For someone who has never started a charcoal fire before, the task may seem so simple as to make the question moot. Charcoal is designed to burn, is it not? So lighting it should be as simple as the application of flame, right?
But anyone who’s ever gone through the process of starting a charcoal fire knows it’s not quite that simple; it can be difficult to make the fire catch.
Thankfully, there are a plethora of techniques and methods you can use to make the process easier and more effective. Let’s go over a few of them and their various benefits and drawbacks.
Method 1: The Traditional Method
The simplest method of starting a charcoal fire is simply using the hardwood lump charcoal, alone, plus a bit of starter.
This starter can be pretty much anything, so long as it’s highly flammable and can hold a flame for at least a long few seconds. Common choices are newspaper, paper towels, cotton balls, or even specific starter paper, though unless you have severe issues with starting the fire in other ways, I don’t recommend shelling out extra when something you have lying around your house will do just as well.
The process here isn’t complicated, but it can be a bit finicky.
First, pile up your charcoal; try to go for a nice pyramid shape as much as possible. This will give you the most stability possible for the other steps, and help insulate the budding flame from any wind that might be blowing.
Next, insert your starter of choice into the gaps between the pieces of charcoal.
Light the fire, and wait for the flames to flare up, then die down so that the coals are gently smoldering and safe to cook over without charring your food.
And that’s it! You have a nice charcoal fire.
This method is extremely simple and can be done with the least additional tools required. Your results will be top notch as well, with no (or few) nasty chemicals or anything making their way into your food.
It will almost always be possible to do, so long as you have charcoal. That kind of versatility is invaluable in circumstances where you may not have everything you’d want under ideal conditions, like camping; the method is perfectly compatible for use with wood as well.
This method can be very finicky. Much of the time, even the starter can be troublesome to light, especially in windy conditions, and there’s always the issue of it burning out before it properly alights the coals.
While the simplest method (and the one requiring the fewest tools), it can’t be denied that this is also the method most prone to failure when it comes to lighting charcoal.
Method 2: Use a Chimney Starter
A chimney starter is a great device for getting the effect of the traditional method with a minimum of the hassle.
Chimney starters are a handy tool to have around if you plan to barbecue a lot, and they’re fairly inexpensive to boot, particularly given they tend to be built to last. Even better, they’re simply made and even simpler to use.
Each chimney starter is going to look about the same, though some vary in size. They’ll be a simple metal cylinder with a raised bottom, that you us like so:
Add charcoal into the top until it’s roughly full; use as much charcoal as you think you’ll need.
Next, add your starter to the bottom.
Light the starter and make sure it catches properly.
Finally, when the flames reach the top of the chimney, pour them out into the bottom of your grill, and they should be ready to use!
Using a chimney starter is probably the most consistent way to light a charcoal for barbequing. It works pretty much every time, due to the way the chimney is designed; it naturally protects the flame from the wind, while promoting maximum air flow from the bottom (driving the flame higher) and ensuring the flame evenly coats each layer of charcoal it passes through, lighting their edges and adding to the fire.
You’ll get perfect results under most conditions, and without any of the inherent drawbacks of using similar tool assisted methods.
The only major problem with this method is that it requires a specialized tool, the chimney starter itself. These are inexpensive, compact, and easy to store…but also easy to overlook. They’re the kind of thing you’ll think you’ve packed for that camping trip and end up coming short with when you actually arrive at the campsite.
This is, overall, a fairly small drawback since in the worst case scenario you can just fall back on the traditional method, but it’s worth noting as an extra tool you’ll need to keep around and tasks to keep in mind.
Method 3: Chemical Assisted Fire Options
I’m going to lump two methods together, largely because both the benefits and drawbacks are identical.
There are various chemical options to make your fire start much easier, though the most common would be some kind of solid starter, or lighter fluid.
In both cases the method is largely identical.
First, pile up your charcoal the same way you would if you were using the traditional method.
While outside cooking a meal after hiking or trekking rather than using a paper starter, you either place your solid starter (usually in the form of a cube) in among the charcoal briquettes, or squirt some of the lighter fluid on the coals.
Light the starter (or coals directly if using the fluid), and wait until the fire burns down and they begin to smolder.
It really is that simple. For an even simpler chemical assisted method, you can purchase match light charcoal from some brands, which has lighter fluid incorporated into the briquettes themselves; you can then just light the coals directly after stacking them.
This is by far the easiest and quickest method to light a fire using charcoal, and it’s largely foolproof. Even in adverse weather conditions the gasoline in lighter fluid or the starter cubes and the like can burn pretty steadily; these are great for helping start a blaze if it’s drizzling or extremely windy.
These methods are also great if you’re feeling kind of lazy; there’s no fiddling around with your chimney or stacking the coals just right, you can just sort of vaguely pile them up and apply fire, and boom they’re lit.
In a word: flavor.
I won’t go full snob and say meat cooked with a chemical assisted fire is inedible or anything. I’ve eaten my share of burgers and steaks cooked over a lighter fluid started flame in my day, and they still come out fine.
Still, it can’t be denied that these chemicals do affect the flavor of your food, and not for the better. That chemical tang won’t go away no matter how much you try, especially if you overuse them (which is easy to do if you’re not careful).
Lighter fluid is also the cause of a lot of unintended dangerous fires, due to misuse by the user; generally they make the mistake of squirting lighter fluid onto an already going fire or hot enough coals and cause an unintended flareup that at best hurts their food, and at worst themselves.
In general I’d say the chimney starter method is going to be your best bet. It achieves consistent results with ease, and ensures you’ll always have a good fire going with minimal fuss.
While it does require you to grab an extra tool and be a bit more methodical with your setup, the results can’t be denied. I’d say the minor hassle and extra cost are more than made up for by the reduced stress of knowing that short of dousing the fire with water, there’s pretty much no way for it to fizzle out prematurely.
The traditional method achieves similar results, of course, but less consistently and a whole lot less easily. The meticulous stacking of coals can be frustrating, but is a necessary step to ensure that the flame catches properly, and is the result of a lot of failed fire starting attempts.
As for chemical assisted methods…save those as a last resort. While a great boon for those feeling lazy, and a solid option for cooking in the rain if need be (giving you that little bit of extra oomph to stop the flame from fizzling as soon as you open the grill’s lid), the cost in terms of flavor is something you want to avoid if at all possible. For those who’ve always cooked with lighter fluid, the taste change might be overlooked, but starting a proper fire without it and grilling will show the difference is similar to night and day.
Keep some starter cubes or lighter fluid on hand for when you’re in a pinch, by all means, but make sure you aren’t reaching for it unless you need it.
Cannot choose which fuel to choose? Find out the here: Lump charcoal vs briquettes.