How to Keep a Charcoal Grill Lit

These days lighting a charcoal grill can be pretty easy. Modern technology makes this previously complicated process fast, wind-proof, and safe. But it’s keeping the charcoal grill going that may pose a problem for many beginners.

There are several main techniques of creating a lasting charcoal grill fire, some easier than others, though, as many BBQ connoisseurs will tell you, top quality grilling has never been defined by simplicity.

The key to making cheap charcoal grill lit for longer periods of time lies in the correct building of the fire. As much as the fire technique depends on the outdoor conditions, it’s also defined by what you are planning to grill in said weather.

How do you light a charcoal grill?

Grills can be set up in different ways since no one charcoal arrangement is suitable for everything. How you set up your grill mostly depends on the type of food you’re going to cook. Some recipes require a direct heat set up while others need indirect cooking.

  • Even heat
    is used for quick grilling and can be achieved by stacking charcoal in two layers so that the temperature is equal in all areas of the grate
  • Two-zone fire
    creates a combo work area half of which produces direct heat and the other is used for indirect heat. This is done by packing the coals to one side of the grill while keeping the other coal-free. Such a flexible set-up can be used for quick searing and slow indirect cooking alike, making it ideal for hot dogs and burgers.

The size of the meal also dictates the setting since you need fewer coals for one or two helpings. Inadequate charcoal set up can also lead to poorly cooked food such as meat charring or being underdone. Direct heat is best used for grilling hot dogs, burgers, chops, and steaks, while whole roasts and ribs need a gentler approach of an indirect grill.

With a chimney starter

One of the easier ways to start a fire on a charcoal grill is with the help of a chimney starter. A chimney starter can produce a more reliable, even fire with less effort on your part. With this device, you can also skip on using the lighter fluid which is particularly important for many grill purists as it eliminates any undesirable impact on flavor.

  1. To kindle a chimney starter, crumple a few bits of paper (preferably the newsprint kind that contains wood pulp) and put them at the bottom of the chimney starter. Depending on the size of the starter, you will only need between 2 and 5 pieces of paper. Try not to crimp the paper too hard—there needs to be a more or less free flow of oxygen allowed between the paper folds so that the fire can be generated instantly.
  2. Some chimney starters might not have a bottom plate for holding the paper, so you will need to use the grill’s top grate as a replacement. Simply put the paper on the grate and place the starter over it, effectively trapping the paper inside.
  3. Fill the chimney starter with lump charcoal, wood chips, or their combination. A medium-sized chimney designed for a 22-inch charcoal grill will generally need around 40-50 charcoal briquettes, though it may vary from brand to brand. A good rule of thumb is to simply fill the chimney to the brim with the fuel of your choosing.
  4. Before starting the fire, you will first need to position the chimney on the grill grate for safety. Another surface that repels fire would also work. This is done because the starter heats up to high temperatures and can ignite particularly conductive objects if not isolated.
  5. Now the paper at the bottom has to be lit. To do so safely without burning your hands, get a BBQ lighter or long reach matchsticks, and use them as a fire source to light the paper in several places. Though the paper catches fire and burns out rather fast, it will be enough to light the charcoal at the bottom which will then distribute the heat evenly throughout the starter.
  6. Once the entire chimney contents become sufficiently hot—you will know this by the formation of distinct white ash over the top charcoal layer—transfer the coals from the chimney and onto the grill. 
  7. Distribute the coals on the grill. If you plan to use a two-zone fire setting, move the coals to one side and leave the other empty, creating sections for direct and indirect grilling. Those who are going for a classic full-heat setting will need to cover the entire grill with available coals as evenly as possible.
  8. Another point to keep in mind is the duration of your grilling. If you think it will take you more than 30 minutes, keep adding more charcoal directly to the grill so that the already hot coals can transfer their heat to the fresh briquettes.

With lighter fluid

Another widely used method of lighting a charcoal grill fire is dousing briquettes or hardwood charcoal with lighter fluid. Though it is admittedly much faster than using a chimney starter, many people understandably avoid it.

The reason behind such aversion is in the chemical composition of lighter fluids which strong and unpleasant flavor is transferred to the food during grilling or smoking. And if you prefer hardwood charcoal to briquettes for the purpose of getting better flavors, then be ready to take a longer but more natural way of lighting your coals because using lighter fluid with hardwood basically defeats the entire point of natural fuel.

But there are times when cutting corners is the only option. It could be anything from unfavorable weather conditions to simply having a limited amount of time on your hands. In these cases, lighter fluid is your new best friend.

So how does one use it exactly?

  1. First, you will need to ensure the grill receives enough air. This can be done by opening the bottom air dampers. To each them, you must first remove the top grate and then open the vents.
  2. With the grate still off, stack the charcoal into a small pyramid in the middle of the firebox pan. Usually, you will need to add 5 coals at a time to raise the heat intensity, but the total final number of coals depends on the size of the grill. Portable grills need only about 25 or 30 pieces, while medium grills may need around 40 pieces. Those with extra-large cooking stations may need to add as many as one bag worth of coals.
  3. Start by adding a small amount of lighter fluid to the mid-point of the coal-stack. Don’t douse the pile all at once—it will affect the nature of the smoke and, therefore, the flavor of the meat. After all, the coals need only a little bit of fluid to catch fire and spread it through the stack.
  4. After you’ve added the fuel, let the charcoal absorb it for better effect. Let it soak for around 2-3 minutes. This will also help you get a more even heat.
  5. Now it’s time to add another portion of the lighter fluid. Do so in quick skirts in different sections of the stack and leave it only for a moment.
  6. Use a long reach match or grill lighter to start the fire. Light the charcoal in two or three sections at once to get the fluid burning. 
  7. This means your fire has caught. After the first burst of large flames subsides, watch for the smoke. If the middle of the stack starts emitting smoke, then you’ve successfully lit the charcoal.
  8. Wait for the coals to acquire a grey ash color and spread them around the grill in a single or double-layer pattern. If you plan to cook for a long time, keep adding new coals every half an hour in five-piece batches.

