How To Light Charcoal

There are several ways to light charcoal that are clean, and impart no off-flavors to your barbequed foods. Then there are other ways you should steer clear of.

Good charcoal burns clean and steady, giving off very little in the way of smells that could affect the taste of your foods. At the most, you should smell a clean burnt-wood aroma, but what's best is a clean, neutral smell.

Some charcoals are made to give off light smoke to flavor food as it grills. Slivers of unburned wood are mixed into the charcoal before it's pressed into briquettes.

Also available are charcoal products that require nothing but a match or lighter to start. Convenient, yes, but at the cost of possibly affecting the flavor of your barbecued foods.




Best Ways To Light Charcoal

Here are a couple ways of lighting charcoal that keep the grill clean and free of unpleasant odors.

  • The Charcoal Chimney - These look like a large, ventilated can, with a semi-open bottom and a handle on one side. With these, charcoal can be lit without the use of any type of starting fluid. Just fill the charcoal chimney with briquettes or lump charcoal, place crumpled paper in the bottom, then light the paper. The flames rise up through the charcoal, lighting it almost immediately. Heat from the burning charcoal create a draft that pulls air through the coals, fanning the burning embers quickly to white hot. This is very efficient, and in my opinion the very best way to light charcoal.

  • Electric Charcoal Lighter - With this you get an electric heating element attached to an insulated handle. Benefits of this type of charcoal lighter include:
    No need for charcoal lighting fluid
    Charcoal is lit right in the grill
    Convenience of using electricity

Poor Charcoal Lighting Choices

When lighting charcoal it's best if petroleum based starters are not used. If used incorrectly there's the chance of your food being contaminated with the taste and odor of petroleum, which would be a sad thing to do to a nice beef tenderloin.

If you do decide to use charcoal lighting fluid, use a small amount, don't let it to soak in too long before lighting, and allow the charcoal to become completely ashed over before you begin grilling food. Be careful of overspray when squirting on the fluid. Whatever drips past the charcoal won't burn, but will create smelly fumes.

  • Charcoal Lighter Fluid - Answer this question. Would you lick the inside of your car's exhaust pipe? Eating food cooked over charcoal lit with petroleum based lighter fluid might not be that bad, but it's something to think about. When charcoal is doused with fluid, much of it soaks deep into the briquettes. After the fluid burns off the surface, and the when the charcoal is ashed over, there's still a chance that there's a small amount of fluid remaining in the coals, burning away slowly and polluting your food.

  • Using "MatchLight" Styles of Charcoal - These charcoals are impregnated with petroleum products. And after sitting for who knows how long in tightly sealed bags, it stands to reason that the lighting compound has permeated deeply into the coals. Common sense tells me that no matter how long the charcoal's burned, there's still going to be some fuming going on.



Bottom line: when you're getting ready to light charcoal, start with good quality, fresh product, and light without the use of petroleum based lighting fluid. Again, my number one pick for lighting charcoal is the charcoal chimney. Pay for it one time, and you'll be lighting charcoal for free forever...all you'll need is a bit of newspaper and a match.

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