How to Start a Charcoal Grill? Complete Guide

November 17, 2023
Written by John Smits

You’ve got your new charcoal grill assembled and ready to go: now, it’s time to figure out how to light it. I use a chimney starter to get my charcoal grill going. Chimney starters are simple, cheap, and effective. You can also use lighter fluid (I wouldn’t) or an electric charcoal starter.

When I’m grilling, I’m almost always grilling over charcoal. I’ve lit thousands of chimneys in my day. Food cooked over charcoal will have more flavor than food cooked on a gas grill. If you want a smoky flavor in your food, a charcoal grill is perfect for you. I’ll walk you through the process of starting your charcoal grill step-by-step.

Ready to learn how to start a charcoal grill? Let’s get the fire going and get to cooking!

how to start a charcoal grill

How to Use a Charcoal Chimney?

Here’s how to use a charcoal chimney. It’s my preferred method of lighting charcoal – it lets you grill without lighter fluid:

  1. Remove your top grate. Leave the lid open.
  2. Crumple up a sheet or two of newspaper, and place it in the smaller, bottom section of the chimney starter. No newspaper? No problem! Paper towels or regular paper (crumple up 3 or 4 sheets) will work. Set the chimney starter in the burn chamber of your kettle grill. Charcoal grills have a cooking grate and a much smaller charcoal grate. The starter should sit on the charcoal grate.
  3. Dump charcoal briquettes into the larger top section of the chimney. How much charcoal you need depends on if your grill has unlit coals still in it. You don’t have to fill the chimney starter the whole way – you can dump the lit coals onto old charcoal from your last cook. If you don’t have any leftover charcoal in your grill, fill the entire chimney with unlit charcoal.
  4. Light the paper with a grill lighter. The long lighter handle of a grill or fireplace lighter will keep your fingers away from the fire. You can use a normal lighter or matches. Just watch those fingers!
  5. Check the chimney starter after 5 minutes. Put your hand near the starter. If you feel warmth, the coals are lit. If not, add more paper and light it.
  6. Let the fire burn for 10 to 15 minutes. The top coals should be ashy, and you should see a steady flame coming from the top of the starter.
  7. Grab the handle of the starter (use a pot holder if necessary) and dump the hot coals into the burn chamber of your grill. Use the handle to arrange coals into a neat charcoal pile. An even layer of coals is preferred. It will burn more predictably. You can also spread the charcoal evenly with a grill rake. You may want to set up a multi-zone fire, which I’ll explain in a bit!
  8. Put your grill grates back on. Let your charcoal grill come to the temperature you want to cook at. Monitor the grill’s temperature with your dome thermometer.
  9. Oil the cooking grate. I use vegetable-oiled paper towels. Any cooking oil will work. Vegetable oil happens to be the cheapest. I grab the paper towel with tongs and wipe the grill grate. This helps prevent sticking. You can also use cooking spray or an onion cut in half and dipped in oil.
  10. You’re ready to grill!

Using a chimney starter is my preferred method of starting a charcoal grill. They’re cheap. They’re foolproof. They last forever. And they don’t taint your food like lighter fluid. I use this one from Weber. The insulated handle is nice, but watch out! If you let the fire burn too long, the handle will still get hot. Wear insulated gloves or use a pot holder if necessary.

Alternative Ways to Light a Chimney Starter (Use a Fire Starter)

If you don’t want to use paper or newspaper, you can use paraffin wax or another similar type of fire starter made from odorless combustible materials. These fire starters get your coals hot more quickly than paper. There are tons of lighter cubes on the market today. Try a few to find your favorite.

To use a fire starter, place it on your firebox (or on the bottom grill grate). Light the fire starter with a match or lighter, then stick the charcoal chimney, filled with new charcoal, on top of it. Boom! You’ve got a fire going.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill Using the Lighter Fluid Method?

I’ll say it again – I don’t use lighter fluid. You can smell the hydrocarbons a block away. Many people find that briquettes lit with lighter fluid give food a chemical taste and chemical flavor.

