How to Light a Charcoal Grill

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Ford versus Chevy has nothing on the charcoal versus gas debate.  You’ve noticed the folks on one side of the extreme.  They are the ones looking at you with a mix of pity and disgust while you check out the latest gas grills in the big box stores.  They would rather walk on their hot coals than be spotted in the propane exchange line.  I may be a grilling diplomat, but I say gas and charcoal for everyone!  Why not?  The best charcoal grill available costs around $100?

Since you landed on this page though, I’m just going to assume that you already have made the decision.  There is nothing better in my mind than sitting on the back porch, beverage in hand, with the smell of smoke from freshly lit coals.  This is grilling in its most simple form.  A charcoal grill is nothing more than a simple chamber to hold a heat source (charcoal in this case) with a grate to hold the meat over the fire and a lid to keep all of that wonderful smoke inside.  But, you ask, isn’t it more difficult for a beginner to cook on a charcoal grill?  Not so much, once you get the basics.  Lets take a look at the first thing you need to learn, lighting a charcoal grill.

Lighting a Charcoal Grill

  1. The first step to lighting our charcoal grill is to remove the lid and cooking grate, so that the bottom charcoal grate is accessible.
  2. Next, open the bottom grill vent all of the way to get air to our charcoal.
  3. Now I will let you in on the first (not so) secret weapon to lighting our charcoal.  Weber makes a product called the Weber chimney starter that makes lighting charcoal easy and really speeds up the process of burning all of the coals down to get them ready for cooking.  Simply fill it up with charcoal and then create a fire under the cylinder to light the coals.  The chimney starter holds just the right amount of coals to cook a standard 22 and 1/2 inch kettle or similar grill.  If you have a smaller 18 inch grill, fill the cylinder to about 3/4 full.
  4. If you don’t have a chimney starter yet, no problem.  Dump coals onto your charcoal grate until you have enough to cover the entire surface, two coals high.  Now rake or move all of the coals to the middle of the grate and create a pile so that they are all touching and can light off of each other.
  5. Now we need a fire source!  The fire source is the second product I recommend from Weber.  I still use crumpled up newspapers in a pinch, but I love the Weber firestarter cubes.  The cubes are available at all of the big box stores for about $7 for a box of 24.  Simply place 2 of the cubes underneath the full charcoal chimney or under the outside edges of your charcoal pile and then light them with a match.  The cubes will light immediately when you touch them with a match and burn long enough to get the coals going.
  6. If you don’t have the cubes yet, loosely roll and ball up three pages of newspaper and tuck them under the pile or chimney starter and then light with a match.  You can even spray the newspaper with a little cooking oil to make it burn longer.
  7. Let the charcoal burn down until all of the coals have a layer of white ash.  This should take up to 15 minutes.
  8. If you are using the chimney starter, put on protective gloves and carefully pour the lit coals onto the charcoal grate.
  9. Using gloves and long handled tongs, spread the coals into an even surface about 2 coals deep for nice, even direct grilling.
  10. Alternatively, if you are grilling thicker cuts of meat (more than 2 inches thick), create a layer on one side of the grill about 3 coals high and then a layer 1 coal high throughout the rest of the grill.  This will give you a nice, 2 zone cooking area.
  11. Replace the cooking grate, open the vents on the lid and cover the grill until you are ready to cook!


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