How to Light a Charcoal BBQ?

Backyard BBQ lovers know there’s something special about cooking over charcoal. The smokey aroma and that unmistakable taste that charcoal imparts to food. Mouthwatering! But mastering the art of lighting charcoal is key to achieving those results.

If you’re new to this grilling method or looking to improve your technique, you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the steps to light yours like a pro! Ready to fire up that grill?

Understanding the Basics

When it comes to charcoal grilling, there are different types of charcoal available. Let’s explore two popular options: lump charcoal and briquettes.

Lump charcoal

(Image Credit: Pxfuel)

Lump charcoal, often made from hardwood like oak, consists of irregularly shaped chunks. Its natural composition is favoured, as it contains no additives or chemicals. It ignites quickly and produces high heat, making it ideal for searing meats. Its distinct advantage lies in its rich, smoky flavour of food. However, lump charcoal burns faster and can be more expensive than briquettes.

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Lit charcoal briquettes

(Image Credit: Pxfuel)

Meanwhile, briquettes are compressed charcoal formed from a mixture of ingredients. These include sawdust, wood scraps, and additives which help with ignition. Their consistent shape and size allow for even heat distribution and longer burning times. Briquettes are often more affordable than lump charcoal. What’s more, they can be an excellent choice for longer cooking sessions or smoking. But some may argue that briquettes produce a slightly milder flavour than lumps.

When selecting charcoal, consider the following:

  • your grilling preferences
  • the type of food you’ll be cooking
  • the duration of your cookouts

For better grilling experiences, opt for charcoal free from excessive fillers or chemicals. Look for reputable brands to ensure you’re getting a reliable product.

Gathering the Essentials

BillyOh Barrel Charcoal BBQ
BillyOh Barrel Charcoal BBQ

To light a charcoal grill effectively, you’ll need a few essential tools and equipment. Here’s a list of items that will make your grilling experience smoother and safer:

  1. Chimney starter: This cylindrical metal container allows quick and efficient charcoal ignition. It helps create a concentrated heat source to light the charcoal evenly.
  2. Long-handled lighter: An essential for safely igniting the charcoal from a distance. It prevents any accidental burns and provides better control.
  3. Heat-resistant gloves: For protecting your hands and arms from heat. These gloves allow you to handle hot grates or even charcoal without risking burns.
  4. Grill tongs: A must-have for arranging charcoal or adjusting its position during lighting. They also come in handy for flipping food while grilling.
  5. Grill brush: Before lighting the charcoal, cleaning the grill grates is good practice. A sturdy grill brush helps remove debris, ensuring a clean cooking surface.

Investing in quality tools and equipment will enhance your charcoal grilling experience. Most importantly, they’ll ensure your safety while handling hot surfaces.

Preparing the Charcoal

This step sets the foundation for a successful grilling session. Here’s why preparation is important:

Even heat distribution

Preparing the charcoal ensures that it is spread evenly in the BBQ. This helps prevent hot spots and ensures that your food cooks evenly. Plus, it promotes consistent heat distribution.

Desired heat levels

Well-arranged charcoal gives you heat control for different cooking techniques. Proper preparation allows you to achieve the desired temperature range. This applies whether you’re aiming for high heat searing or low and slow smoking.

To determine how much charcoal to use, consider the size and type of your BBQ. As a general guideline, fill the grill with a single layer of charcoal for direct grilling. This should be enough for quick-cooking foods like burgers and steaks. For indirect grilling, create two zones by arranging the charcoal on one side of the grill. Make sure to leave the other side empty. This is suitable for larger cuts of meat that require slower, more controlled cooking.

Remember to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific model, e.g. a hybrid BBQ.

Lighting Methods

Lit charcoal on top of a charcoal grill grate

(Image Credit: Wallpaper Flare)

The chimney starter method is a popular and efficient way to light charcoal. Here’s how to use it:

  1. Place the chimney starter on a heat-resistant surface and fill it with charcoal. Avoid overfilling, as it may hinder airflow. You can use newspaper or paraffin fire starters at the bottom to aid ignition.
  2. Using a lighter, ignite the newspaper through the openings of the chimney starter. The flames will gradually engulf the charcoal.
  3. Allow the charcoal to burn for approximately 15-20 minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when the top layer of charcoal appears ashy and glowing with a red hue.

The chimney starter method provides efficient and even heat distribution throughout the charcoal. It eliminates the need for lighter fluid, which can leave unwanted flavours on the food.

But there are alternative methods for lighting charcoal. Here are some considerations:

Lighter fluid

If using lighter fluid, apply a small amount evenly over the charcoal. Allow the fluid to soak in for a few minutes before igniting. Exercise caution, as lighter fluid can be flammable and produce strong odours.

Fire starters

Fire starters, such as paraffin cubes or sticks, are a convenient alternative. Place a fire starter under the charcoal and light it. Allow the flames to spread and ignite the charcoal.

Regardless of the method used, prioritise safety. Keep open flames away from flammable materials. Use long-handled lighters and never add lighter fluid to already lit charcoal. Always follow the safety guidelines provided by the manufacturer.

Maintaining the Fire

Burning charcoal in a charcoal grill

(Image Credit: Pxfuel)

Maintaining an even and consistent fire is vital for achieving excellent results. To manage heat levels, consider the following:

  • Most charcoal BBQs have adjustable air vents that control the airflow and the heat. Opening the vents increases airflow and raises the temperature. Meanwhile, closing them reduces airflow and lowers the heat. Experiment with vent adjustments to find the sweet spot for desired heat levels.
  • If you need to increase the heat or extend the cooking time, add more charcoal to the fire. Light the additional charcoal separately in a chimney starter. Then, carefully distribute it among the existing coals.


Learning to light a charcoal BBQ sets the stage for a memorable grilling experience. You’ll be well-equipped for success by:

  • understanding the different types of charcoal
  • gathering the necessary tools
  • following proper preparation techniques

Remember to maintain an even fire and prioritise safety. Get ready to savour mouthwatering meals and create unforgettable moments around the grill! And if you haven’t found the right one for you, we’ve got it all here at BillyOh, so check out our BBQs now!

Learn how to safely connect a gas canister to a BBQ next!