How to Start a Charcoal Grill

Updated: Jun. 14, 2023

Not sure how to start a charcoal grill? Here are three easy ways to light up the coals.

Whether you love the taste of the perfect grilled side dish or the sweet flavor of grilled ribs, there’s no denying that grilling is one of the best ways to prepare summer staples. Knowing how to use a charcoal grill is an essential summer skill. Charcoal grills are arguably the perfect way to get that classic “grilled” flavor, but if you’ve never used one before, you’re probably wondering how to start a charcoal grill.

Thankfully, it’s not that hard—and once you’ve mastered the process, you’ll be one step closer to that perfect hamburger. And even better, you’ll be able to show off at the next backyard barbecue.

A Few Tips Before You Get Started

If you’re working with a charcoal grill for the first time, there are a few things to keep in mind. They’re not quite as intuitive as gas or electric grills, but that doesn’t mean they’re less effective (or fun).

Know how to prepare a grill for lighting

Before you start adding—or even buying—charcoal, you’ll want to properly clean your grill for the most effective barbecue. If you’re working with a brand-new grill, you can skip this step. But if you’re using a hand-me-down or previously used charcoal grill, it needs to be relatively spotless before you light it back up. Get rid of that grime and debris before you get to work.

Choose the right charcoal

There are a few different types of charcoal to choose from. We prefer brands like Royal Oak Lump Charcoal. It burns hot and clean, with a lightly smoky scent. Another great alternative is Rockwood All-Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal, which uses a blend of oak, hickory, maple and pecan wood. Don’t skimp on this step—a subpar charcoal brand will be harder to light, which will lead to more frustration and fewer delicious grilled burgers.

Learn how to arrange the charcoal

Though it would be much easier, you can’t just dump your charcoal onto your grill and hope for the best. You need to arrange your pieces of charcoal for the best results. Again, this will differ depending on your preferred method—if you use a chimney, you’ll be arranging differently than if you use lighter fluid.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill with a Chimney

Coal briquettes lit in the barbecueScharvik/Getty Images

Members of our Test Kitchen agree when it comes to charcoal chimneys like this. The cooks love ’em! It’s our recommended method for lighting a charcoal grill. Josh explains, “A charcoal chimney is my preferred method for lighting coals. A chimney allows for proper ventilation around the coals as they heat, and also allows for easy mobility.”

To use a charcoal chimney, start with these steps:

Step 1: Add charcoal to the chimney

Fill your chimney with the amount of charcoal specified by your product. You want your charcoal to reach the top, but not overflow.

Step 2: Place starters under the chimney

Starters will be lit on fire, so you can use any items that catch easily. Many people use newspaper or old paper, but Josh recommends using things you may have around the house that burn more slowly than paper, like paper cups, wood chips, dryer lint or even wax.

Step 3: Light the chimney

Light the starters on fire under the chimney. Keep an eye on the coals for the next 10 or so minutes.

Step 4: Pour coals onto the grill when you see flames

Once you see flames poking through the coals, it’s time to flip the chimney over. Gently grab the handle and pour the coals out.

Step 5: Top with grate when coals turn white

After a few more minutes, once the coals have turned white, spread them and cover with a grate and get to grilling.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill with Lighter Fluid

Person starting barbecue grill flameBrandy Mcknight / EyeEm/Getty Images

Lighter fluid is a method well-loved by dads and granddads around the world, but it’s not one that members of our Test Kitchen are too crazy about. Josh Rink, our food stylist and test cook, warns that the use of lighter fluid could be potentially dangerous if you don’t do it properly. Often people light inconsistently, or overcompensate and add more fluid than is necessary. If you’re opting for lighter fluid, we recommend following these steps.

Step 1: Arrange the coals

Arrange your charcoal into a pyramid shape. Make sure you have a large base, then stack the coals into smaller and smaller layers.

Step 2: Carefully pour lighter fluid evenly over coals

You’ll want to use your lighter fluid according to the directions on the package, but generally, evenly coat your coals with the liquid.

Step 3: Wait 30 seconds

Allow the coals to absorb the lighter fluid for 30 seconds before lighting.

Step 4: Light coals

Using a grill lighter or match with a long nose, evenly light the coals in several places. Do not add more lighter fluid once your coals are lit.

Step 5: Top with grate when coals turn white

The coals will catch fire, then turn white once they are ready to be used. Spread them evenly, then top with your grate and start grilling.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill with an Electric Starter

Using an electric starter on a charcoal grillvia

Electric firestarters are another option for starting your charcoal grill. We like the Looflighter Electric Firestarter, but there are lots of electric firestarters you can pick up and use for your grill.

Step 1: Arrange your coals

Spread your coals on the grill and arrange into a pyramid shape.

Step 2: Place the nose of the starter in the middle of your coals

Plug your electric firestarter in, then place the nose directly in your coals. It will begin heating immediately.

Step 3: When you see sparks, pull the lighter slightly away

Once the sparks begin, pull the lighter a few inches away from the pyramid.

Step 4: Keep lighting until the fire starts

Keeping the firestarter a few inches away from the stack, move it around and heat the coals until the fire starts. Remove the starter.

Step 5: Top with grate when coals turn white

Once the coals are entirely white, spread the coals and add the grate.

Whether you prefer a chimney, lighter fluid or an electric starter, once you master a method, you’ll be whipping up grilling recipes like it’s no one’s business!

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