How to Light a Charcoal Grill for Smoky, Summery Flavor

Follow this advice and you won't need to call the fire department.

March 25, 2022
Photo by James Ransom

The start of summer is not defined by when the weather reaches a certain temperature or when school is no longer in session. It’s not entirely about when lines start forming at the ice cream truck or when community pools open up. It’s when I can walk around my neighborhood (because yes, the weather has reached a pleasant temperature) and I can smell the aroma of a charcoal grill in the air. Yes, starting a charcoal grill is a little bit more challenging and time-consuming than using a gas grill. But I firmly believe that the final flavor is so much better. You simply can’t replicate the charred, smoky flavor of charcoal from gas. Here’s exactly how to start a charcoal grill so that you too can enjoy the best burgers, kebabs, and salmon fillets all summer long.

Step One

First things first: grab a couple of sheets of newspaper, form them into two balls, and place them at the very bottom of your grill. Place the bottom rack on top of the newspaper and create another ball using more newspaper (a paper grocery bag will also work). Place this ball on top of the rack and surround it with lump charcoal in the shape of a pyramid.

Step Two

Light the newspaper at the bottom of the grill. Within 15 to 20 minutes, the coals will start to heat up and look ashy. Using extra-long tongs or a hand in a heat-resistant, fireproof glove, arrange your charcoal in a single layer on the grill grate to ensure that every piece is super hot (even if the coals don’t look hot, I promise you that they are so please do not touch them with your bare hands). Once the coals are hot, place the second grill rack on top of the charcoal pile.

How to Extinguish the Flame

Once you’ve grilled chicken breasts, eggplant planks, and vegetable skewers for dinner, it’s important to carefully and fully extinguish the flames. Charcoal retains enough heat that it could start another fire up to 24 hours after cooking. To ensure that the coals are safely extinguished, close all of the vents and gently spray the coals with cold water. Use extra-long tongs to move the coals around and get each one wet. Once you’ve done this, cover the grill and let it cool completely.

The Chimney Method

A chimney starter is a steel cylinder used to heat coals more quickly. To use a chimney starter, place a couple of newspaper balls at the bottom and fill it halfway with charcoal. Some grillmasters like to sprinkle a few wood chips over the coals to help indicate Don’t light the coals—light the paper! Within five minutes, the coals should be glowing, which is a sign that they’re hot and ready to use. Carefully dump the coals onto the grill grate.

Do You Really Need Lighter Fluid?

This technique is hotly contested. Do you need lighter fluid for charcoal? No. Is it helpful? Sure. The problem is that it’s tempting to use way too much lighter fluid, resulting in over-the-top flames that could result in a major accident and a call to the fire department. As cool as you might feel dousing charcoal in lighter fluid, don’t do it. Kingsford recommends using one to two ounces of lighter fluid per pound of charcoal. Light the goals immediately using a long barbecue lighter.

Do you like using charcoal for grilling? What’s your preferred method for heating the coals? Share your greatest grilling tips in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • HalfPint
  • Smaug
Former Food52 Staff Editor


HalfPint March 29, 2022
Not a fan of lighter fluid. I can always taste it in the food afterwards. Go with the charcoal chimney. It's inexpensive and easy to use. Plus the food doesn't taste like it has been seasoned with gasoline ;)
Smaug March 28, 2022
First method seems designed only for Weber grills, never tried it. Chimneys work great, but most of them specify a single sheet of newspaper, and there's no reason not to fill the chimney all the way. Charcoal should be left in until it is covered with grey ash, but it will light pretty fast once the bottom layer gets going. The heat of the chimney can be useful for things like skinning peppers. I've found that they work best when placed on a solid surface such as concrete, rather than on a grill. Chemical starter is a non starter, for a variety of reasons, but electric starters work well if you're in reach of an ouutlet.