How to Light Charcoal

You're not the only one who's having a hard time with it!

A few clicks and keypresses on Google should immediately take you to page after page of links to websites talking about how to light coal. There is plenty of information available simply because lighting charcoal is not rocket science.

However, lighting charcoal is easier imagined than done. Every pit master has failed at getting those things lit successfully at least once during their early outdoor cooking career.

We are not saying that reading this guide will instantly perfect your lighting skills. However, it should give you a nice starting point.

Read on and take the guesswork out of lighting charcoal during your next barbecue!

Lump Charcoal

Before Lighting Your Charcoal...

Before you get out and set fire to your coals, do yourself and your cooker a favor by cleaning it out first. Leftover ash can build up and significantly block the flow of air and oxygen, making it even harder for you to light your coals and keep the fire burning later on.

Get rid of carbon, ash, rust, and all other kinds of residue on your cooker. If it has an ash catcher, make sure to wipe or brush it empty before proceeding.

How to light charcoal

How to Burn Coal

There are only a handful of methods you can use to light charcoal. We will go over them one by one and see what their advantages and disadvantages are.

1. An All-Purpose Heat Gun

A heat gun is an electrical device that produces a concentrated jet of hot air. The temperature that it produces can be anywhere between 212F to 1022F, making it useful for a wide range of applications.

For cheap, you can buy a good general purpose heat gun on Amazon. These are the same ones used for common home repair jobs like loosening tiles and stripping paint.

To light coal using this equipment, point the nozzle towards the spot you want to light up and gently move the nozzle around a little. This is because heat guns should not be kept pointed at the same area for more than a few seconds.

If you are lighting lump charcoal, you are in luck. Since their chemical composition makes them extremely responsive to oxygen, they light up easily.

In a couple of minutes, you should see your chosen area light up, and the coals around the area should just automatically catch.

How to burn coal

Pros:

  • It is fast. A heat gun can light up your coal in less than two minutes, making it the perfect method to use if you are the type of person who just wants to get things done!
  • It is cheap. Even the lowest end heat guns can last as long as ten years provided that you use and store it properly.
  • Largely due to its efficiency, the heat gun consumes much less electricity (and physical work!) compared to most other types of lighters.

Cons:​

  • You have to have an electrical outlet close by. It may not be a big deal, but it is still one more thing to prepare.
  • It heats up a lot. Avoid burning your hand by using protective gear for your hands and eyes.
  • The heat gun’s fan will likely send sparks flying around the vicinity while you are lighting your coal, so keep your distance.

2. The Good Ol' Newspaper

You can use any paper product (even the paper bag your coal comes in if any) to light your charcoal for grilling. In fact, some experienced outdoor cookers and competitive barbecue teams prefer this method.

To begin, open your grill’s air vents. Crumple up a few sheets of paper and form a pile in the middle of the burner.

As an alternative, you can dip your newspaper in any kind of cooking oil (vegetable, canola olive--take your pick) to sustain the fire for a longer while and give the coal more time to catch.

You may also add kindling (small, dry sticks and twigs) to your pile to help speed up the process.

Start burning coal by placing a few pieces on your burning pile and lighting the papers in different areas. Again, if you are lighting lump charcoal, you should find this step easy and quick.

Moving forward, your goal is to spread the fire and keep the charcoal burning until they are covered in gray ash.

how to light coal

Pros:

  • Paper is cheap.
  • Many enthusiasts prefer using newspaper over modern, electrical options (especially those involving gas) because they give the food a more natural flavor.

Cons:​

  • Lighting charcoal using paper products tend to be messy and leave behind too much ash.
  • lWithin the first few minutes of starting your fire, expect thick gray smoke to billow everywhere.

3. A Propane Torch

This is a tool that generates heat using propane, a hydrocarbon gas. To start, form a pile of charcoal in such a way that encourages a good amount of airflow.

Start up the propane lighter and point it towards your pile of charcoal. Hold it in the same area for about a minute and you should see the coal begin to turn bright orange.

burn charcoal

Pros:

  • A propane torch can light charcoal Incredibly quickly.
  • Although it does use gas, some manufacturers claim that it does not leave a gas-like taste on your food the way other burners do.
  • Using a self-igniting propane torch makes it possible for you to light charcoal even without an electrical outlet nearby.

Cons:​

  • Using and maintaining a propane torch can be ridiculously expensive, especially if you’re only planning to use it exclusively for outdoor cooking every now and then. It is just not worth it.
  • A propane torch can be dangerous. Make sure not to use one without safety gear covering your hands and your eyes.

4. The Ever-Reliable Chimney Starter

A chimney starter or a charcoal chimney is a cylindrical device constructed out of steel. It can vary in size depending on the model and the manufacturer, but most of the ones we see are about 6in to 8in in diameter.

