Instant light charcoal eliminates the need for lighter fluid—at least, that’s the idea. Many people automatically reach for this type of charcoal for that reason. But is it really a better option?
Let’s explore the differences between instant light charcoal vs regular charcoal to get a clearer picture.
Instant Light Charcoal vs Regular
Instant light charcoal is treated with flammable compounds that allow it to catch fire without lighter fluid or kindling. In practice, it doesn’t burn any more efficiently than the regular kind, and the added chemicals can affect the flavor of the food. It’s best to stick with regular charcoal whenever you’re given the choice.
What is Instant Light Charcoal?
Instant light—also known as “match light”—charcoal is made up of briquettes that contain flammable additives. These might include paraffin, petroleum products, or other ingredients that allow the flames to come to life without additional coaxing.
By contrast, regular charcoal briquettes might include additives to help them keep their shape, but no flammable chemicals. You’ll probably need to use some sort of fuse or kindling to get them started—or rely on the old standby, lighter fluid.
Types of Charcoal
“Regular” charcoal comes in a few different styles. For grilling purposes, it’s sold in either briquette or lump form.
Lump charcoal is hardwood that’s been burned slowly while deprived of oxygen, so the sap and moisture are all leached out. What’s left behind is mostly carbon, which burns cleanly while leaving behind very little ash.
Briquettes have a more uniform appearance, but they’re made up mostly of sawdust and leftover scrap wood. As we mentioned, other additives are included to give them their block-like shape.
Each charcoal type has its pros and cons. Briquettes burn longer, but don’t produce as much heat at the outset. Still, they’re cheaper and easier to procure than lump hardwood charcoal, giving them the edge with casual backyard grillers.
In addition to creating a hotter fire, lump charcoal is quicker to light and responds well to oxygen, making it easy to control the grill temperature.
If you prefer an all-natural product, lump charcoal is the way to go. It’s not always the best option for smoking, however, since it tends to burn hot and fast. My advice would be to use briquettes in charcoal smokers and lump hardwood charcoal for regular grilling.
Instant or Match Light vs Regular Charcoal
When shopping for charcoal, you’re likely to find that the instant light variety is often more expensive. That makes sense, in a way. After all, buying this type should eliminate the need to purchase lighter fluid as well.
Of course, it all depends on the brand. Regular briquettes from a reputable company like Kingsford will probably be pricier than a bag of generic instant light charcoal. However, I’ve found that it’s a bad idea to reach for the cheaper product in this case.
Assuming that instant light charcoal works as advertised, there’s no denying its convenience. All you have to do is load the coals into the grill or smoker and light them up. There’s no messing with kindling or lighter fluid—just an instant fire.
By contrast, regular charcoal needs a little bit of help in this regard. Lighter fluid is the obvious choice, but you can also use bits of newspaper or kindling to coax the coals along. Using a chimney starter is a great way to get the fire started without chemicals.
One of the key selling points of instant light charcoal is its efficiency. According to the advertising for Kingsford’s Match Light brand, the coals should be ready to cook within 10 minutes, making this the ideal choice for tailgating and picnics.
I’ll believe this when I see it. In my experience, you need to wait much longer than 10 minutes for the coals to reach the cooking point. What’s more, if you were to put the food on too quickly, it would pick up on the chemical taste even more (see below).
Regular charcoal takes 20 to 30 minutes to heat to the right cooking temperature. The total time depends on the weather and conditions, but that’s a decent rule of thumb to keep in mind.
Even if you were to assume that the instant light variety would be ready in 10 minutes, another 10 to 20 minutes is really not all that long to wait. What’s more, if you use lump charcoal instead of briquettes, it should heat up even faster.
What about once the fire is lit? In this regard, instant light and regular briquettes seem to perform on roughly the same level.
As long as you’ve built the fire correctly, it should stay hot enough to cook food for 30 to 40 minutes. That’s true whether the briquettes contained flammable chemicals at the outset or not.
Remember that lump hardwood will burn hotter, but it won’t retain its heat for as long as briquettes would. Another point to consider: It’s not a good idea to add instant light charcoal to the fire partway through, as the chemicals won’t have time to burn off.
Full disclosure: I never buy instant light charcoal. It hardly ever works, and even when it does, it imparts a funky aftertaste to the food.
When it comes to charcoal, the more natural the product, the better. That’s why I advocate buying the lump hardwood variety whenever possible.
In a pinch, though, briquettes should do fine. It’s just better to stay away from the ones that have flammable chemicals added in advance. Your barbecue will be much more successful if you stick with regular charcoal.
Starting a Charcoal Fire Without Lighter Fluid
The major selling point for instant light charcoal is its ability to start a fire without lighter fluid. But even if you use the regular kind, you can still pull that off.
Your best bet is to purchase a chimney starter. That’s a cylindrical metal device with strategically placed holes to promote airflow. With one of these, you can start the fire using only a couple of sheets of crumpled newspaper and a stick lighter.
Another option might be an electric starter. These are wand-shaped appliances with loop-style heating elements affixed to one end. While they’re great to use at home, bear in mind that they require an outside power source.
The next time you’re at a hardware or home improvement store, look for Firestarter briquettes. While made of combustible materials, they don’t leave behind chemical odors or flavors, and they get the fire started quickly and efficiently.
Then there’s my favorite method: treating the charcoal fire just like any other campfire. To light one of those, you would start with crumpled newspaper and kindling wood. There’s no reason why you can’t do that when charcoal is your chosen fuel.
The Bottom Line
Instant light charcoal has the advantage of convenience and cost-effectiveness—although that last point is debatable, depending on your point of view.
Unless it’s the only option available, though, we would advise staying away from the instant light variety. It doesn’t burn any longer or hotter than regular briquettes. What’s worse, it could ruin the taste of your food, which is the last thing you want.
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!