Although lighter fluid can be nice to have around as a last resort, it’s not your only option. When it comes to grilling over a charcoal fire, we prefer to keep the process as chemical-free as possible. Fortunately, there are numerous ways to go about it—and they’re nearly as simple. Here’s how to start a charcoal grill without lighter fluid.
Lighter Fluid: What It Is and Why We Avoid It
There are three basic types of lighter fluid: butane, which is used in handheld cigarette lighters; Naphtha, a liquid hydrocarbon blend; and charcoal lighter fluid, which is the one we’re here to focus on.
The lighter fluid that’s used to ignite charcoal fires is an aliphatic petroleum solvent that was designed to ignite charcoal for grilling. However, as a flammable liquid, it does have other uses. Some people use it to jump-start campfires, while others might pour it over a pile of trash that they’ve gathered for burning. While it works fine for each of these purposes, we prefer not to use it to start our charcoal fires. Here’s why.
Although the manufacturers claim that any hazardous materials will burn off by the time you’re ready to add the food to the grill, we think they impart a slight chemical flavor. This is especially true if the fire was started by an amateur who might have added too much lighter fluid in an attempt to build the perfect blaze. The difference in flavor isn’t always noticeable unless you’ve tried food that’s been grilled over a natural fire, but once you have, it’s difficult to go back.
When you start the fire using one of the alternative methods listed here, the flavors of your chosen ingredients will shine through without interference. These techniques are also much safer, which should come as a great relief if there are pets or small children present at your barbecue.
Prior to lighting the grill, you’ll need to answer the following questions:
- How much food are you planning to grill?
- Which ingredients are you using, and how hot will the fire need to be in order to cook them?
- How long will you need to maintain the fire?
- Do you have a sufficient amount of charcoal on hand?
- Is the grill all cleaned up and ready to go?
If the cooking chamber of your charcoal grill contains a large supply of old ashes, make sure to dump it out before laying fresh coals. Excess ash can block the vents, which will keep the charcoal from igniting properly.
If you typically grill more than a few times per week, you should set up a weekly cleaning schedule. If you grill less frequently, aim for a monthly cleaning.
Building the Fire
When you add the coals to the cooking chamber, make sure they’re arranged in a neat pile with the briquettes stacked close together. Many new grillers simply dump the coals in a heap, forgetting about the communicable nature of fire. When the briquettes are touching, the flames will spread more rapidly, so you’ll be ready to start cooking that much sooner.
A Word About Lump Charcoal vs Charcoal Briquettes
Some pitmasters–myself included–are huge fans of lump charcoal, which burns much hotter and cleaner than regular briquettes. They’re also made of pure hardwood, with no chemical additives. If it’s a natural fire you’re going for, then lump charcoal is likely your best bet.
On the other hand, charcoal briquettes are easier to find and less expensive. Because of their uniform size, they stack more easily, making them a good choice for beginners.
Whichever one you decide to use, be sure to stick with premium brands. Quality charcoal will provide you with a better fire every time.
Also, when determining how much charcoal you need, err on the side of caution. You might need to add a few handfuls of extra coals during the cooking process, especially if you’ll be grilling for awhile.
What About Match-Light Briquettes?
You’ve probably heard about “match-light” charcoal briquettes, even if you’ve never used them before. These are briquettes that have been infused with lighter fluid in advance. Since they eliminate the need to buy lighter fluid, are they a reasonable alternative?
Our answer is a resounding no. While match-light charcoal is undoubtedly convenient, your goal is to start your fire without any chemical interference. In fact, we think these 2-in-1 briquettes impart an even more unpleasant flavor than their counterparts. They’re also more expensive, so you won’t necessarily be saving money by skipping the lighter fluid.
How To Start a Charcoal Grill Without Lighter Fluid
1. Chimney Starter
To light the coals using a chimney starter, you’ll need a few sheets of newspaper and either a stick lighter or a long match, in addition to the chimney starter itself. These devices are about the size of a coffee can, with a series of holes located along the sides to promote airflow. They can be found anywhere grilling supplies are sold.
First, fill the chimney with your chosen version of charcoal. Add one or two crumpled sheets of newspaper to the lower chamber.
Carefully light the newspaper in several places using a stick lighter or a long match. When the paper catches fire, the flames will lap against the edges of the charcoal in the upper chamber, eventually working their way through the entire pile.
