Starting A Charcoal Fire: Buying Guide, Reviews, And Ratings Of Tools To Do It Properly
"Why is it that one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a grill?" Anonymous
When working with charcoal controlling temperature is tricky. The more charcoal, the hotter the fire. So it is important to measure how much charcoal you are using. There are about 16 Kingsford briquets in a quart, so a gallon is about 64 briquets. That is a fixed quantity of energy capable of generating known quantity of heat. With practice you learn how many more to add on cold days, and how many fewer on hot days.
The worst way. Please don't use starter fluid, mineral spirits, gasoline, kerosene, or any hydrocarbons. They soak into the coals and emit a stink that I can smell from blocks away. When I smell it I want to march over to my neighbor with a fire extinguisher and a link to this page.
Gas and kerosene put out noxious vapors and I have heard of more than one case of people being killed by the fumes. Here's a news video about a man who died from gasoline fumes used to ignite a charcoal fire. Let's not talk about how many sleeves have caught fire while trying to light coals with fluid and a cigarette lighter, and if your fire doesn't get off to a roaring start please please please don't squirt it with starter fluid unless you've been wanting to see how the inside of the hospital's burn unit looks.
And stay away from the easy lighting charcoal. Just open the bag and smell. They are soaked in mineral spirits. All the way to the core. So petroleum products are in the smoke right to the end. And you can taste it in the food. I prefer salt and pepper thank you.
Here are some techniques that work. Remember that there are really two fuels, charcoal and oxygen, so make sure all the vents are open wide when you try to light the coals. With briquets you should wait until the heavy smoke subsides a bit and the coals are covered in white ash before you start cooking. Lump will not ash over, so about 15 minutes is sufficient.
The charcoal chimney
This is the best method. A chimney is a tube with an upper compartment and a lower compartment. First you stuff newspaper into the bottom compartment, add charcoal to the top compartment, then you light the paper, and after about five minutes, put on a glove and grab the handle and give a shake so the unlit coals on top will turn over and that's about it. In about 15 minutes the coals are white and ready. The hot air from the newspapers rises and sucks oxygen in through the bottom which ignites the coals and creates an updraft that grows rapidly in heat making the top of the chimney blowtorch hot.
Some folks have been known to drizzle some cooking oil on the newspaper to make it burn longer but I've never found this necessary. Another technique is to use firestarters on the chimney. Weber sells small cubes of paraffin that work just fine (at left). The package says to use two per chimney, but one is really all you need. Reader "SuperDave2" writes to say he puts the chimney on the sideburner on his gas grill and "I can light my chimney with a push of a button, they are ready in half the time, and perfectly evenly lit." Clever feller.
With a chimney there is no chemical aftertaste, no solvent smell in the air, and it's a lot cheaper and safer than using lighter fluid. Just make sure you place it on something heatproof after you dump out the coals, and away from children and pets.
The Weber brand of chimney is my fave and it lasts longer than the cheaper models. But another feature of the chimney is that it is an excellent temperature controller for your cooking because it is a measuring cup! As you get experienced, you will learn just how high to fill the chimney in order to get your grill to the desired temp. A Weber chimney holds about five quarts, or about 80 briquets. For a Weber kettle, I put about half a chimney of unlit coals in the grill and put about half a chimney of fully lit coals on top to get to 225°F. To get to 325°F, 3/4 to a full chimney should do it. It all depends on the air temp, humidity, brand of charcoal, and other variables. You must do dry runs to calibrate your grill.
There is something else cool about the chimney. You can cook on it! It makes a better wok fire than anything in your kitchen. Just sit your wok on top and stir fry away. Incredibly hot. Or you can put a grate on it and cook thin foods right on top of the chimney, a technique I call the Afterburner Method.
Use a chimney. Get repeatable heat every time and save your eyebrows. Click here to check the prices for charcoal chimneys on Amazon.
The Looftlighter is a real boy toy. It is a hair drier flamethrower hybrid. Just make a pile of coals (try to count them first or use a giant coffee can to measure a fixed amount), place the tip of the Looftlighter against the coals, and within 20 seconds you'll see sparks flying. Pull back a few inches, and in about a minute or two you have a ball of hot coals. Stir, and in about 15 minutes you're in biz. Looftlighter is an excellent way to start a chain of coals (there are occasions when you want to lay down a C-shaped chain of coals and light just one end).
On the minus side, you need an outlet, you don't want to use it in the rain, you don't have the convenient measuring tool of the chimney, you have to stir the coals, and you have to be careful where you place it when it is hot. Plus, it sounds like a leaf blower.
The electric starter
This is an electric coil similar to the coils on a hotplate. Pour a pile of charcoal in your grill and jam the coil into it and plug it in. As the coals ignite, remove the coil, and mix the unlit and lit coals together with a fireplace shovel. Make sure you place the hot coil on something that is not flammable until it cools.