It has a chamber at the bottom where you are supposed to start your fire. You can access this through holes surrounding the bottom of the cylinder.

As the name suggests, the chimney starter works pretty much like a portable fireplace. Crumple a few pages of a newspaper and stuff them inside the bottom of the cylinder and fill the top with charcoal.

Then, light the paper in a couple of areas and watch until the coals at the bottom begin to light up. You will know that they have caught the flames once you hear a soft crackling noise coming from where the bottom coals are.

In 10 to 15 minutes after lighting, your charcoal should be good to go. Although the chimney starter’s turnaround time is not as quick as that of electrical lighters, there are still several good reasons that chimney starters remain such a hit.

Pros:

  • They are easy to use. When lighting coal using this humble cylinder, there are no lengthy manuals to read and complicated controls to fumble with.
  • They are food-friendly. Since using a chimney starter does not involve gas and other harmful chemicals getting to the charcoal, you get to serve food with a deliciously authentic, smoky taste.
  • Chimney starters are cheap. For as low as $10 to $15 you can get yourself one that will last you a long time with proper usage and maintenance.
  • Using this kind of equipment also does not require taking as many precautions as when you use other lighters. Sure, it is still best to have a fire extinguisher ready just in case, but generally, the chimney starter is still by far the safest one to light your charcoal with.

Con:​

  • The only disadvantage that we commonly hear of when it comes to chimney starters is that modern lighters can do the job faster. However, we think a slightly longer lighting time is a small price to pay for the benefits of using a chimney starter!

5. The Electric Starter

Also called a charcoal iron, the electric starter is another favorite on this list. Just like the chimney starter, this device can light charcoal without the use of flammable additives.

Electric starters are generally recommended for use in charcoal grills and kettle grills.

electric charcoal starter

Pros:

  • They do the job in around 10 minutes.
  • Electric starters are also inexpensive and last a long time.
  • ​Since there are no harmful chemicals in use, this device is safe both for you and your food.
  • The one advantage it has over the chimney starter is that you do not need newspapers, matches, or anything else if you have an electric starter in your hand.

Con:​

  • The only downsides to using electric starters are that it is not as fast as other devices and it needs a power outlet to work. However, we think those are minor compared to what the starter does.

6. The Infamous Lighter Fluid

Lighting charcoal using lighter fluid is a tried and tested method that many outdoor grillers and smokers stand by.

You can get your hands on a bottle of this by checking out your local grocery store. For better results, you may also purchase your fluid directly from the same manufacturer that your charcoal comes from.

To light charcoal, arrange them in a mound first. Squirt some lighter fluid gently towards the charcoal until the coals look shiny.

Let the charcoal sit for about half an hour after that. Then, light up the mound from the bottom using a long match.

Remember to strictly let the charcoal get soaked in the fluid before lighting up the mound. Otherwise, the flame will quickly burn off.

Start grilling when the charcoal is covered in gray ash.

lighter fluid

Pro:

  • Lighter fluid redefines convenience for many outdoor cooks. It is cheap and easy to find, use, and store.

Con:​

  • You can literally taste the fluid in your food. Some lighter fluid fans argue that you can prevent that from happening by giving the fluid enough time to completely get burned off, but why would you want to put something toxic near your food anyway?

7. Self-Lighting Charcoal

Self-igniting charcoal is the same as regular charcoal, except that it is completely coated with as combustible material such as mineral spirits. This technology allows you to just pile up your coal, ignite them directly, and begin grilling or smoking in 10 minutes or so.

Briquettes Charcoal

Pros:

  • Since you do not need to use lighter fluids that often result in dangerous flare-ups, self-igniting charcoal is relatively safer and cleaner to use.
  • Needless to say, it does accomplish the job quickly.

Con:

  • Just like when lighting coal using lighter fluid, using self-igniting charcoal can be just as harmful--if not used the right way, as manufacturers say. The key is also to let all of the starting fluid get burned off before starting to grill your food.

To Wrap It All Up

Technology has man’s laziness have made it possible for even children to know how to light coal. Although you now have a lot of options to choose from, it still all boils down to your preferences.

If you are keen enough to tell when your burning coal is already free from the harmful chemicals of lighter fluids, you may do well with charcoal lighter fluids and self-igniting charcoal.

If you are the handy type of person who has the equipment, the protective gear, and the skills to use dangerous power tools, you may want to try using heat guns or propane torches instead.

An electric starter and a chimney starter, on the other hand, are good options if you are a practical spender and are very particular about the taste of your food.

Lastly, if you want to do it the simple and all-natural way, you are free to go for a few pages out of today’s newspaper!

It is never really about your equipment or your cooking style. At the end of the day, all you and your family and friends want is good food. Light your charcoal right and the delicious food will follow.