How to Start Your Charcoal Grill

Grill & Outdoor Kitchen Expert Travis Hill explains the four main ways to start a charcoal grill. Read on for some tips and considerations for each method!

Two steaks on a charcoal grill.

Photo by Philipp Kammere

We have come a long way from the times of rubbing two sticks together to get a fire going and carving tree branches down to make a rotisserie, but many of the concepts are the same. There is still a need for a starter, fuel, and airflow; fortunately, as we get ready to light up our charcoal grill today, we have so many more options to get to that fantastic end state.

In the grilling world, there are few things more invigorating than the smell of lit charcoal. The smell of burnt wood, the sound of the crackle as it gets started, the glowing nostalgia of warming hot coals, and the knowledge of the fact that you are taking your place among our early ancestors when lighting a fire were crucial for survival.

This is primal and visceral in all of us, we stand proudly over the sparks we have created, and it is also infectious.

Even saying the words "time to light the grill" in my head makes me feel like a mountain man. Let’s take a look at how it has become easier and more sustainable to get your charcoal grill going.

Charcoal Grill Airflow 101

Knowing how the airflow in your grill works to give you that constant burn on your coals is vital. There are two main vents on your charcoal grill, one on the top of your grill lid or stack and the other at the bottom of the grill body. Each of them will sometimes have a plug or a wheel vent door to be able to control the airflow to your grill.

This is a straightforward system to bring air into your grill. Closing and opening vents in small increments let you control the airflow to make it hotter and burn quicker. It maintains the desired temperature and burns slower or fully closes and smoother. Every charcoal grill will have this vent system; there may be an extra, but the top and bottom airflow vent systems are pretty standard.

Keep in mind that the vents towards the bottom of your grill are for more significant airflow adjustments and the top vents are more for fine-tuning.

It will take you a few cooks to fine-tune your vent setting for each of your targeted temperatures, but once you have the hang of where your vents need to be for the desired temperature you are looking to achieve, you are on easy street.

Expert Tip: Get your to a temp higher than you are shooting for, then adjust it to the range you want.

Fire Starters

To start your fire, you need combustibles. There are many types of fire starters and techniques to light your grill. I like using tumbleweeds to get my chimney starter loaded with charcoal. Tumbleweed is small bunches of thin-cut wood strips with a light coat of paraffin wax. They catch fire nicely, and it's easy to get your coals going.

Cardboard and/or a piece of newspaper tucked underneath the chimney will work just as well also. Lighter cubes and compressed cardboard are sold close by to tumbleweeds as well and are very good at getting your pile of charcoal going.

So, we haven't yet talked about that awkward stigma of using lighter fluid yet. No doubt there are many different ways to start your charcoal, and in truth, you are the deciding factor on taste and technique; that being said, lighter fluid is NOT the best thing to light your charcoal with.

Lighter fluid has many chemicals and additives and can cause flames to shoot up higher than you expected. Lighter fluid might be good to get a brush fire going and make a controlled burn on some old limbs and tree branches, but it doesn't belong anywhere near your cooking charcoal or food. We all know that lighter fluid chemical tastes, and it's not what's for dinner.

Expert Tip: Place your starter (I am using a tumbleweed in the photos below) on the charcoal grate and light. The starter should give you a good amount of time for your charcoal to catch and start to smolder. Once lit, stack your chimney with your desired charcoal on top and wait for the coals to smolder to white.

Three photos of starting a charcoal grill. On the far left is a tumbleweed starter on a grill. In the middle is a tumbleweed starter on fire. On the right is a tumbleweed starter on fire with a piece of metal over it.

Three steps to starting a charcoal grill with a tumbleweed starter. Photos by Travis Hill

Chimney Starters

The chimney start is a better way to begin your fire. So, again no lighter fluid when cooking food(ever). The charcoal chimney starter is a fantastic, practical, simple design.

This is a metal fabricated cylinder with a handle that enables you to pile in the charcoal of your choice tightly, light it and layer them on with one turn. This innovative apparatus has a vented bottom to hold your charcoal in and a vent to stick in the combustible of your choice.

This is a natural, cost-effective, and more efficient way to ensure all your charcoal coals are correctly lit.

When using lump charcoal in your chimney starter, ensure you have a random amount of sizes for the start. You don't want to have just large pieces or just small pieces.

Expert Tip: This time waiting for all your charcoal to light should take about 8-10 mins.

Three images of a charcoal chimney starter. All three images are different views of charcoal on a grill on fire.

Charcoal chimney starter. Photos by Travis Hill

Lump Charcoal or Charcoal Briquettes?

