Charcoal grills are excellent in different ways. For starters, they can easily give you high temperatures, perfect for virtually any type of meat. Besides that, they offer flexibility and allow you to smoke or grill your meat. Finally, they always give your grilled meat that delicious smoky flavor. But there’s a catch— Lighting charcoal and Starting a charcoal grill

You see, with gas grills, things are pretty straightforward. There are knobs and buttons you can use to get things going easily. However, things get a little more complicated with charcoal grills.

How to Start and Light a Charcoal Grill

Don’t be intimidated, though. In this article, we’ll take you through all the steps on how to start a charcoal grill. Afterward, you’ll be ready to set up your grill and make an excellent meal!

How to Start a Charcoal Grill: A Step-By-Step Guide

Step 01

Clean Your Grill

If you have a brand new grill, you can skip this step because there’s not likely to be any type of dirt inside. If you don’t, you might want to clean out any type of ash or grease that’s leftover from your previous grilling escapades. This is something you have to do very often for the sake of hygiene. 

Once done, make sure you open up the vents at the top and bottom of the grill. Skipping this specific part might betray the entire purpose of learning how to start a charcoal grill. This is because your charcoal needs oxygen to continue burning. With the vents shut off, it will only get a limited amount of oxygen. Under those circumstances, it would go off in no time. 

Step 02

Choose Your Preferred Charcoal

You need to carefully consider this step because starting a charcoal grill is impossible without first deciding and getting your preferred charcoal type. Now, you can choose a few different options when you want to make your choice. Some of them have specific advantages over the others. But, above all that, there are two basic forms in which you can get your charcoal: lump or briquettes.

Lump Charcoal: Many grilling enthusiasts are enormous fans of lump charcoal. It is a type of charcoal that’s made of thoroughly burned hardwood. The burning process, known as carbonization, is so efficient that it leaves nothing but carbon in its wake.

Unlike the other charcoal, it tends to burn much faster and hotter because of its natural composition. It can reach temperatures as high as 760 degrees Celsius.

Despite this efficiency in burning, however, it doesn’t produce a lot of ash, making it fairly easy to clean. Unfortunately, due to its unique shape, it isn’t very easy to arrange lump charcoal evenly when lighting a charcoal grill. So, many people just use it for BBQs like pork, brisket, ribs, etc.

Briquette: Briquettes are almost direct opposites of lump charcoal. They’re usually made of sawdust with binding agents to achieve a defined pillow-like shape. The uniformity of appearance makes it easy to calculate how long cooking will take and arrange your charcoal effectively. But, unlike lump charcoal, briquettes don’t burn very fast or as hot. So, experts often use them for foods that don’t need extended cooking periods.

Having decided which one to use, you need to figure out how much charcoal you should use before learning how to light a charcoal grill. As a general rule of thumb, you might want to pick up 30 briquettes for small grills. For the larger counterparts, you can go for 50-75 briquettes. Keep in mind that we’re using briquettes as a measurement unit because of their well-defined shape and size.

For foods like burgers and hot dogs, you don’t need that much charcoal. A simple layer across the bottom of the grill will do the trick. For foods like steak, you can double your charcoal quantity to get a hotter fire. 

Step 03

Arrange Your Charcoal

You cannot learn how to start a charcoal grill without learning how to arrange your charcoal properly first. You should know that the best way for you to arrange your charcoal entirely depends on the type of grill you’re using. Apart from that, it also depends on if you’re using direct heat or indirect heat. 

Direct Heat:

This type of heat is only used for food that needs to cook quickly, like steaks, hamburgers, etc. In this method, you should arrange your charcoal evenly and spread it out across the grill.

Then, cover it up and allow it to preheat for about 30 minutes. We’ll show you how to light it soon.

Indirect Heat:

This is a type of low-temperature cooking that usually works best when you’re grilling whole birds, large chunks of meat, or fish.

Essentially, it works for anything that needs to be cooked slowly because it allows heat to pass through every part of the meat for proper readiness.

For this method, you can set up indirect cooking zones and use your tongs to rearrange as you please. Close the lid and preheat for about half an hour. After putting your coals in indirect cooking zones, you’ll be left with areas that have no coal in them. Position your food right above those areas so they can get indirect heat to cook.

Regarding the grill shape factor, here’s how you can arrange your charcoal:

  • Arrange them on the outer edge if it is a circular grill.
  • If it is a rectangular or square grill, arrange them on one half.
  • Ignore the shape and use a charcoal manager to set up your charcoals for long heating hours.
Step 04

Light Your Charcoal

This is about the most important part of learning how to start a charcoal grill. It can be a bit of an arduous task for those who aren’t accustomed to using a charcoal grill. But, with the right guidance, anyone can figure out how to light charcoal.

There are four different ways you can light your charcoal to get your cooking started. We’ll take each one after the other.

