Who hasn’t had the unforgettable experience of eating food cooked on a solid, searing, and steadfast Charcoal Grill? That distinctively smoky, lightly charred, and utterly delicious flavor the charcoal imparts to burgers, franks, steaks, or any grilled food is a singular, irresistible taste of summertime.
Unfortunately, grilling with charcoal is often approached with the simplistic dump it (into the grill) and pump it (full of lighter fluid) technique—and that’s really not the best way to light charcoal. It’s fast and easy, but wrong. Luckily, there are several different methods to lighting charcoal as well as positioning and piling it that can help make your charcoal grilling experience far more efficient with far superior results. Here, we’d like to offer some suggestions on lighting charcoal correctly, so you’ll always get that old-fashioned flavor everybody loves without any of the conundrums sometimes associated with the process. And if you’d like a look at some premium models Appliances Connection offers, you should take a look at our blog on the The Best Charcoal Grills of 2021.
Now, if you want the all the char without any of the trouble, read on…
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Before we begin explaining the how’s and why’s of charcoal lighting, there are two overarching subjects that should be addressed.
First of all, not all charcoal is equal. Of course, the most common type of charcoal is the briquet. While this is the most available charcoal, it is mass-produced and man-made, giving off a slightly sharp, additive-laced odor and leaving behind a great deal of ash. If possible, we would suggest using lump coal. It may be a bit more expensive and not as consistently shaped or sized as briquettes (which can affect heat intensity), but it’s all natural, lights faster, burns hotter, and leaves behind little ash.
Second, regarding lighter fluid—everyone knows it as the most common accelerant to get your charcoal burning due to its incredible ease of use. Just a squeeze is all it takes. But too many times the fluid is overused, which, while resulting in a quite impressive uproar of flame (we think it looks cool, too), unfortunately leads to an unpleasant aftereffect with foods being enveloped in the lighter fluid’s highly chemical taste. So, if you do use lighter fluid, use it sparingly, have patience, and wait for the charcoal to ignite without too much help from you or the fluid.
If you want to avoid using lighter fluid altogether, there are numerous options that get the job done just as well or better. These include:
- Charcoal Chimneys – this simple device allows you to light the charcoal in a well-aerated setting for faster combustion, after which you place the charcoal in the grill basin
- Fire Starters – these handy little igniters—available in numerous brands, types, and sizes—are made to be evenly-spaced amongst the coal, where they burn fast and hot to set the charcoal alight
- Long-Reach Lighters – these are commonly-found, cheap, and easily replaceable click lighters that let you reach deep into the charcoal without getting burned yourself
- Back to Basics – since getting the charcoal is the end goal, you can always use the tried-and-true method of rolling up newspaper pages up tight, placing them in the coal, and igniting them—not unlike lighting a fireplace
Or, if you want a worry-free way to light the charcoal grill, more and more models are available with an integrated lighting system like Everdure’s 54” Freestanding HUB Charcoal Grill with Rotisserie which comes with a trademark Fast Flame Ignition System which features an electric element that can get charcoal burning at cooking temperature in just 10 minutes. No fuss, no muss.
HOT TIP : A neat trick to get cooking quick is to gather your coals into a pile and ignite the lowest level. The rising heat will get the other coals burning hot good and fast. Then, you can arrange the charcoals however you like…
Just as every grill guru has their own special techniques they swear by, there are just as many ways to arrange charcoal. The most common way grillers arrange their charcoal is nice and even, with a consistent direct heat distribution across the cooking surface. This is great for fundamental grilled fare with an observant chef present to determine what food is ready to serve, what needs turning, etc.
From there, however, arranging the coals is absolutely up to the chef. Just as the even spread is for direct cooking, you can arrange the coals all on one side for indirect cooking. Or divide the grill into cooking zones with low heat and high heat or anything in between. It all depends on what you’re cooking. Set the coals in a tight formation if you’re turning a roast or full bird on a grill with a Rotisserie Kit for that intense, searing heat. Or if you’re slow roasting, you can situate the charcoal on two sides, providing a type of convection cooking with the hot air circulating within the closed grill lid.
Just remember, while cooking with charcoal may not have the precise control and heat delivery of a gas or electric grill, that doesn’t mean you can’t adapt and improvise just as well with a quick raking of the coals. It’s your grill, and you can do whatever you want with it.
Now you know how to light your charcoal grill efficiently and effectively. But we’re fairly sure there are some experienced outdoor chefs who have their own unique ways of getting the grill going. We’d love to hear about them, as well as any special charcoal arrangements you might suggest for your favorite grilled goodies. If you’d like to share your ideas or questions, please leave them below.
And if you want to know about purchasing an outdoor grill of any sort, explore our buyer’s guide here:
How long does a charcoal fire last?
A charcoal fire will typically last around one hour. Of course, that depends on the quality and brand of the charcoal briquettes.
What is difference between coal and charcoal?
The difference between coal and charcoal is quite simple. Coal is a naturally occurring rock found in the earth. Charcoal is a man-made product resulting from heating wood to extreme temperatures in the absence of oxygen. Absolutely do not cook food with coal as it is a serious health risk.
Is charcoal good for cooking?
Charcoal is definitely good for cooking. It burns extremely hot and is maneuverable under the grill. Although it may give off more smoke than a gas or electric grill, when lit properly it should not have an adverse effect on your food.