DIY Food

How to Light a Grill

July  3, 2012

Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today, Merrill lights a charcoal grill -- without lighter fluid. 

Here at FOOD52, we'd throw everything on the grill if we could (and sometimes, we do). Since summertime -- especially Fourth of July -- means it's finally time to head out and barbecue, we felt it was our patriotic duty to show you how to light one properly.

Today, Merrill shows you how to light a grill -- without lighter fluid. With just some charcoal and a chimney starter, you can get outside and grilling in no time. Now, grab a beer: time to celebrate!

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Today's video was shot by Alex Lisowski, and edited by Kyle Orosz. 

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • fitzie
  • Wes
  • Smaug
  • Joseph Zarrillo
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Brette Warshaw

Written by: Brette Warshaw

I'm a reader, eater, culinary thrill-seeker, and food nerd.


fitzie May 24, 2017
I lit a grill on my balcony a few years ago and the fire department was there in about 15 minutes. Absolutely forbidden in Kansas City.
Wes May 15, 2017
I have a ceramic Primo grill. My method of lighting the lump charcoal is to use Map gas. You can buy a canister at Home Depot or hardware store along with the nozzle. Map gas comes in the yellow can. Dump you charcoal in the grill, light the flame and then light about three different locations in the pile. Hold the flame for about 30-45 seconds to get the charcoal started in each place. In no time the charcoal is ready to go without smoke and residue from the newspaper. This method is perfect when you want to cook something "low and slow...225 degrees" only starting the charcoal in one place. My charcoal and grill can burn for 20 hours when doing a couple of pork butts for pulled pork.
Smaug July 23, 2015
Apparently, electric charcoal starters are out of fashion. They have disadvantages (you need a plug, mainly) but they do a nice job very cleanly. My father used to do something involving milk cartons- I think he just put the charcoal in there and lit it- but in those days the cartons were waxed. Don't know why people would have problems with chimneys, which are just as simple as advertised. There may be problems in humid areas of the newspaper absorbing too much moisture, which seems to make it burn cooler.
BARBARA M. August 23, 2014
Thank you for this video. I purchased a Weber charcoal grill and it has been sitting in the box since May because I did not know how to properly light charcoal and use that chimney thing. I'll unbox the BBQ today and start using it.
Joseph Z. May 30, 2014
We've only been utilizing that method for about forty years now. You can also use very thin dry twigs piled underneath your layer of charcoal right in the BBQ without the need of the chimney. I use one match everytime to light my BBQ.
SmokingQ July 5, 2012
Put that chimney on top of a turkey fryer to start it up. Only needs one min of flame time to light and if you give it 3 the coals should be lit if you keep them on high!
smurrd July 3, 2012
We live in an area with a lot of bay laurel and have an ongoing collection of bay leaves at varying stages of dryness. They light up beautifully--no need for newspaper.
Merrill S. July 4, 2012
Love it!
pierino July 4, 2012
I'm intrigued by the bay leaf idea as I have branches at the ready and they should smell better than newspaper as a starter.
Hal S. July 3, 2012
Is there a way to do this *without* a lot of smoke? Houses in our neighborhood are close together, and when I light the grill (as demonstrated in the video), smoke pours out until the coals are ready.
Merrill S. July 4, 2012
Alas, I think smoke is a necessary part of this process, and we have the same issue of close houses/apts. in Brooklyn. I find that the smoke only lasts a few minutes, though -- once the paper has burned up and the bottom coals are lighted, the smoke disappears.
pierino July 4, 2012
Yes, smoke is part of the process. But if you are using wood at least it's an aromatic smoke which can actually cause a Pavlovian response with the neighbors. The other thing to be careful about is sparking embers. Myself and my own neighbors are surrounded by acres of oak trees and it can get really windy here during the early evening so I have my grill positioned in a sheltered space. I don't want to burn down Paso Robles.
SMSF July 22, 2015
I use the paraffin lighter cubes instead of paper in the charcoal chimney. The resulting smoke is minimal and there is no odor. You might give that a try if the chimney smoke is an issue - I agree it will keep the neighbors happier!
chefrockyrd July 3, 2012
Thanks for showing this video. I almost got in a fist fight with someone at a bbq this past week end. They used practically a WHOLE container of lighter fluid on already pre soaked briquets. They kept squirting and squirting at the fire to make it burst into high (stinky) flames.
A few of the men said - don't worry it burns off! Well the smell and taste doesn't. I mentioned this method of fire starting and they all said it took too long.
I will be passing this video on to them.
pierino July 3, 2012
Yes, chefrockyrd those briquettes are packed with accelerants that will give your food a really nasty taste.
roryrabbitfield July 18, 2012
I am going to buy my neighbor a chimney and teach him how to do this. Every time he lights his grill, we are overcome by the lighter fluid fumes. Gross!
pierino July 3, 2012
Real wood charcoal? What else would you want to use? Briquettes are for sissies and recidivist, compulsive burger flippers. Real wood, with the chimney starter is the only way to go. You can skip the paper step by using parafin cubes to ignite, or to be green you can use fire starters from Big Green Egg. They come in the form of little tiles that you apply your match or Bic to. Nothing toxic. They light up right away and then you can get to work on the wood for your fire.
Smaug July 23, 2015
Vox July 3, 2012
I do it differently, without any lighter fluid (or similar stuff) and without a chimney. This works, of course, when you are trying to grill in an uncivilized place, which is where I learned the trick :)

Grab 2 or 3 paper napkins, put 3 or 4 spoonfuls of sugar in them and crumple the napkins together with the sugar inside; put it in the middle of your grill, optionally, wet the napkins (not soak, just wet) with kitchen oil (any will do) and then add your charcoal around and over the napkins, leaving enough space around them so air circulates...light up the napkins from a couple of places and let it'll have ready-to-cook charcoal in about 15 minutes.

Merrill S. July 3, 2012
Your way sounds really cool! I'll have to try it.
Smaug July 23, 2015
You seem to have a pretty well supplied uncivilized place.