Lighting a charcoal grill may not be as quick and easy as firing up a gas grill, but the resulting smoky flavor more than makes up for it. Charcoal grills can get much hotter than gas, reaching temperatures of 500° - 700°. The dry, white-hot heat of charcoal is perfect for searing meat quickly. Grilling with charcoal doesn't have to be as intimidating as it seems! Here are some simple tips to help you light the perfect charcoal fire.
How Much Charcoal Do You Need?
As a rule of thumb, the more charcoal you have, the hotter your fire will be. If you're using a chimney starter, filling it about halfway will give you a nice medium heat for cooking foods like burgers or hot dogs. For high heat when grilling or searing steaks, fill the chimney all the way to the top. It is important to discard the ashes from the bottom of your grill after each use. They can reduce the amount of heat allowed to escape through the bottom of the grill, and can potentially coat your food with a layer of residue. Make sure to properly dispose of the ashes, instead of just throwing them in the yard. If the ashes get wet, they can be very damaging to pets. What if you aren’t using a chimney? How do you measure charcoal? The size and shape of your grill will dictate how much charcoal is necessary. Consult your grill's owner's manual for the amount needed for your grill.
Methods of Lighting Charcoal
- Chimney Starter:
- One of the best techniques to light your charcoal grill is with a chimney starter. Remove the cooking grate from your grill, fill the top of your chimney starter with charcoal, and use either newspaper or fire starters to light the coals from the bottom. A chimney starter works by creating an updraft. The hot air from the fire rises and sucks oxygen in through the bottom, which ignites the coals. In about fifteen minutes, your coals will be white hot and ready to use. Make sure your vents on the bottom of your grill are open, pour the charcoal into the bottom of your grill, replace the cooking grate, and you're ready to go! How about spreading the coals? Check out the Stainless Steel Charcoal Rake.
- The Looftlighter makes lighting charcoal super easy, and will allow you to begin grilling in a matter of minutes. Simply arrange your charcoal in the bottom of your grill, place the Looftlighter into the charcoal, and press the button. Once sparks appear, pull the Looftlighter slightly backwards and allow the air from the Looftlighter to spread the flame. No lighter fluid, no matches, no hassle.
- Electric Starter:
- An electric charcoal starter is a coil similar to those on a hotplate. Arrange your coals, and place the coil into the pile. As the coals begin to ignite, remove the coil and mix them together. Electric starters ignite only the coals that are in contact with the coil, so you'll need to stir the coals to make sure they're all lit.
Many people use lighter fluid to light their charcoal grills. Lighter fluid is easy to use and can be found in most grocery or convenience stores. The worst way to light charcoal is by using lighter fluid, kerosene, or any hydrocarbons; they soak into the coals, and will emit noxious vapors. These products stay in the smoke, and give your food an awful chemical flavor. This includes easy lighting charcoal. There are so many fillers and binders involved in the manufacturing process, that it's essentially the same as using lighter fluid. If you have a ceramic grill you should never use lighter fluid because ceramic is a porous material and the chemicals will absorb into the ceramic, and give your food a strange taste. As an alternative natural lump charcoal lights faster, burns hotter, contains no additives or filler materials, and can be re-used multiple times.
Discarding Dust and Ashes
There is often dust and small particles in the bottom of a charcoal bag. Pouring them into your grill can compromise the airspace between coals and constrict overall airflow. The amount of oxygen received can be just as important as the amount of charcoal!
Extinguishing Your Charcoal Fire
The easiest way to stop a charcoal fire is to suffocate it. By closing all air vents, the coals will die in about an hour. If using a non-ceramic grill, you can also extinguish a charcoal fire with water. Keep in mind that wet ashes can form a crust that can be difficult to clean and can also corrode your grill. While the coals are burning out, use this opportunity to clean your grill grates so they are ready the next time you grill.