How to Light a Charcoal Grill


Lighting a grill may seem simple, but ask any veteran pitmaster, and they’ll tell you that’s a rookie mistake.

There are so many steps and factors to light a charcoal grill that it is often overlooked. Taking the time to light your charcoal grill properly will lead to the best-tasting food you can ask of your grill.

A lack of proper respect for the steps that go into lighting a charcoal grill can mean the difference between something coming out cooked incorrectly and something being grilled at the highest quality possible.

Take a few extra moments to fine-tune your grill lighting process for the best results! 

Step 1 – Picking the Right Charcoal

Grabbing the first bag of charcoal at the store you can find is far from the correct way to light your grill.

Often a big oversight when grilling on a charcoal grill is keeping the fire going and burning at a high and consistent temperature.

The temperature is everything when you are grilling. It could be the difference between a perfectly grilled food item to something that lacks texture and possibly even taste.

There are two different types of charcoal that you are available.

Type of CharcoalProsCons
Lump – Natural composition
– Burns hotter
– Less ashy
– Best for “low and slow” grilling 
– Burns faster
– Difficult to layer evenly 
Briquette – Easier to regulate heat
– Made of sawdust
– Most commonly used for items that take less time (i.e., steaks)
– Doesn’t burn as hot, may require more 

For more details on which is best for you, check out my in-depth article!

Finding the Right Amount of Charcoal

So you found the type of charcoal you want to use, but now you have to decide how much of it you will need. 

It can be a bit tricky determining how much charcoal you actually need. There are so many factors that go into it!

Things such as the outside weather may require more charcoal to keep hot, what you’re planning on grilling and even the size of your charcoal grill.

If you are struggling to figure out how much you’ll need just keep in mind that most small portable grills only need around 30 briquettes while most larger charcoal grills need anywhere from 50 to 70.

If you are planning cooking items that don’t need as hot of heat, maybe start with a single stack of charcoal, whereas for items that require high heat, you may need multiple.

Step 2 – Arranging Your Charcoal

Yes, there’s even a certain strategy that you should use when arranging your charcoal. This, again, depends on what you are planning to cook.

How you arrange your charcoal depends on how hot you want the temperatures to get and how much of the heat you want your food to be exposed to.

There are two different types of heat for different items being cooked, direct heat and indirect heat.

Achieving these different types of heat is all dependent on how the charcoal is originally arranged in the beginning. 

This could be one of the most important steps in the grill process! 

Direct Heat

Direct heat is going to be for the items that cook faster such as hamburger, steaks, etc. 

When cooking with direct heat, you should lay all of your charcoal directly under where you are going to be cooking. Direct heat grilling requires higher heat, so it’s best to let your charcoal grill preheat before starting to cook.  

To see how the best approach to arranging your charcoals for direct heating, watch this YouTube video.

Indirect Heat

Indirect heat is going to be the exact opposite of direct heat, which is more of the “low and slow” approach. 

Items such as whole birds are large cuts requiring a longer cook without completely burning, this is where the indirect heat approach is best served. Simply line the charcoal around the cooking area where the charcoal won’t sit directly under the food you’re trying to cook is key. 

These items aren’t meant to be directly heated at high temperatures otherwise they face being burnt or cooked incorrectly. 

For more of a visual, check out this YouTube video.

When Should I Light the Charcoal

This is possibly a controversial topic among the grilling community. Much like smoking, how you light the charcoal can really affect the actual taste of the food you’re grilling. 

The hottest debate in the charcoal grilling community is whether or not the lighter fluid is the right choice. The lighter fluid makes it incredibly easy to light your charcoal, but it has certain drawbacks.

When lit, the fumes that lighter fluid emits can really smell bad and get on the food you’re cooking. There are charcoal-grilling veterans out there that hold true loyalty to lighter fluid and for those who do, just be sure to exercise extreme caution. 

However, for those who want an alternative to lighting their charcoal, they should consider the use of paper! Just place a roll of newspaper under the charcoal and safely light it.

While the paper burns and charcoal begins to heat up, keep fueling the fire by continuously adding paper to them until the fire is strong and the charcoals look like they’re getting hotter. 

How to Keep the Fire Going on a Charcoal Grill

This part can be tricky because it’s imperative that you not only keep the fire going but you maintain temperatures as well. It’s a meticulous game, charcoal grilling is, but it’s possible with just a few tips. 

Firstly, ensure the charcoals are still uniform and touch each other. There should still be room for air to get in and keep the charcoals hot, but certainly, you don’t want them separated. 

Next, a good rule of thumb is that the more air flowing through the inside of the charcoal grill, the hotter the heat will get.

Adjusting the top and bottom vents to be open or closed will affect how high temperatures rise inside the charcoal grill.

For the hottest temperature open both top and bottom vents to allow airflow. 

