How to Start a Charcoal Grill


It’s summertime, which means hours of delicious BBQs in the backyard with family and friends grilling on charcoal. Grilling with charcoal can be challenging if you don’t know how.

It can take some BBQ enthusiasts several hours to light charcoal on a charcoal grill and there’s also the possibility of sustaining burns.

In this article, we will explore how to light charcoal like a pro so your cookout session gets off well.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill

Prepare the Grill Surface

Before you start cooking, always ensure your grate is squeaky clean, as this will prevent food from sticking. Try using a damp paper towel or dishcloth and some mild dish soap to remove any accumulated debris.

Ensure the cooking surface is thoroughly rinsed after cleaning and leave it to air dry before use. Once you’ve cleaned your grate, it’s time to add the charcoal. Always prepare your charcoal grill in advance by spreading out all the briquettes in an even layer.

Then, turn on the burner and wait until you see the entire surface of the grill covered with coal. To create a uniform charcoal bed, carefully arrange all briquettes in an even layer – this is best done by using a chimney starter to light them at once.

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Prepare the Charcoal

First, ensure you have enough lit charcoals for cooking before trying anything else. This will depend on what type of food you want. Then use lighter fluid or firelighters and wait for them to ignite to get your briquettes to catch fire. You could light them using a lighter.

Don’t forget to place the briquettes on an even surface to ensure they’re not too close or far from each other.

If you’ve bought charcoal in bags, keep it dry so it starts easily and can be lit up easily. If damp, they’ll burn for 5 minutes and won’t relight.

More experienced cooks recommend soaking your briquettes overnight in cold water after removing any excess dust or ash. This will make sure that they get fired up quickly and efficiently.

The next day, remove the coals from the water and leave them under the sun to dry before lighting them up.

How to Light Your Charcoal Fire

First, you will need a smoke chimney. This chimney helps light the charcoal using newspaper or other lighting materials easily and quickly before transferring it to your charcoal grill.

If you do not have a smoke chimney, you can use firelighters instead of these tablets. Firelighters are solid fuel tablets that simplify and speed up the lighting process.

If you have a barbecue grill, complete your preparation by cleaning it before imparting the process. For pellet smokers, consider cleaning them to avoid unnecessary smoke and unpleasant smells.

Now that your charcoal or firewood is ready place the charcoals at the bottom of the grill. Take out a few firelighters and place them side-by-side but still separate from each other on one side of the coal bed leaving just enough space between each one of these tablets.

Spread newspapers over this area to absorb small embers or any excess fuel placed beside firelighters that might cause unwanted fires nearby while lighting up.

Once the embers appear at the bottom of the grill, add more briquettes/charcoal into it from one side leaving an open space to allow it to breathe. Do not force the charcoals together or it will cause a fire.

If there are any embers left behind in between these tablets that were not ignited by the firelighters, then you could remove them using tongs before adding more briquettes but this is completely optional.

Cook With Indirect Heat to Avoid Flare-Ups and Burning Food

You must know how to cook with indirect heat because if you’re not careful, your food will burn or stick to the grate. When cooking on a charcoal grill, it is best to use the “indirect method.”

This means placing all of the briquettes in one half of the grill (or on one side) so they are not directly under where you’ll be cooking – this prevents flare-ups and makes for even grilling.

The other half should be left empty, so flipping foods over during cooking time can be flipped into that area without touching any coal.

Maintain the Cooking Temperature

The cooking temperature of most charcoal grills can be maintained by adding or removing coals, or adjusting the vents.

This is especially important if you cook over indirect heat (slow-cooking meat like ribs). If you close all three vents on a grill with a single burner, it will take about 10 minutes to reduce the temperature from 400°F to 200°F.

This would not work as well with direct heat (a fire that cooks food quickly), but if you have a long cook time and want to maintain a low-temperature fire without adding fuel every 15 minutes, this technique works wonders.

What are the Different Types of Charcoal Grills?

Charcoal grills come in many shapes and sizes, from the cheapest models to more expensive Kamado-style grills that cost as much as a new car.

There are four basic types of charcoal grill:

The most popular type of grill is the standard grill with a cooking grate and one or two chimneys on top for venting smoke and heating out the top away from the food being cooked.

This style is also referred to as an offset smoker because it has features like those found on a traditional smoker, such as a water pan under the grate for adding moisture to the air and a ‘chimney’ on top that can be adjusted to control airflow inside the grill.


In this article, we’ve explored how to light charcoal like a pro so that your cookout session gets off to a great start. We hope you found these tips helpful and now have the skills to grill on charcoal without problems!

If you need more BBQ-related advice or want new recipes for grilling with charcoal, read our article on offset smoker recipes.

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.