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How to Start a Charcoal Grill, the Right Way

There’s no doubt grilling is among the most primal forms of cooking. After all, our ancestors cooked meat they hunted over an open fire for thousands of years. It’s practically in our DNA!

These days, you’re more likely to be operating a modern grill with modern fuels instead of cooking your meat on a stick over a campfire. But starting your charcoal grill isn’t as simple as it may appear to novice grillers. No one wants to leave the family hungry as they struggle to get it lit!

So we’re breaking down the basics of charcoal grills, how to start them, and some of the most important dos and don’ts for new grillers.

What Is a Charcoal Grill? 

First, let’s talk about charcoal.

This is a natural material used as fuel for thousands of years and other uses in art, medicine, and other fields. In its purest form, charcoal comes from burning wood or other organic matter in an environment with little oxygen. This process removes all water from the wood and chemically changes its composition. 

The result is a hard, black substance that burns at a higher temperature than wood and for more extended periods. Once properly lit, charcoal also burns without an open flame, allowing food to cook without the risk of immediate burns. The smoke also provides the characteristic taste and smell many associate with a cookout. 

Charcoal grills are simply cooking devices designed to take advantage of the benefits of charcoal. They can range from small, portable models meant for camping or tailgating to impressive built-in grills capable of cooking for an entire party.

Charcoal grills are typically very simple, with a metal grate suspended over a bed where the burning charcoal will lie. They’ll also generally have a lid that allows you to increase temperature levels inside and provide a smokiness to your grilled items. 

Pro Tip: We compared Should Campers Use Lump Charcoal or Briquettes When Grilling to help you decide what product is best for you.

Meat being grilled on charcoal grill
A chimney starter is the best way to quickly and easily start a charcoal grill.

How Do You Light a Charcoal Grill Fast?

Despite their many benefits, charcoal grills aren’t ready for cooking as fast as a propane grill or gas or electric stove. But getting your charcoal lit doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process.

These days, many brands of charcoal offer “match-light” varieties designed to light easily with just a match or lighter.

Those who prefer traditional charcoal often place small bundles of crumpled newspaper or kindling throughout the pile. These easy-to-burn items help to start the charcoal started before it can burn on its own. Others will apply lighter fluid to the coals, which helps quickly burn the exterior to start them.

What Is the Best Way to Start a Charcoal Grill? 

The absolute best way to start a charcoal grill is to use a chimney starter. These devices consist of a perforated metal cylinder with a grated bottom and an attached heatproof handle.

Grillers pour their charcoal into the top of the cylinder and place newspaper or other kindling underneath the grate. You then light the kindling, which burns upwards into the charcoal. 

The design of the chimney starter ensures that the flame goes directly onto the charcoal while also maintaining proper ventilation. Allow this to burn for a few minutes until the coals are ready, and then pour them into your grill.

This ultra-efficient process will have your charcoal glowing hot and perfect for cooking significantly faster than other methods.

Woman grilling in front of RV
When you see a white, ashy layer on the outside of the coal, it should be ready to cook on.

Do You Leave Grill Open When Starting the Charcoal? 

You should generally leave your grill open while starting your charcoal. Except in the windiest of conditions, it’s helpful to keep the lid off or open as the additional oxygen will help your coals burn faster and more evenly.

An open cover also allows you to monitor your coals to ensure they’re progressing properly. Finally, keeping the lid off will help disperse any potentially hazardous smoke from lighter fluid or other chemicals applied to the charcoal to help it light faster.

While most of these aren’t harmful in small amounts, it’s nevertheless smart to keep them away from your food. 

How Long Should Charcoal Burn Before Cooking?

This answer will vary depending on several factors, including the type of charcoal, its condition, and the current weather. For example, some match-light charcoal can be ready in just minutes, while natural varieties can sometimes take longer to get going. Also, new, dry charcoal will naturally light faster than an old bag stored in a humid environment. 

The best way to know when charcoal is ready for cooking is to use your eyes. Look for a white, ashy layer on the outside. Once you see this on just about all of your charcoal, it’s at the proper heat for cooking. In general, this will take between five and 15 minutes in most cases.

Can You Use Cooking Oil to Start Charcoal? 

While it may not be the intended way to get your charcoal started, many people have successfully lit their charcoal with cooking oil. This is done by applying a small amount of oil to a paper towel, which is then placed among the coals and lit on fire.

Some also recommend using the oil-soaked towel to dab numerous coals before lighting, helping spread the oil throughout the fire. Like with lighter fluid or any other accelerant, you should avoid using too much or applying it in a way that could spread the fire uncontrollably.  

Pro Tip: If you don’t have a charcoal grill, use these Simple RV Propane Hacks When Camping to help you grill up some dinner!

Should Charcoal Be on Fire When Grilling? 

Many folks think of grilling as cooking meat over a flame. But that’s not the case with charcoal. Instead, you’ll find the best meals will result from extremely hot coals without an active flame. Flames scorch and char your food, which can provide flavor in limited amounts.

However, too much time over an open flame can lead to unpleasant burnt flavors or meat with an overdone exterior and an underdone interior. In contrast, hot but not flaming coals provide steady heat that ensures your food gets cooked through. 

As you can see, lighting a charcoal grill is a relatively straightforward process, even for those who haven’t grilled in the past. This is one of the outdoor cooking basics that can unlock a whole world of delicious culinary creations.

With a bit of practice, starting a charcoal grill will become second nature, and you’ll have the best steaks, burgers, and other grillable food on the block or at the campground!

What do you do when you light up your charcoal grill? Tell us your tips and tricks in the comments.

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