How to Set Up and Light a Charcoal Grill

Build the perfect fire every time without using lighter fluid or wasting charcoal.

July 23, 2020

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You can't beat a gas grill for convenience, but when we want the smoky char that only a real fire can provide, we reach right for the charcoal. It's easy to use once you know the basics.

What Type of Charcoal Is Best?

When it comes to charcoal, there are two main type: briquettes and lump. The one you choose really depends on what you're making and your overall preference. Briquettes are engineered from compressed wood and other additives -- they burn longer with a steady temperature. This makes them ideal for long, slow cooking, like smoking a brisket or making pulled pork.

Lump charcoal is made from whole pieces of hardwood. It lights quickly and burns hotter and faster—perfect for burgers, steaks and chops. Because lump charcoal allows you to easily control the heat and cooks food faster, it is considered superior by most grill masters—but try both to see which one you prefer.

The Right Set-Up

Position your grill outside on a flat, solid surface at least 10 feet from structures or anything that could catch fire. Avoid awnings, porches and low-hanging trees—and never grill inside a garage.

Always tart with a clean grill. Remove any old charcoal, ash and grease left behind from previous meals. Ashes can block air circulation, which is essential for a fire to burn. Old charcoal absorbs odors that can transfer to food, so we don't recommend reusing it.

The size and shape of your grill will dictate how much charcoal is needed. Refer to your manufacturer’s guide for specifics. But in general, you'll need just enough charcoal to create an even layer on one-half of your grill.

Using a Chimney Starter

Charcoal chimneys or "chimney starters" make it easy to light either type of charcoal without the use of lighter fluid, which can add a chemical smell and taste to food. To get your coals lit, you'll just need a stick lighter and some old newspapers.

Roll a few sheets of newspaper into rings to fit tightly under the chimney. You'll need enough to burn until the charcoal catches fire. Set the chimney onto your grill grates—this is the safest place to light it. Never place a chimney starter on anything that could catch fire.

Fill it with the amount of charcoal you'll need. Then use a stick lighter to carefully light several sections of the rolled paper.

The heat and flames will travel up to the charcoal and gently ignite it. Allow the coals to burn until they are at least two-thirds covered in white ash and have stopped smoking heavily. This will take about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the amount.

Wearing heat-resistant grilling gloves, carefully pick up the charcoal chimney and remove the cooking grate. It is safest to pour in the charcoal into the grill by tilting the chimney off the side. Never pour the coals toward yourself or lean over them.

Spread the hot coals as desired using heatproof grilling tools. Replace the cooking grate, open the lid vents and cover the grill. Preheat for 15 minutes before cooking.

You've built the perfect fire—now it's time to grill the perfect meal!

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