"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 best way: The charcoal chimney
We think charcoal chimneys are the best way to start a charcoal fire. 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.
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. Use a chimney. Get repeatable heat every time and save your eyebrows.
Weber charcoal chimney
The Weber brand of chimney is my fave and it lasts longer than the cheaper models. 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.
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.
On the plus side, after playing with my sous vide machine one day, I discovered it can also be used to sear meat!
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.
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.
It is also good for burning weeds from the cracks in your patio, and flushing enemy woodchucks. This is the kind of tool Karl Spackler would love. This model is the Red Dragon Torch.
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 Prof. 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...
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.
A video about charcoal
Here's a video about the different types of charcoal, their pros and cons, and why we recommend briquets. Watch the video to see why. Also there's a discussion of wood types, and how to set up a grill in the essential 2-zone system. Click here for more on the science of charcoal and more on the science of smoke and wood.