How to Properly Start a Charcoal Fire for Your BBQ


Now that days run longer and the weather is warmer, it's time to start cooking outdoors on a regular basis again. Sure, you can be all jackrabbit quick about it, set the propane grill to “inferno” and be ready to cook in less than 15 seconds. But where's the skill in that? What about the flavor of cooking over wood smoke?

There is no merit badge for turning on a propane grill. The Scouts learn how to build a campfire because it's a basic skill every adult should possess. As a competition barbecue pitmaster, I believe every cook should know how to work with charcoal and wood and master a live fire in a grill.

I'm starting this series on smoking and grilling with a tutorial on how to start a charcoal fire almost as fast as turning on a gas grill.

1. No Lighter Fluid. Ever.

Fried Pickles
Flickr user sfllaw

Pyromaniacs: Put down the bottle of lighter fluid unless you want your food to taste like you cooked it in a gas station. The stuff leaves residual chemicals that coat your grill, and it's especially noticeable when you cover your smoker or grill. I don't care if you saw BBQ World Champion Myron Mixon use it on TLC's BBQ Pitmasters show. It's still a bad idea unless your name is Myron.

Besides, I'm going to show you two videos of much cooler fire-starting toys in a minute.

2. Get a Chimney Starter

Fill this starter with charcoal. Drizzle about two tablespoons of vegetable oil evenly on a paper towel, and wad it loosely into a ball. Light the oil-soaked paper and place the chimney over it. You've created an oil candle that will stay lit for almost five minutes and give your charcoal a good head start.

As the fire burns, heat rises through the column of charcoal, creating a chimney effect. The vacuum draws cool air from underneath the flame and creates a continuous airflow that stokes the flames ever higher. You'll be ready to cook in 10 minutes, with no reeking lighter fluid.

I recommend the Weber brand chimney, available at every hardware store or grill shop for around $20. Its aluminized coating fights rust longer than other finishes, and is sized perfectly for most household charcoal grills.

3. No Chimney Starter? Use a Blowtorch


Let's say you don't have a chimney starter, but you're the handy sort with an awesome set of tools. Pile your charcoal into a mound, and light the pile with your propane plumber's torch. Propane burns clean, and leaves no off-flavors in your grill. The downside? It'll take a little longer than the chimney starter.

4. A Big Grill Calls for a Weed Burner

Many of my fellow BBQ contest cooks have those enormous custom BBQ pits towed on a trailer. Those huge rigs take a lot of charcoal and a long time to preheat. If you need to get a mountain of fuel started in a hurry, use a flame thrower. You'll have to lug a big propane tank around, but it'll light an entire bag of charcoal or three in 60 seconds flat. From Harbor Freight, $20. Get a fire extinguisher while you're at it, kids.

5.  Best of All Worlds: A Portable Weed Burner

Last, here's my favorite fire-starting tool. It's a palm-size flame thrower that kicks out almost as many BTU's as a weed burner but is smaller than a plumber's torch. It was designed as a portable torch to start campfires with damp firewood, and continues to work even when held upside down. Sorry about all the noise in the video, as we shot this at a recent BBQ party.

For BBQ competitors and backyard cooks who need this much firepower in a small, easy to carry package, there is no better tool. Available from manufacturer SnowPeak or retailers like Big Poppa Smokers for around $40.

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