If you’re like me, you love the taste of grilled meats and veggies hot from a charcoal grill. The problem is that lighting a charcoal grill is an absolute pain in the ass. And if you’re not good at it, your food will taste like lighter fluid. This brief guide will show you how to light charcoal without lighter fluid.
But, why, you ask, would someone want to learn how to start charcoal without lighter fluid? Well, obviously, lighter fluid tastes terrible. And, getting an entire grill’s worth of charcoal lit can take forever. If you want to eat as soon as possible, lighter fluid is not the way to go.
Plus, for some of us, perfectly BBQ’d food is a pursuit or hobby. You should be trying to up your game and improve the taste of your food.
Note: By the way, there are a few Amazon affiliates links scattered throughout this article. If you purchase anything using those links, The Graying Area might make a commission.
How to Start Charcoal Without Lighter Fluid: What You Need
Grilling the perfect burger or steak is a badass skill, but lighting a charcoal grill without lighter fluid can seem impossible. Even with lighter fluid, it seems to take forever.
Admittedly, the best way to start charcoal without lighter fluid is to use a specially designed piece of equipment called a charcoal chimney. I use the following model from Weber, and it’s outstanding: Weber 7429 Rapidfire Chimney Starter (available on Amazon).
There are a few other necessary items as well:
- The aforementioned charcoal chimney
- Newspaper (or lighter cubes)
- BBQ lighter
- Charcoal (not the easy-light kind)
How To Light Charcoal Without Lighter Fluid: How the chimney works
The way that the charcoal chimney works is actually rather simple, and it’s a shock that they didn’t become more popular until the last 20 years or so.
When you light a fire under the chimney, it starts to burn the lowest coals. Also, the hot air from the fire and coals rises, drawing fresh air in through the holes in the bottom of the chimney. The fresh air brings oxygen, which helps fuel the fire as it spreads from coal to coal. As the heat intensifies, it draws more air and repeats the process.
The process is a little different when lighting a grill with lighter fluid. The burning occurs on top of the coals, not underneath. And, even if the coals are bunched up, they’re not as condensed as they are in the chimney so it takes forever for the heat to spread.
How To Light Charcoal Without Lighter Fluid: The Steps
Once you have all the gear, you’re ready to learn how to start charcoal without lighter fluid. The steps are super easy, and the entire process takes around 20 minutes (faster if you use the lighter cubes).
Step 1: Fill the chimney
The first step in learning how to start charcoal without lighter fluid is filling the chimney. If you’re just cooking for yourself and maybe one other person, half the chimney is enough. If you’re cooking for several people, just fill that bad boy to the top.
I like to place the chimney on the grill grate and fill it there. Any dust and grit from the bag can make its way into the grill and not the deck or patio.
Step 2: Crumple up some newspaper (or use lighter cubes)
Lots of the BBQ manufacturers make little cubes that you can use to light your charcoal, but they feel a lot like using lighter fluid to me. Instead, I take the editorial trash that my local newspaper prints and use it for lighting my coals.
Crumple it up into a tight wad and place it directly on the charcoal grate. I like to use two full sheets of newspaper, but one might do.
Step 3: Light the newspaper
This is the step in which you really learn how to light charcoal without lighter fluid. Place your charcoal chimney on the charcoal grate with the wadded newspaper underneath. Tip the chimney over and use the BBQ lighter to light the newspaper. Place the chimney down.
Obviously, if you’re using lighter cubes, you’ll light them the same way.
Be sure to leave the lid off the grill for this step. The chimney needs to pull air through to heat up the coals, so airflow is your friend.
Step 4: Hang out
Once you light the newspaper or cubes, you need to sit back and relax. When preparing the grill for this blog post, I had enough time to throw a baseball around with my son. The charcoal is ready when the topmost coals are starting to ash over. For the full chimney, it took about 20 minutes. I imagine it might be a little faster with the lighter cubes, but 20 minutes is still the quickest charcoal lighting I’ve ever experienced.
Step 5: Dump them into the grill
With the top coals lit, you’re ready to dump them into the grill. I use the Solo Grill, which features two hinged sections on the food grate, so I just have to lift a section to dump the coals in. Even with the charcoal red hot, the handle on the chimney stayed cool enough to hold bare-handed, and the extra lever provides a bit of stability while pouring them out.
That’s how to light charcoal without lighter fluid
Give the coals a few minutes to heat the grill before throwing on the dogs, burgers, chicken, and brats. Using a charcoal chimney is a much faster process than using lighter fluid. And, since there isn’t any lingering lighter fluid to season your food, the taste is way better.
Now, if I can be honest with you, I burnt the hell out of the food I put on the grill for this blog post. It got really hot really fast, and I totally smoked the burgers and dogs. Just too much charcoal, really. Charcoal cooking is definitely a learning curve, and I’ve been spoiled by a gas grill.
How do you guys light your charcoal? Did it take you a while to get the hang of how much to use? Let me know in the comments below.
How To Light Charcoal Without Lighter Fluid FAQs
What can I use instead of lighter fluid?
If you don’t have lighter fluid or a charcoal chimney, there are a few other household items you can use to light charcoal without lighter fluid. You can try cardboard, any high-proof booze, or rubbing alcohol (just be sure to let it burn off). You can even use vegetable oil, but it can get messy.
Is lighter fluid unhealthy?
Yes, lighter fluid is unhealthy. According to ecocharcoal.com: “It is bad for you. The hydrocarbons included in lighter fluids and match light charcoal simply do not break down easily, and that means you are ingesting them right along with your food.”