How to Light a Charcoal Grill: No Chimney Starter, No Problem

Apr 27, 2018

How to light charcoal grills

Lighting a fire is one of those skills that’s easy to master. Once you understand the basics you’ll soon be able to get your grill up from freshly lit, to read to cook in about 30 minutes.

In this guide, I’ll run through the basics of starting a charcoal fire, as well as a few extra tips.


Step 1: Get your fuel evenly spaced

The key thing with a charcoal burn is not to “pyramid” your fuel into the center of the grill. An initial pyramid to light the coals works perfect but once your coals are ready, you want to evenly spread them out. Unlike a campfire, your grill will create a tightly controlled zone, keeping all that heat in one place. Once you get your charcoal lit, the fire will slowly spread across the entire grill.

It makes sense to get the grill on an even keel too. Make sure that you’ve selected a section of grass or patio that allows the grill to settle nicely. Avoid situations where the grill is tipping or rocking over, at best this is a pain when you’re trying to cook and at worse, you’ll end up with a safety hazard!

Step 2: Starting the Fire

There’s a couple of ways to go about this. Firstly, you could try fire-lighting gel or fire lighter blocks. Both lighting compounds are designed to burn consistently and slowly to give the charcoal enough heat to ignite on their own.

I like to add newspaper to the charcoal. You don’t need a huge amount, just enough to put an even layer underneath and over the coals. What you’re aiming for is a quick way for the fire to spread evenly throughout the coal base, so it makes sense to layer your lighting gel and newspaper evenly throughout.

*Whatever you do, please don’t use petrol, paint thinners or methylated spirits to start the fire! The problem with these fluids is that they are extremely volatile and burn so quickly the coals won’t have enough time to ignite on their own – not to mention the safety issues!

The next layer is a combination of twigs that you can find around your yard as well as more newspaper or preferably brown paper bags.

Surround that layer with charcoal briquettes and light the newspaper below.

As the fire begins to take hold, you’ll notice the flames slowly creeping into the middle as more and more coals ignite.

Getting A Consistent Temperature

When you first light a grill, the temperature will fluctuate wildly as new coals ignite and your lighting compound begins its strong initial burn. This is the worst time to start cooking, as it will lead to your meats being overdone on the outside, yet raw in the middle.

Instead, let your new fire burn away for 20 minutes to half an hour. What happens during this time, is that the lighting compound and newspaper will burn out, leaving your coals to do all the work. Charcoal is quite a slow burning as a fuel, and will eventually slow down to a steady heat.

What does this look like? Well, after 20 minutes, you should notice the initial flames have all but died down, leaving a red hot/white to smolder across 70% of the grill. It’s at this point you can start your cookout!

Splitting the Fire

Sometimes, you’ll want to create two zones inside your grill. One side will be white hot and ready to cook your burgers, sausages, and chicken, whilst the other will be cooler and more suited to cooking peppers and gently grilling buns.

To achieve this, you want to have a single layer of coals running down the “cool” side of the grill, and 3 or 4 layers on the “hot” side. That way you’ll have more flexibility when grilling.



I mentioned this before, but I still see people doing it so feel it’s an important safety message.

Never, ever, light your grill with petrol or methylated spirits!

As I said before, these fuels are highly volatile, burn too quickly to be of much use and can easily ignite into a ball of flames! Stick to lighting gel or blocks to get the slow and steady ignition you need.

Images from video