Lighter Fluid:

Charcoal lighter fluids are usually made of petroleum. They’re an easy way to get your fire started. You simply need to measure a quantity of lighter fluid for your charcoal and allow it to soak in. The quantity shouldn’t be more than ¼ cup of fluid per charcoal pound. Your soaking period can be around 30 minutes. Afterward, you can use a matchstick or a lighter to light your coal. Keep in mind, however, that if you use too much, it could affect your smoke flavor,


Using newspapers to start any kind of fire is an incredibly effective way to go about it. This is the same for charcoals. What you want to do is place rolled-up newspapers between your charcoals. Then, once you’re certain you’ve arranged them properly, light the fire. To ensure that you have a good flame going on, you can continue adding newspapers. Just don’t go too crazy.

Charcoal Chimney Starter:

These are special tools specifically designed to help you start up your flame. The best standard charcoal chimney starters will help you keep your coals packed together.

However, it will leave space between the briquettes or lumps so that you can ignite the flame. It usually has holes in the center or the bottom. Insert newspapers there and light them. Your coals will ignite pretty soon, and you can preheat them for about 15 minutes. Once that’s over, pour the charcoals into the grill and spread them out as you require. So, using a charcoal chimney starter is easy and fun if you follow six simple steps.

Electric Charcoal Starter:

This is an electric tool with a handle and a heating element on the other hand. To use it, first plug it into an electric source. Then, stick it into a pile of charcoal on your grill. Once there, add a second layer to the pile with the electric starter and hold it there for a while. As soon as the charcoals are properly heated, take out the starter. These starters are often slower than the other methods above. But, with an electric starter, you don’t need to get any of the other three. 

That just about covers it for how to start a charcoal grill. While going through the process, you need to be careful as you’re literally dealing with fire. For example, with lighter fluid, you must never add the fluid to a burning flame/pile of charcoals. Doing so could put you in danger of starting a fire you can’t control. Having done all you need to do to get your fire started, it’s time to grill. But, the learning doesn’t end with starting a charcoal grill. If you must grill adequately, you must learn how to keep your charcoal hot. Let us show you how.

How to Keep Your Charcoal Hot While Grilling

1. Keep the coals together with your tongs: When they’re well-packed, they can share heat among themselves. This makes it easy to keep the temperature at high levels. However, don’t pact them too closely together. If you do, you’ll deprive them of oxygen and cause them to go out faster.

2. Take out the ash as often as possible: Apart from making your grill look generally unkempt, ash can deprive you of the heat you want. They will take up unnecessary space on your grill, blocking out vital air that your charcoal needs. When this happens, they cause your charcoals to lose heat slowly. If you truly want to keep your coals hot, you should remove the ash.

3. Open up the top and bottom vents until you get the hottest temperature: As we mentioned earlier, charcoal fire thrives on oxygen. When you open up the vents, you’re giving room for more oxygen to flow into your charcoals. This enables them to burn better and hotter.

 4. Add more charcoals often: Naturally, you might be tempted to think that adding more charcoals can reduce the flame you have already. But, in reality, this only happens when the new charcoals added choke out the ones already on the grill. If you arrange the charcoals properly, you shouldn’t have this problem. So, add new charcoals as often as is required. As a rule of thumb, you can add up to ten pieces when you have only half of your charcoals intact. This means you’ll be adding new charcoals every thirty minutes or so.

Bottom Line

If you’ve noticed, many of these methods of keeping your charcoal hot involve one method of oxygen control or the other. Well, that is because oxygen is perhaps the single most important thing in a charcoal grill. So, if you want to control the temperatures, control your vents effectively. Opening them up will allow more oxygen to flow into your charcoal. This generally means more fire and higher temperatures. Closing them up will deprive your charcoal of oxygen. In these circumstances, your charcoals will begin to lose their fire and heat. Moreover, Understanding this game (oxygen control) will definitely help you the most challenging part— put out a charcoal grill fire. Just remember that you need to wear gloves when doing all these. They will protect your hands from the searing heat of the charcoals.

At this point, you have enough information on how to start a charcoal grill. All you need to do is to get your engines fired up and ready to cook a perfect meal. On that note, good luck!

Frequently Asked Questions Starting & Lighting a Charcoal Grill

Should the grill be opened or closed when you’re starting your charcoal?

When you’re arranging or lighting your charcoal, you should always keep the lid open. But, as soon as you’re sure that they’re well lit, close it.

Should the vents be closed or open while trying to light charcoal?

We’ve said this multiple times already, but fire needs oxygen if it burns properly. So, if you want your charcoal lighting process to be successful, you should open the vents. This will allow oxygen to flow into your coals and help them to burn hotter and longer. Immediately they’re properly lit, you can then adjust the vents to control the temperature.

What do you need to do to light your charcoal quickly?

What you need to do to light your charcoal quickly is to arrange them close together. This helps the fire to spread effectively to adjacent coals without necessarily needing to light them individually. However, you must not keep them together so tightly that there’s not enough oxygen to start or continue a fire.

Johnny Trigg
Johnny TriggView all Posts

He’s the founder of and also the owner of two barbecue restaurants. He’s passionate about reviewing, providing useful tips about BBQ Smokers, and known as BBQ Pitmaster.

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