the coals turn gray…things get melty.

So there you go…three popular, reliable, and simple-to-use methods to get your grill on.

Whichever you chose should work great…and be a lot safer fire-starter than a mason jar full of whatever my uncles brewed up in that oil tank behind the barn…

Happy Grilling!

Chef Perry

Chef Perry P. Perkins comes from a long line of professional cooks.

As a third generation chef, he focuses his love of cooking on barbeque, traditional southern fare, and fresh Northwest cuisine.

Perry runs a non-profit organization. MY KITCHEN Outreach Program, which teaches nutrition, shopping, and hands on cooking classes or at risk youth, as well as blogging regularly at

His cookbooks include La Caja China Cooking, La Caja China World, & La Caja China Party.

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