Charcoal Grilling Tips

  • Use about 30 briquettes for every pound of meat you plan to cook
  • It takes about 25 – 30 minutes for briquettes to develop white-gray ash.
  • Be sure to open both the top and bottom vents on the charcoal grill cooking over direct heat on a grill, or barbecue is the oldest form of cooking.

Ultimately, it is the simplest. However, getting the fire started, and hot enough to cook in a timely fashion can be the hardest part. Whether it’s for a tailgate party at a football game in December or a family campout in July, mastering lighting the grill is the first step to getting your barbecue off to a terrific start. Once the fire is lit and able to heat up the grill, you’ll be ready to cook just about anything from corn on the cob to salmon to beef ribs. The options are as endless as the fun.

Here is what you need to get started. You’ll need a bag of charcoal briquettes. A five-pound bag of charcoal contains about 75 – 90 pieces. For every pound of meat, you plan to cook, you’ll need 30 briquettes. Use that to determine the amount of charcoal you will need. Secondly, you’ll need either lighter fluid if you don’t mind using a chemical accelerant to start your fire, or a charcoal chimney can be used. If you plan to use a charcoal chimney, then you’ll also need some crumpled newspaper. Non-chemical fire starter cubes are available, but more costly than newspaper. Lastly, you’ll need matches to start the fire.

Step 1: Prepare the Grill

Prepare your grill by opening the vents both at the bottom and the top. Oxygen is required to feed the fire. The more oxygen the fire receives the hotter it will burn. Therefore, it’s important to make sure both of the vents are open. Remove the cooking grill. This is the large grate at the top of the grill. There is also one at the bottom upon which the charcoal stacks. Leave the bottom grate in the grill.

If you are using a chimney starter or charcoal chimney to start your grill, it will be placed on that bottom rack. Crumple up the newspaper and set it on the rack with the chimney starter setting on top. Into the top portion of the chimney starter, fill with the charcoal you will be using for the amount of meat you plan to cook.

If you plan to use lighter fluid to start your grill, stack the charcoal onto the grate into a cone. However, at the top of the cone leave a slight indention rather than forming a pointed top to the pile. In that indentation, you’ll spray the lighter fluid letting the can squirt for 3 to 5 seconds.

A final option is to use an electric starter, which is a metal loop attached to an insulated handle. This starter plugs into a standard outlet and uses electricity to make the metal loop very hot and therefore able to ignite the charcoal. Spread a layer of charcoal down and lay the electric starter loop across those briquettes. Then spread the next layer over the top of the starter continuing to create your pile.

Turn the starter on and wait for about ten minutes for it to have sufficiently started the briquettes it is in contact with so that they will start the ones around them. Unplug the starter and remove it. This method has the strong disadvantage of needing a power outlet.

Step 2: Light the Charcoal Grill

Once the briquettes are arranged either in the chimney starter or in their pile with lighter fluid, they are ready to be lit. Using care, light the matches, and push them through the openings at the base of the charcoal chimney in order to light the newspaper that is beneath the charcoal.

If the lighter fluid was used, it is advisable to have matches with a long stem. Once lit, place the flaming end of the match into the indentation of the briquette pile where the lighter fluid has soaked through. The fluid soaked into the briquettes will immediately ignite into flames which can easily you’re your hands if they are not far enough away as with long matches.

Even with the distance, caution is advised. Unfortunately, using lighter fluid is not always foolproof. Flames are not the goal. The flames of the lighter fluid are attempting to create enough heat that the charcoal itself will ignite and begin to burn to create glowing hot embers. If this does not happen using the lighter fluid method, it may need to be repeated several times before enough heat is generated that the charcoal sustains its own fire.

Step 3: Maintain the Fire and Allow To Smoke

When the charcoal is lit properly, it will begin to burn on its own. It takes about thirty minutes for the briquettes to form a layer of white gray ash around the edges that says they are hot enough to cook food placed on the grill above them. The original conical pile formed before lighting with the lighter fluid will start to settle down and spread producing an even wave of heat across the grill grate.

For those using a charcoal chimney, the newspaper will have started the lowest level of charcoal to burn. This in turn sets the next higher briquettes on fire as it works its way up. When you see that the flames appearing at the highest level of charcoal and the lower coals are burning red, it’s time to gently tip the chimney overspreading the burning charcoal out over the bottom grate of the grill. Wear a long sleeve oven glove to be able to push the coals around on the grate so that they are evenly distributed.

Once the coals are burning embers with a gray edge and spread across the charcoal grate, replace the cooking grate above them. Now your grill is ready for cooking. It’s time to break out the steaks, corn, or chicken and cook up a feast.