Do I close the lid after lighting charcoal?

It is generally recommended to close the grill’s lid after you have successfully lit the charcoal. This is done to generate high temperatures in the firebox and contain them. Another important part of maintaining the heat is knowing how to utilize the grill’s air vents or dampers.

While keeping the lid closed, open the vents to supply air into the firebox. The oxygen fuels the fire, resulting in hotter cooking temperatures. To reduce inside temperatures you may close one vent or both but only partially, since shutting off the oxygen supply may kill the fire entirely.

Remember that when you heat up the firebox under a closed lid, it’s vital to not unnecessarily open it as it can ruin the temperature balance. Try to leave temperature control to the vent adjustment when waiting for the coals to get ready.

If your recipe requires you to grill the food under a closed lid—for example, if you smoke meat via indirect heat—keep to the same rule and only open the lid when the food needs to be turned over. Otherwise use the vents to lower or raise the temperature.

How long do you let charcoal burn before cooking?

Similar to the total burning life of charcoal, the preheating or pre-burning time may vary from brand to brand. Briquettes and lump charcoal have different burnout rates, so it’s always useful to check on brand characteristics beforehand.

That being said, the widely accepted preheating time for letting the charcoal burn before you start cooking is 10-15 minutes. Other outside forces such as windy or cold weather impact this figure, so you may have to burn charcoal for longer in complicated circumstances. Don’t forget to take the construction of your grill into account: too-thick firebox walls will extend the preheating time.

How do you keep lump charcoal lit?

Most issues with unstable charcoal fire stem from incorrect lighting techniques or as a result of interference if outside elements. And while you can adequately protect the grill from strong winds with the right type of camping screens, some extreme weather conditions just can’t be battled against. For example, if you happen to cook on a particularly humid day, there’s nothing you can do to alter it except go for vertically arranged lump charcoal and hope for the best.

If it’s not the weather, it’s something fishy with your fire set-up. And any minor flaws the initial lighting can be detected, fixed, and avoided in the future. There are a few things to look into if you want to extend the life of your fire.

Choose your fuel wisely

Not all charcoal is the same, and the choice of fuel can impact both the resulting heat power as well as the flavor of your food. Briquette charcoal and lump charcoal are the two most widely used types of charcoal, with the latter being a more natural product in most cases. 

  • Briquettes – made from the mixture of wood and byproducts of similar organic nature, but all of it is held together with the help of a binding agent that can negatively impact the flavor. Briquettes can burn up to one hour—considerably longer than lump charcoal—but their composition makes them more difficult to fire up in the first place.
  • Lump charcoal – made from pure carbon, making it a more natural and safe fuel, though there can be some minor deviations in the purity of its composition. This one is easier to light and maintain, but it burns out faster, so recipes that demand longer cooking times may require excessive coal amounts for constant refueling.

Make sure the charcoal is dry

Keeping your charcoal dry is not only the question of protecting it from exposure to rain. If you store charcoal in humid or damp environments, it might also become difficult to light and keep aflame.

This happens due to the porous texture of charcoal that makes the absorption and retaining of moisture extremely easy. So think carefully where you plan to store your charcoal and give preference to dry rooms as opposed to damp basements.

Practice smart stacking

To ensure the heat remains strong and consistent throughout cooking, stack the charcoal closely to avoid losing temperature but not close enough to cut off air circulation between individual coals.

Arrange, move, and pack the coals with the help of grill tongs to avoid burning yourself. Watch for stray coals and low temp areas that may need you to re-shuffle the pack.

It’s also recommended to not stack the coals too deep inside the grill as it can extinguish the fire by gradually burning out and turning to ash. Measure out a two-coal depth for your stack to better control the entire structure.

Refuel when needed

Though it may seem frugal to hold out on refueling as much as possible, it’s also a sure way to lose the fire in its entirety. Always keep an eye on the progress so that you don’t miss that vital window for adding more fuel.

When the grill only has about half from its original pile, it’s time to add between 5 and 10 coals to keep the heat going. Remember to put the food aside first to let the fresh coals burn to the desired ashy-grey texture and only then continue with the grilling

Let it breathe

Allowing the air inside your grill is essential. Charcoal needs oxygen to burn and the lack of it can choke the fire out. Most charcoal grills feature special air vents designed for temperature control. They regulate the amount of air you decide to let inside the firebox, and when all air vents are closed, the lack of oxygen will eventually put out the fire.

Another common cause for the fire being choked out is ash. If you don’t clean out the grill from accumulated ash, it might not only put out the freshly added coals but also restrict the airflow by taking up too much space. So clean out the grill on a regular basis and make sure you adjust the vents for every cooking session.

About the author

Chris Cosentino

Chris Cosentino

Hi! My name is Chris, the Owner of the website. You can follow me on Twitter.

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