If you’re going to light a charcoal grill with lighter fluid, here’s how to do it:

  1. Remove the top grate. Leave the lid off.
  2. Stack your charcoal briquettes in a pyramid shape. Build the pyramid on your firebox.
  3. Apply lighter fluid. Three or four squeezes should do it. Squirt lighter fluid on as many briquettes as possible. Too much lighter fluid is dangerous. Never squirt lighter fluid on a lit fire.
  4. Light charcoal. Use a lighter and get the fire going.
  5. Let the charcoal burn. You want hot coals. You’ll have to wait 10 to 15 minutes for the charcoal to get good and hot. Let the coals burn until they’re all lit. The petroleum residue is burned off when the coals are gray and ashy.
  6. Flatten the pyramid. Use a grill shovel or other tool to make an even pile of coals.
  7. Replace the grate. Oil it with an oiled paper towel. Put the cover on the grill.
  8. Get grilling. Once your grill temperature is where you want it, you should be ready to grill.

Storing Lighter Fluid

Lighter fluid is combustible (duh!) and harmful or fatal if swallowed. Safe storage is critical. When not in use, store your lighter fluid out of reach of children in a clean, dry place. Keep lighter fluid away from heat sources. Up high in your garage is an ideal storage area.

Firing Up Charcoals on the Charcoal Grill

Lighting a Charcoal Grill with an Electric Starter

Here’s how to go about lighting your charcoal grill using an electric charcoal starter:

  1. Make a pile of charcoal in your firebox.
  2. Place the electric starter on the charcoals. Lay it flat.
  3. Place more charcoal on top of the starter. Use enough charcoal for your cook.
  4. Plug in the starter. The heating element will get the coals burning.
  5. Wait around 10 minutes. The time can vary based on the model you buy. Check the manufacturer’s instructions for exact times. Again, you’re looking for flames from the charcoal and gray ash on the coal’s surface.
  6. Remove the starter and spread out the hot coals. Any metal on the starter will be ripping hot. Don’t touch the metal and wear heat-resistant gloves. Once the coals are glowing red, you’re ready to cook. Spread those coals out with a grill shovel or another tool.
  7. Set up your grill. Put the cooking grate on, apply cooking oil to it, and you’re ready to start cooking.

These starters are the least common method for getting lighting a charcoal grill. But they’re a good alternative to charcoal chimneys, with none of the nasty odors or flavors associated with lighter fluid. Here’s a popular model if you’re interested in using an electric starter.

Electric starters resemble curling irons. They cost about twice as much as a chimney starter, depending on the model, but they are foolproof. A nice electric starter should last you a decade or more.

Battery-powered options are available if you’re camping or grilling away from electricity, but they’re pricey.

Setting Up Different Cooking Zones

Charcoal grills are the perfect machine for outdoor cooking because they’re versatile. They can handle weeknight foods like chicken breasts and pork chops. But they can also be used to smoke ribs, briskets, and pulled pork over indirect heat.

Now that you’ve got a fire going, it’s time to set up your charcoal grill. Here are the most common set-ups on charcoal grills:

Preparing the Charcoal Grill to Cook Meat

Direct Grilling

Direct grilling is cooking meat and other foods over direct heat. It’s great for small cuts of meat that are tender, like small pieces of chicken, burgers, hot dogs, steaks, veggies, and fruits. This is high-heat grilling, and if you’re firing up your grill, odds are good it’s to cook over direct heat. There are a few ways to arrange the coals for different types of direct grilling:

Two-Zone Fire

Spread the hot coals on 3/4 of the grill. Leave 1/4 of the grill charcoal free. This gives you a hot zone (where the coals are) that you can cook over. The cool zone (where there are no coals) gives you a place to hold food that’s come to a finished temperature. You can also move food to the cool zone if you’ve got flare-ups.

