If you are like me, you love outdoor cooking on a charcoal grill or barbecue. There is nothing better than sitting outside on a nice summer afternoon or evening, enjoying the warmth of your grill or fire pit, enjoying a drink and grilling up some delicious food. The flavors and aromas imparted by real wood charcoal are irreplaceable. A charcoal grill or a wood fire pit and my favorites because of the real wood fire, smoke and aromas they give off.
However, charcoal can be hard to work with, especially if you don’t have much experience with it. So should you just give up the charcoal cooking and buy a gas barbecue? Not just yet! There are some tips for getting your charcoal going quickly which can help make the prep work on your outdoor grill easier.
I am going to cover three types of charcoal starter that can be used to fire up your coal and get cooking. Read carefully, because I have tips on how to use each one better and my recommendations on the best of the bunch, their advantages and disadvantages.
Ok, so here we go!
- Lighter Fluid – Lighter fluid is the traditional way to start your charcoal. It works, but can be difficult and messy. How to use it – Start by building a pyramid-shaped pile of charcoal in your grill or barbecue. It helps to have a small indentation at the top rather than a point. Turn your bottle of lighter fluid upside down and firmly squeeze for about 3 to 5 seconds, aiming the fluid into the indentation at the top of the pile of charcoal. Close and store your lighter fluid and then light the charcoal with a match. I recommend using long fireplace matches to avoid burning your hands! The coal will immediately ignite in flames. However, flames are not the goal, you want the charcoal to get hot enough to start burning themselves, developing hot, glowing embers. This takes some time. Some tips are to give the charcoal some time and avoid wind. Wind will blow out your fire. However, you don’t want to cover your grill just yet because it needs oxygen to get ignited. Your charcoal is ready when most of the briquets have a layer of grey ash developed over most of their surface. If your charcoal stops burning before it is lit and does not seem to be progressing, you occasionally need to add more lighter fluid. Try to avoid using too much and be careful, it will flare up as soon as you spray more lighter fluid on those hot coals! Pros – Lighter fluid is available everywhere, cheap and it does work, eventually. Cons – Lighter fluid is much less reliable in getting your charcoal lit, often taking several tries before your coals are ready. It can take longer than the other methods. Also, you are using chemicals, like kerosene, to ignite your charcoal. While this does burn off before you add your food theoretically, I definitely don’t want chemical aromas or fumes in or near my food.
- Electric Charcoal Starter – These are basically a metal loop attached to a handle which plugs into a standard power outlet. The electrical supply creates a current in the metal loop which heats it to very high heat, similar to an electric stove burner. This heat is used to ignite your charcoal. These electric charcoal starters are generally available in home supply stores and anywhere grills and barbecue supplies are sold. How to use it – Spread a layer of charcoal briquets on your charcoal grate in your barbecue. Next, lay the metal loop of your electric charcoal starter on top of this layer of charcoal. Then cover the starter with more charcoal. Plug in the electric starter and wait. After about 8 to 12 minutes the coals around the starter have ignited sufficiently, getting a grey ash covering their surface, to get the rest of the coals around them started. Unplug your charcoal starter and remove it. You may need to wait a while longer before the rest of your charcoal has ignited and the majority of briquets have a layer of grey ash on their surface. Pros – The electric charcoal starter is an easy way to start your grill. You don’t need to deal with flames, flammable materials or matches. There are no chemicals involved and it is reusable. Cons – Obviously, you need an electrical outlet nearby your grill for this to work. If you are grilling at a park, beach or campground, this may not be practical. Occasionally these can take a bit longer to start your charcoal but are generally faster than using lighter fluid.