Lastly, watch your ash build up. If there is a lot of ash built up then this will start to block how much air is flowing through the inside of your charcoal grill. 

Keep a close eye on the ashtray and empty it frequently throughout the grilling process. 

Do keep in mind as you are grilling, the charcoal you begin with will eventually burn off and turn into ash. This means that it’s important you keep adding charcoal before you run out. 

When you notice about half of your charcoal is remaining, add 5-10 pieces to the stockpile to eliminate any risk of losing heat or even worse possibly having to restart the whole process from the beginning. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How to light a charcoal grill without lighter fluid?

Lighting a charcoal grill without lighter fluid is probably the most recommended way. Lighter fluid is a higher risk than newspaper use because it is much more flammable. 

Additionally, the fumes that lighter fluid puts off get onto the food you’re cooking, which can ruin the flavor. 

Other sources, like a fire starter, are recommended over lighter fluid. All you need is to place a fire starter in the layer of coals, ensure both vents on the top and bottom of the grill are open, light the fire starter, and close the grill. 

The fire starter will burn off completely, and the charcoal will begin to catch fire. All the grills are to sit for 10-15 minutes after lighting. 

How to light a charcoal grill with lighter fluid?

For the ones who insist on using lighter fluid, it’s understandable because of how much easier it is to get the charcoal grill going. 

Not everyone wants to run through the whole process of lighting their charcoal grill the alternative way, and if you’re tired after work or in a hurry, the lighter fluid is truly the fastest. 

But, please use caution when choosing to use lighter fluid. Don’t use more than you need; truth be told, you don’t need a lot.

The rule of thumb is ¼ cup per pound of charcoal.

Pour the lighter fluid on top of the charcoal and then let it soak for about 30 seconds, don’t light it right away!

After the 30 seconds is up light the charcoal and let it begin to burn and heat up. Another rule of caution is to never pour lighter fluid onto a fire that’s actively burning. 

How to light a charcoal grill without a chimney starter?

Chimney starters are great resources for getting charcoal started, but not everyone has or wants to use them. 

If you want to start your charcoal grill without using one, consider using a hot air charcoal starter. 

This electronic device essentially blows extremely hot air onto the charcoal in your grill. All you have to do is aim the hot air device at the charcoal until you see all the coals are properly lit. 

It’s best when you first start to hold the device close to the coals until you notice the coals starting to burn. 

Then pull the device back and continue to heat the coals for a few minutes. It’s not the quickest way, but it’s one of the easiest and safer alternatives. 

No chemical smell or taste, and it’s easy to use. The only drawback is needing access to a power supply to plug in the device. 

How to light a charcoal grill with newspaper?

Using newspaper is the most preferred method for getting a charcoal grill lit. 

It’s safe, no chemicals involved, and it doesn’t cost as much. Instead of buying extra lighter fluid or a whole device meant for heating, newspapers are generally free, if not cheaper, and easier to find. 

To light the charcoal grill with newspaper, first layer a thicker stack of newspaper on the bottom of the grill.

Next place your charcoal on top of the newspaper in a pyramid fashion.

After that, all you have to do is light the newspaper and then watch your charcoals heat up. It’s best to keep adding sheets of newspaper into the fire until you see that all the charcoal is successfully burning on its own.

After that lay your charcoal in a way that is best for what you’re grilling and close the lid to heat up. Simple! 


Charcoal grills are truly a tried and true way of grilling. It’s considered a classic and reliable among the grilling community. 

When you’re using a charcoal grill every step of the grilling process can be handled by you and determined what is best for the outcome of your food. Electric grills, propane, and other grills just don’t give you the freedom that charcoal does. 

Getting charcoal grills can truly be a little tricky at first, but it just takes a healthy amount of trial and error before you can start getting a little more confident. 

Don’t be afraid to try different ways of lighting with different food items and even different charcoal formations and types of charcoal.

The charcoal grill really does let you decide every micro factor that goes into grilling which can really affect the outcome. Just always use proper caution when trying to light charcoal grills, especially if the lighter fluid is involved. 

Whether you’re in the great outdoors or your backyard, lighter fluid can be potentially dangerous, so it’s best to avoid if you can or exercise extreme caution if you can’t. 

Remember one of the most important steps when lighting a charcoal grill is keeping the fire going once it’s lit. It would really throw a wrench in your plans if you forgot to check on the charcoal, stir them, and add more as needed while you were grilling. 

This can really affect the heat and how you regulate the temperature. Once you have your charcoal grill lit, enjoy it because it’s a really great way to grill!

Bobby Johnson

When he's not writing about barbecue, you can find Bobby smoking meat for friends and family. He's been a backyard pitmaster for roughly half his life, and has worked with nearly every cut of meat. Not everyone has a hands-on guide to teach them BBQ, but that's what Bobby hopes to do with Electric Smoker HQ. He wants to help people create amazing food that they can be proud of.