It's an OK firestarter, and unlike the Looftlighter, you can walk away while it is doing its thing. But I have a few quibbles with it: You need access to an outlet, you don't want to be using it in the rain, it ignites only the coals it is in contact with so you need to stir them around to get them all lit, and then you need to move them to where you want them. Chimneys are faster, get the coals hotter faster with less fuss, and you can dump them right where you want them. Also, you don't have the convenient measuring tool that the chimney is. Click here to check the prices on Amazon
Then there's the real flame thrower. Connect it to a propane tank, hit the spark, and whoosh! Within a few minutes a whole bag of charcoal is glowing and that makes it popular on the competition circuit. And propane, unlike gasoline or lighter fluid, is flavorless and odorless when burnt.
Low tech methods
Place a dozen briqs in a cardboard egg carton and pile more on top. Light the carton. Eggcellent if you live on a chicken farm! Or you can take a wad of newspapers or paper napkins and put them on your charcoal grate, drizzle cooking oil on them, and cover them and surround them with coals. The AmazingRibs.com science advisor Dr. Greg Blonder adds "Be aware that sometimes glowing newspaper ash can blow out of the grill. If it is located near combustible plantings [I think this is scientific speak for overhanging tree branches], make sure the flying newspaper embers don't set the neighborhood ablaze." Hmmmmm. Sounds like the voice of experience...
Minimizing variables and thus surprises is crucial in outdoor cooking. As coals ignite, they gradually go from cool to maximum heat and then as they are consumed by the combustion process, they slowly produce less. When they are igniting, at cooler temps, they give off strong dense smoke. If you wait to cook until all the briquets are coated in white ash, when they are all burning on all sides, when they are burning at their highest temp and are giving off only a small amount of clean smoke, if you use the same amount of coals every time, you will be starting your cook at the same temp and the same level of smoke every time. That's two variables eliminated.
One of the problems with lump charcoal, is it doesn't become coated with ash because the ash is mostly the binders in briquets. Since there are no binders in lump, it is hard to tell when they are at peak temp.
Once you get a few coals lit, it takes a while for the fire to ignite them all. The BBQ Dragon accelerates startup of a fire with a fan. The AmazingRibs.com Director of Equipment Reviews & Keeper of the Flame, Max Good has tested one. Here's his review: "When I first saw the BBQ Dragon I rolled my eyes and chuckled. The company sent us a demo which sat unopened for weeks. Then one night while I was making dinner, my wife walked in with the dreaded question, 'When will it be ready?' The salmon was prepped, sides were almost done and I hadn't started the coals yet. I threw a couple fire starters into the Big Green Egg, poured in coal, clipped the Dragon to the stand, pointed the fan into the bottom damper and several minutes later had a beautiful glowing bed.
"The Dragon creates a rip roaring, sear-hot coal fire in less than ten minutes. Clamp it on or bend the stainless steel goose neck into a circular base to rest on a flat surface. A variable speed motor allows infinite air control: crank high to get the coal started or dial low to gently aid a struggling cooker and stabilize temps. It's battery-powered, hands-free and the stainless steel and heavy black plastic construction feels durable and looks sharp. A micro-USB connection that accepts most cell phone chargers is built into the handle. AA rechargeable batteries are optional. It is water resistant for cooking in the rain. Two year warranty.
"Individuals more organized than I am don't need this product. However, if you often speak or hear phrases like, 'The coals aren't ready yet', the Dragon is a good gift for yourself or a preoccupied griller. $50 may seem steep, but it's versatile, easy to use and well made with nice features."
Adding coals to a grill or smoker that is cooking
For long cooks you will need to add more charcoal. If you can, it is best to light the charcoal first and add hot coals. I recommend using a chimney. Another approach is to just feed the fire half a dozen new unlit coals every half hour or so, the exact number will differ from cooker to cooker, season to season. This will produce more white smoke, but it works.
Discard the dust
Often there is charcoal dust and small crumbs in the bottom of the bag. Discard them. If you pour them in your grill they can clog the airspaces between the coals and constrict airflow and choke back your fire by as much as 50°F. Remember, oxygen is just as important as charcoal!
Discard the ashes
Empty the bottom of your grill. Ash is a great insulator and it reduces the amount of heat bouncing off the bottom of the cooker. On the other hand it reduces the amount of heat escaping through the bottom of the cooker. But too much ash can choke off oxygen, or be stirred up and coat your food with gray dust.
Stopping charcoal fires
I prefer to suffocate the fire by closing all vents. It can take an hour or more for the coals to die, but they will die if your cooker is reasonably tight. You can extinguish a charcoal fire by dousing it with water, but beware, steam that that can peel the skin off your face will come up in a hurry, and the hot water that will pour out of the bottom of your grill can put you in a wheel chair for a while. Also, wet ashes can form a concrete-like crust that can corrode your grill. When they are thoroughly dry, coals can then be shaken to slough off the ash, and used again. But it can take days for them to get thoroughly dry so if you plan to use the grill soon, don't douse the coals with water. If you have a ceramic grill, never use water to douse the fire or it might crack.
This page was revised 12/6/2013
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