Three-Zone Fire

To build a three-zone fire, double the coals on 1/3 of the grill, use a single layer of coals on 1/3 of the grill, and leave 1/3 of the grill free of charcoal. This allows you to sear food at blazing temps where the coals are doubled up. The single layer of coals is where you can grill food that’s been seared. Finally, you’ve got the cool side with no coals, where you can hold cooked foods or move food away from flare-ups.

Indirect Grilling

Indirect grilling means cooking food near (not over) the fire. You’re looking for consistent heat at lower temperatures than those used for direct grilling. It’s the ideal method for cooking larger cuts of meat like whole poultry, baby backs, and pork shoulder. You’re turning your grill into a charcoal fueled oven. Indirect grill your food at low enough temperatures (300°F or lower), and you’ll be slow cooking.

To set up your charcoal grill for indirect grilling, rake all the coals to one side of the grill. Place your food on the side with no coals. Place a drip pan underneath the food being cooked. The drip pan will keep fats off your grill, reducing the odds of a future flare-up.

You can also rake the hot charcoal to both sides of the grill and place the food in the center. There are charcoal baskets you can use, as well, that fit snugly to the sides of your grill.


Smoking, also known as barbecue, is the Holy Grail of outdoor cooking to some people. It’s a form of indirect grilling. Food is placed near a fire. Smoking involves low heat (generally 350°F or less, often 225°F) and adding wood chips or wood chunks to a charcoal grill. The wood infuses the food with a delightful smoky flavor and aroma.

To smoke on your charcoal grill, set it up for indirect grilling. Place a drip pan under where the food is going. Once your coals are ready, dump them to the side. Toss a handful of chips or 3 or 4 chunks on the fire. Get your grill to temperature, and put your food on the side with no coals. It’s a simple as that! Monitoring cooking temps is critical with BBQ. Try to keep your grill temperature at your recipe’s recommended temp.

Burger Patty Being Cooked on the Flaming Grill

Lump Charcoal vs. Briquettes

Using lump charcoal or briquettes is a raging debate within the BBQ community, pitting grillmasters against each other like the Montagues and Capulets. I use charcoal briquettes, specifically the Kingsford brand. I’ve used plenty of lump charcoal. It’s good stuff. It’s also twice as expensive as briquettes and doesn’t burn as evenly.

I think the differences between the two fuel sources are pretty minor and not worth getting worked up about. Try a bag of both and see which you prefer. The “right charcoal” is whatever works best for you.

Start a charcoal grill with lump charcoal the same way you would with briquettes. A charcoal chimney or electric starter is preferred. Use lighter fluid in a pinch.

Fire Safety

While outdoor grilling may seem mundane, open flames have an inherent risk of danger. Be smart with your fire. Keep flames away from your home. Use heat-resistant gloves when handling hot objects. Keep pets and children away from your grill. Having a fire extinguisher nearby is a good idea.

If your fire gets out of control, close the vents. Doing so will remove oxygen and smother the fire.

Do You Leave a Grill Open When Starting Charcoal?

Yes, leave the grill open, regardless of the fire-starting method you’re using.

How Long Do You Let Charcoal Burn Before Cooking?

If using lighter fluid or an electric charcoal starter, let the charcoal pile burn for 10-15 minutes. Then shut your grill’s dome and let the grill come to temperature.

For a chimney, let the chimney burn until the coals are ashy, around 15 minutes. Then dump out the coals into the kettle, and allow the grill to come to your desired cooking temperature.

Kettle Grill with Burning Briquettes

Wrapping It Up

There it is, your comprehensive guide on how to light charcoal for your charcoal grill. It’s easy to light a charcoal grill if you use a chimney or an electric fire starter. Lighter fluid works but may contribute foul odors and flavors to food. I prefer to ditch lighter fluid in favor of the other methods.

Now that you know how to get your charcoal grill burning hot, it’s time to crank out some delicious meals for your friends and family! Happy grilling.

By John Smits
John bought his first home in 2012 and bought his first grill shortly afterward: the ubiquitous Weber kettle grill. He’s been hooked since the first time he fired up some coals. Now, after over a decade spent making countless delicious meals, John is a passionate advocate for live-fire cooking.
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