When your charcoal won’t light, the impending barbecue stops being an enjoyable experience and becomes a major pain. In this guide, we’ll explore the possible reasons behind your charcoal’s failure to ignite so you can avoid the issue in the future.
Charcoal Won’t Light
When charcoal won’t light, it’s often because the charcoal is damp. Store any lump charcoal or briquettes in a sealed container and keep the container in a dry place. Other impediments to a successful fire include restricted airflow, a dirty grill, and improper charcoal placement.
Understanding Charcoal Types
What type of charcoal are you using? There are three different kinds, and their unique properties can have an effect on the quality of the fire.
Lump charcoal is a popular and efficient choice. To make it, manufacturers burn top-notch hardwood in a controlled environment to remove all the moisture and sap. The lumps of coal that are left behind burn at hot temps, creating clean, tasty smoke.
Charcoal briquettes are also quite popular, likely because they’re so easy to find. Most of the brands on the market contain mineral carbon, limestone, borax and sodium nitrate, but if it’s labeled as “natural,” it should include only charcoal and starch.
Briquettes burn longer and more consistently than lump charcoal, but there are trade-offs. Specifically, the briquettes can be harder to light, which is what we’re here to discuss.
The third type of charcoal is called extruded charcoal. It’s made from sawdust that’s been compressed into a log shape, then bound under extreme heat and pressure. The logs are then put into a special kiln for the carbonization process.
Manufacturers claim that extruded charcoal is smokeless, odorless, and produces very little ash. Not all brands meet these criteria, though, which is why we prefer to stick with lump charcoal or briquettes most of the time.
Why Charcoal Won’t Light
There are several reasons why the charcoal might not be igniting properly. We’ll start by discussing the likeliest ones, as well as the possible remedies.
The Charcoal is Wet
If you’ve ever tried to start a fire using wet wood, you’ll know that it’s not easy. The same rules apply to charcoal, which is, after all, just wood that’s been chemically altered.
I prefer to store my charcoal in a sealed plastic tub. The tubs are inexpensive and easy to find at big-box stores like Walmart. Make sure the lid snaps on securely, and keep it in a sheltered area.
You might also consider investing in a dehumidifier for your shed or garage (or wherever you’re storing the charcoal) if you live in a humid region. That will remove a lot of excess moisture from the environment, helping to keep the charcoal in prime condition.
The Charcoal is in a Single Layer
When I first started using charcoal, I arranged the briquettes in a single layer on the bottom of the grill. I had a hard time getting the coals to light, too. Eventually, I came to learn that there was a connection to be found there.
The coals will ignite better if they’re stacked closely together. Try using a chimney starter—an inexpensive and efficient piece of grilling equipment that will give you a hot batch of coals in no time.
If you don’t want to use a chimney starter, you can mimic the effect by stacking your charcoal in a vertical pile. By adding newspaper and small bits of dry kindling to the stack, you can help the coals stay lit.
The Air Vents Are Blocked
Fire requires oxygen in order to burn. If the dampers or air vents in your grill are closed or otherwise blocked, the charcoal won’t stay lit—that is, if you can even get it to light in the first place.
Make sure the vents are open and free of any ash or other debris before you get started. This is one of the reasons why it’s critical to clean your grill or smoker on a regular basis.
Even if you do manage to get the coals lit while the air vents are closed, there’s a good chance that the fire will burn out in a hurry. Proper air flow is the key to a successful fire.
By the time the coals have developed a coating of white-gray ash, it’s fine to adjust the vents to control the temperature. But don’t be tempted to take this step until the fire is well underway.
The Charcoal is Smothered
When you’ve ignited the fire successfully but the charcoal won’t stay lit, there’s a chance that you’re smothering the coals. This occurs when you add wood pellets or wood chips to the fire before it’s ready.
As we’ve established, charcoal requires oxygen in order to burn. Putting too much wood on the coals too early will smother the flames, putting a literal damper on the barbecue.
Again, patience is key. Wait until the coals are wearing that blanket of silvery ash before you attempt to flavor the fire with wood products. At that point, the coals will be hot enough to ignite the wood instead of burning out.
The Grill is Dirty
Grease buildup will do more than just clog the air vents—it can create a moist environment. That’s bad news for the charcoal, even if the product itself starts out dry.
Beginners often leave piles of ash at the bottom of their charcoal grills. I’ve been guilty of this barbecue sin myself. When this happens, the ash becomes moist and forms a paste, restricting airflow and leaching moisture into the new coals.
The takeaway here is that it’s vital to clean out your grill after each use. Wait until the residual coals and ash have gone cold, then remove them and scrub out the grill using a wire brush. This simple step will save you a ton of hassle down the line.
Should I Use Match-Light Charcoal?
Self-igniting or instant-light charcoal includes a combustible fluid that eliminates the need for lighter fluid or kindling. All you have to do is add the coals to the chimney starter or grill and set them alight.
While they’re undoubtedly convenient, we aren’t fans of these types of charcoal. For starters, the combustible ingredients contain chemicals that can leave a foul aftertaste on your food. They should burn off by the time you add the ingredients to the grill, but this is still a concerning point.
In fact, you might inhale the chemicals just by standing near the grill as it heats up. Since chatting around the grill is a common activity at most barbecues, that’s not an ideal circumstance.
I try not to use any lighter fluid at all when starting a charcoal fire. You can get the flames going nicely by adding chips of dry kindling to the coals before lighting them. Some crumpled sheets of newspaper can also do the trick.
Starting a fire using charcoal is not all that different from starting one using regular wood products. There’s no need to resort to chemicals when you know what you’re doing.
The Bottom Line
Moisture is the thing you most want to avoid when starting any type of fire. Wet wood or charcoal won’t light. Even if you do manage to get the fire started, it won’t burn long enough for you to cook food on it.
Restricted airflow is another culprit. Keeping your grill clean can go a long way toward ensuring a successful barbecue every time.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!