Believe it or not, charcoal is not coal; it is more carbon deposits than anything else. This is used to provide that nice heated layer of flavored smoky goodness sought after for amazing backyard BBQs. Finding the right charcoal for your grill and cook style is crucial, and there are only really two choices. So, to settle the debate about using lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes to light your charcoal grill, here are a few pros and cons for both. Remember that every grill is different, and for that matter, every grill master is unique. I highly encourage you to try out different methods for both direct and indirect cooking.

All-Natural Lump Charcoal

Hardwoods like oak, hickory, or mesquite are commonly used in the production of lump charcoal. The production is done by burning and then cutting off the oxygen of these hardwoods in a kiln.

When looking at lump charcoal, you want to see faint wood lines and lighter in weight for its size and mass.

Lump charcoal is best used for high-hot cooks, so for instance, if you want to grill a nice juicy steak or some fresh ground burgers, the lump will give a great flavor and the right amount of high heat for that nice sear and crust.

When using lump charcoal, you want to use an all-natural starter. Lump charcoal is the closest to all-natural itself. Using any lighter fluid or other starters with additives or volatiles will seep into the charcoal and your food, giving it a chemical taste.

Lump charcoal has no starters and no filers and will produce less ash than briquettes. Lump charcoal also burns hotter than briquettes, so ensure you have a two-zone direct and indirect heat area to finish cooking after your more searing direct heat cooking.

All-Natural Charcoal Briquettes

“All-natural” is the keyword to look for when you are going for briquettes. Briquettes are charcoal mounds molded by compressing lump charcoal and some other binders. Starch, clay, molasses, and/or other gums can be used as binders in charcoal briquettes, although other binders can be used. Ensure you are getting all-natural charcoal briquettes with organic binders; this cuts out large amounts of ash and, most of all, that chemical taste.

Because charcoal briquettes are pretty much the same size, they tend to give you a more consistent burn and allow you to hold the temperatures you are looking to stay at when cooking.

Briquettes are a very good option for low and slow cooks. Briquettes are the way to go when cooking pork butts, brisket, and ribs or if you are going to be cooking a lot over a long period of time. All-natural charcoal briquettes will burn slower and more consistently.

One more thing to note about charcoal briquettes, they absorb more moisture and odors than lump charcoal. With this in mind, make sure you use fresh charcoal briquettes for every cook.

Expert Tip: ​Using a simple clamp when rolling up and storing your charcoal will help keep it dry and other insects and debris you don't want to taste in your food out. Don't store in the vicinity of any flammables.​​​

Electric Charcoal Starters

The firestarter for the modern age, oh yes, we have the electric charcoal lighters. These marvels of the modern cooking world are incredibly easy to use and very efficient. Looflighter is one of my favorites, but there are many great electric starters and heating elements from other great brands like Weber, Big Green Egg, and Primo.

The electric starter plugs into your wall outlet(make sure you know how much wattage is needed from your outlet to get max performance out of the electric lighter). It applies a high direct concentration of heat to the charcoal until it ignites.

Expert Tip: After use ensure that you rest the lighter unplugged at least two feet away from you and other combustables while it cools down.

Two views of a charcoal grill being started by a lighter.

Starting the charcoal grill with an electric charcoal lighter. Photos by Travis Hill

Smoking With Wood and Wood Chips

If you want that nice smoky flavor on your next cook, smoking wood or wood chips is a nice way to add a touch of smoke. You can get bigger wood chunks for a long slower smoky burn or grab a bag of wood chips for that small kiss of smoke. Whichever you choose will add great flavor to your food, and you can add them right on top of the charcoal.

For all of you gas grillers out there, fret not; there are smoking boxes you can buy to get that same great smoke on your gas grill!

Expert Tip: Soaking the wood in water for a few minutes will increase the burn time and control the flame so you don't overshoot the temperature you are trying to hold.

Two different types of wood starters for a charcoal grill.

Wood starters for the charcoal grill. Photos by Travis Hill

It's Lit!

You should be hearing the crackling of the wood and be mesmerized by the hot glowing coals by now. Once those coals start to “white” a bit, put your cooking grate back on to heat up (using heat-insulated gloves, of course) and get ready to cook! There are many different ways to start your charcoal grill; finding the best way for you is all about practice. Try these different methods and experiment with different combinations; this will only make you a better grill master. Let me know which one works for you, and if you want to upgrade your lighter and grill cooking methods, we, at Curated, have some excellent Grill & Outdoor Kitchen Experts to help!

Grill & Outdoor Kitchen Expert Travis Hill
Travis Hill
Grill & Outdoor Kitchen Expert
Have a question for Travis Hill? You can get connected directly with him to learn more.
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So happy to meet y'all! My name is Travis, and was raised on Central Texas BBQ. My father was the one who taught me how to cook over an open fire when I was just a young lad; Made sure I knew the two ingredients for authentic Texas-style BBQ; Oak and fire. Since then, I have always had that passion...

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