Browse Quick Guides by Subject

How to Start a Charcoal Fire

How to Start a Charcoal Fire

Share this with your friends

Getting your charcoal fire started can be tricky and sometimes even dangerous, if not done properly. In this guide we will look at where to set up your fire, step-by-step instructions for the three main ways to light your charcoal fire, and how to put out your fire. Ready? Let’s get started!


It’s important to place your charcoal grill in a safe location for starting the fire, as well as cooking. Some cities by law don’t allow a lighted grill to be closer to a building than 10 feet. If it’s a windy day, you should increase that margin to 15 to 20 feet. Be especially careful about what your grill sits on, too. Be aware that a wood deck, if hot coals land on it, can quickly start a fire. For optimal placement, set up your grill on a concrete pad or other safe location.

Lighter Fluid

The most common way to light charcoal briquettes is with charcoal lighter fluid—an easily ignitable, petroleum-based product. Here’s how you do it:

  1. For a 22 ½-inch-diameter standard-size charcoal grill, you’ll need to start about 25 briquettes for covered indirect cooking and 60 briquettes for uncovered direct cooking. Arrange the charcoal in a pyramid shape, with a large base that you build up almost to a point.
  2. Spray the coals evenly all over with charcoal lighter fluid until they are saturated.
  3. Close the lighter fluid container tightly, and set the container away from the grill.
  4. Using a long match or long-handled butane lighter, light the fluid-saturated briquettes in several spots, watching to see that the flames leap to other charcoal until the entire stack is burning. Let it burn until the flames go out.

At this point do not spray more lighter fluid on the smoldering briquettes. The lighter fluid’s stream could easily ignite, head up the stream of fluid to the bottle, and explode.

Instead, give the coals that have started to ignite more air. to speed up ignition use an old, thin aluminum cookie sheet to gently fan the briquettes until you see blue flames in several spots. Let those burn for a while, and then repeat the fanning process a few times.

There will be an obvious point when the briquettes are taking care of themselves and will ultimately form a nice gray ash. At this point, your fire is ready. With tongs, redistribute the briquettes for whatever fire you require.

Always follow the lighter fluid maker’s directions for use and safety precautions.

Charcoal Chimney Lighter

A charcoal chimney starter is essentially a metal tube, usually steel, with a handle on the side. Inside is a grate to hold the briquettes and to keep them above the crumpled newspaper, which goes in under the charcoal and is what starts the briquettes. Ventilation holes ring the bottom of the tube. Here’s how it works:

  1. Roll up one or two sheets of newspaper and form into a doughnut-shape ring. Roll up one or two more sheets of newspaper and form into a large doughnut-shape ring. Fit the newspaper rings into the circular bottom of the chimney, leaving a small hole in the middle to create a draft. Place the chimney in the center of your grill, and pour briquettes from the bag into the chimney.
  2. Light the newspaper using a match or lighter (you may need to tilt the chimney slightly to light the newspaper from underneath). The chimney effect takes the newspaper’s flames up through the briquettes and lights them. The heat from the starting charcoal makes the air in the chimney rise, which in turn pulls more air in through the chimney’s bottom.
  3. When a white ash forms on the briquettes, pour the lighted coals out onto the charcoal grate and, with tongs, distribute the briquettes for whatever fire you require.

Always follow the chimney maker’s directions for use and safety precautions.

Electric Charcoal Lighter

Electric charcoal lighters look like an elongated outline of a ping-pong paddle. That outline is the lighter element loop that, when plugged in, glows like the heating elements in a toaster. Here is how you use it:

  1. Arrange a layer of briquettes on the grill’s charcoal grate slightly larger than the area of the starter’s element.
  2. Place the lighter element on the charcoal, arrange additional charcoal in a pyramid shape on and over the loop, and plug in the lighter.
  3. After 8 to 10 minutes, when the coals around the element are glowing red, pull the lighter from the briquettes and carefully set it in a heat-safe place to cool down. Then, with tongs, redistribute the briquettes for whatever fire you require.

Always follow the electric charcoal lighter maker’s directions for use and safety precautions.

Self-Starting Briquettes

If you don’t want to fool around with lighter fluid, there is one more alternative—self-lighting charcoal briquettes. With these, all you do is pile the briquettes on the grill, light them with a match or butane lighter, and you have an almost instant fire. Some grillers like to use these as starters, with a mixture of regular briquettes. One thing to note, however: self-lighting briquettes are not recommended for use with chimney starters.

Putting Out the Fire

Stopping your fire is just as important as starting it. It’s easier to extinguish your fire if your grill has a cover. When you’re done cooking, using proper protection for your hand, carefully close your grill’s bottom cents. Then, place the cover securely on your grill and close the cover’s vent or vents. Assume it will take at least 1 hour for your fire to go out and your grill to cool down.

If your charcoal grill doesn’t have a cover, you’ll need to let your fire burn itself out, which could take an hour or two or more.

There is no ON or OFF switch with a charcoal fire. Always be cautious about making any assumptions about when your fire is completely out. It’s better to be safe than sorry—and burned.

Now that you know how to start and extinguish a fire, you can prepare for the best barbecue of the summer. Be safe, and have fun!

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grilling by Don Mauer