Starting A Charcoal Fire: Buying Guide, Reviews, And Ratings Of Tools To Do It Properly
"We didn't start the fire, It was always burning, Since the world's been turning." Billy Joel
There are many ways to start a charcoal fire. But there is only one best way, and only one worst way.
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. And when I smell it I want to march over to my neighbor with a fire extinguisher and a link to this page.
And 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 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 products. 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 don't know if the gases from combusting charcoal starter fluid are a health hazard (other than having me march over to your house and get up in your grill), but I can absolutely smell and taste it in the food. I prefer salt and pepper thank you.
Here are some techniques that work.
The charcoal chimney
I prefer a chimney. It 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 right). The package says to use two per chimney, but one works just fine for me. 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. There are about 16 Kingsford briquets in a quart, so a gallon is about 64 briquets. 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).
You need an outlet, and I don't think you want to use it in the rain. On the negative side, 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 flamable until it cools. It's OK, but you need access to an outlet, and you don't want to be using it in the rain. But, unlike the looftlighter, you can walk away while it is doing its thing. Also, you don't have the convenient measuring tool that the chimney is. You really really want to use the same number of coals each time you cook in order to gain control of the heat. 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 propane, unlike gasoline or lighter fluid, is flavorless and odorless when burnt. Also good for burning weeds from the cracks in your patio, and flushing enemy woodchucks. Popular on the competition circuit. This model is the Red Dragon Torch.
You can take a wad of newspapers and put it under your charcoal grate and pour the charcoal on top of the grate. This works pretty well. Again, just remember to measure the number of 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...
A reader says to wad up some paper napkins, drizzle cooking oil on them, and cover them and surround them with coals.
Or place a dozen briqs in a cardboard egg carton and pile more on top. Eggcellent!
This page was revised 3/6/2013
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