You’ll be able to tell whether the coals have ignited when the edges begin to turn gray. If this hasn’t happened within 10 minutes or so, add another sheet of newspaper and repeat the process. Adding a small amount of neutral cooking oil, such as canola, can help to speed things along.
When the flames begin to erupt out of the top portion of the chimney, it’s time to dump out the coals. Wearing heatproof gloves, carefully take hold of the handle on the side of the chimney and pour the hot coals into the cooking chamber.
About 15 minutes after you’ve lit the coals, they should be coated in a thin film of light silver ash. When this happens, you’re ready to start cooking.
If you’re having trouble visualizing the process, your chimney should come with a user’s manual that can instruct you on how to do this. You can also take a look at this video demonstration.
2. Electric Starter
An electric charcoal starter is another way to heat the coals without adding any chemicals. These wand-style devices are equipped with a heating element on one end, usually curved into a loop. In addition to being convenient, they’re an energy-efficient choice. However, since they require an outside power source in order to work, they might not be the best choice for camping or tailgating.
To use an electric starter, assemble your charcoal in the cooking chamber. Then place the starter across the pile so that the heating element is touching the coals.
Arrange a few briquettes or pieces of lump charcoal on top of the element and plug in the starter. Depending on where your grill is located, you might need an extension cord. When the heating element is working properly, it should give off a red glow, alerting anyone standing nearby not to touch it.
After a few minutes, the coals should be visibly hot and smoking. When this happens, you can unplug the starter and carefully remove it from the pile. Again, take care not to touch the heating element, as it will still be hot for a while even if it’s not visibly red.
It’s a good idea to have a designated area where the hot starter can safely rest once it’s been taken off the grill. Choose a spot that’s far away from the common area, and make sure there are no flammable materials nearby.
About 10 minutes after you’ve removed the starter from the coals, they should be coated in a layer of silver ash. This is your cue to start cooking.
3. Firestarter Briquette
These combustible briquettes are available at most hardware and home improvement stores. Even some grocery stores carry them. Unlike lighter fluid, they won’t leave behind any residual odors or flavors.
After you’ve added your fresh charcoal to the cooking chamber, open the vents. Bury the Firestarter at the top of the pile, making sure to cover it completely.
Use a stick lighter or long match to light the Firestarter, following the instructions on the package. Replace the grill lid and let the Firestarter do its work.
After about 10 minutes, the briquette should be completely burned away, leaving behind nothing but lit coals. Crack the lid to allow the smoke to escape, then remove it entirely. If necessary, rearrange the coals using barbecue tools and heatproof gloves.
After replacing the grates, wait another five minutes before applying a thin coating of oil and cooking as you normally would.
4. Hot Air Charcoal Starter
This device might be difficult to find, but it’s well worth the search. As the name suggests, it ignites the coals by forcing superheated air into the cooking chamber. You might also see it advertised as a heat gun.
Arrange your charcoal in the cooking chamber, then locate a spot where two pieces are touching. Plug in the starter and touch the tip of it to your designated spot.
When you’ve made contact, press the button on the starter and wait for smoke to appear. You might also see a small shower of sparks. Once this happens, pull back the starter, but don’t remove it. Continue to aim hot air at the coals for a full minute, or until the coals begin to glow.
Repeat this process several times around the pile until all of the coals are lit. When they’re coated in silver ash, you’re ready to cook.
Another option is to use kindling wood and newspaper, just as you would if you were building a campfire. Since charcoal is essentially wood that’s been reduced to carbon, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t work. It just requires a bit of patience and a small amount of skill.
Before building your charcoal pile, scrunch up a few sheets of newspaper and set them in the bottom of the cooking chamber. Top the newspaper with a handful of small, dry kindling, then arrange the coals as you normally would.
Use a stick lighter or a long match to light the paper, then wait for the coals to ignite. After about 20 minutes, they should be covered in the layer of silvery ash that means you’re ready to start cooking.
If you can find it, consider using light wood for your kindling. Light wood comes from the stumps of harvested pine trees and is high in resin, which gives it a roughened texture. While pine is not usually suitable for grilling, this type is highly combustible and burns hotter than some hardwoods, meaning it will ignite your coals in no time.
Whether you’ve simply forgotten to pack the lighter fluid or you’d prefer to do away with it entirely, you have plenty of other options. Once you’ve learned how to start a charcoal grill without lighter fluid, you can scratch that item off your shopping list for good.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!