How to Start a Charcoal Grill: With & Without Lighter Fluid

Canva Close up Photo of Black Metal Charcoal Grill

There’s a certain art to starting a charcoal grill, whether you’re using lighter fluid or not. The placement and amount of charcoal are factors, as are the kind of food you’re grilling and the amount of time it will take.

There’s nothing worse than spending more time at the grill than you want. Especially if you have hungry people waiting on you, which is often the case. That’s why we’ve included this step by step guide on how to start a charcoal grill, with and without lighter fluid. 

Plus, we’ve included some bonus tips to help you get the best out of your time at the grill. Once you’ve finished this article, you should have no trouble starting your grill and getting your food cooking perfectly.

But first, no matter how you plan to light your charcoal, you should always properly prepare your grill!

Prepare Your Grill

Preparing your grill should be the first thing you do, whether or not you’re using lighter fluid. Mainly, this step involves removing any ash that may have collected from your previous grill session. Excess ash can block up the airflow needed to ignite your charcoal and keep it burning.

Check the owner’s manual for your particular grill to see about any other cleaning suggestions. Most grill manufacturers suggest that you remove grease and residue from inside your grill at least every few uses. 

If you have any half-burned charcoal on the grate, it’s a good idea to shake it or roll it around to separate the usable charcoal from any ash that may still be attached. Just make sure it has fully cooled before you touch the charcoal. Spread the old charcoal evenly around on the grate before adding new charcoal. This will help to ensure that there is enough airflow between pieces to help them burn.

Tip: You don’t have to re-use your old charcoal if you don’t want to. Reusing it will save you a little money, but some people insist that old charcoal affects the taste of their food.

Charcoal Arrangements and Amounts

Canva Black and Gray Charcoals

Before you begin the process of lighting your grill, you should know about how many pieces of charcoal and what kind of charcoal arrangement you need. Different foods require different heats and cooking times for the best results. So, we’ve included a few of the most popular grill setups below.

You can use either briquettes or charcoal lumps. Briquettes tend to burn longer but are harder to light. On the other hand, charcoal lumps burn faster but are easier to light. 

Note: The number of charcoal briquettes suggested is an average, and will vary depending on the size and shape of the grill. 

The Direct Fire Arrangement

Arguably the most popular, the direct fire charcoal arrangement is created by spreading the charcoal chunks evenly over the whole charcoal grate and adding a small mound in the center. This method requires around 100 briquettes on average and works best for fast, high-temperature cooking. 

Use the direct fire method for cooking burgers, hotdogs, sliced veggies, fish, and other thinly-sliced pieces of meat. 

The Two-Zone Arrangement

Grill masters around the world tend to like this method best, as it gives a little flexibility when grilling. The two-zone arrangement is created by placing your charcoal on only half of the grate, leaving the other half empty.

On the side of the cooking grate directly over the coals, you can sear your food, while the other side is good for keeping things warm. You can also place items that require slower, indirect heat on the empty side, while you cook other foods directly over the coals. 

This method usually uses 50 to 75 briquettes. Use the hot side for cooking burgers, hotdogs, and thin-sliced meat, while you can use the cooler side for slow-cooking ribs, roasts, or whole birds.

Tip: Add a handful of wood chips to your charcoal for more smoke and a little added flavor!

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How to Start a Charcoal Grill With Lighter Fluid

Using lighter fluid to ignite your charcoal is definitely faster than lighting your grill without. There are exceptions to this, like charcoal that comes pre-coated to help it light faster. But, charcoal grills and lighter fluid often go hand in hand. 

Since lighter fluid is (obviously) extremely flammable, your first concern should be safety. Not only can too much fluid cause burns, but you should also be wary of the fumes that lighter fluid creates when ignited. That being said, let’s look at the first step to lighting your charcoal grill with lighter fluid. 

Step 1: Prepare Your Charcoal

Using the suggested formations above, or another one you prefer, arrange the charcoal on the grill grate in the desired formation. Most grills only require 50 to 100 pieces of charcoal to get things started when using lighter fluid. You may need to add more as the charcoal burns, depending on how much you’re cooking and how long it will take. 

Step 2: Add Lighter Fluid and Ignite

You don’t want to soak your coals in lighter fluid. This can be dangerous and can also give your food a chemical taste. Ideally, you only want enough fluid to help the coals get started— so that the chemicals will be burned away by the time you put your food on.

Don’t use any more than a ¼ cup of lighter fluid per one pound of charcoal. Also, don’t ever spray lighter fluid on ignited coals! 

Once you’ve applied the lighter fluid, wait 30 seconds to 1 minute for the fluid to soak in. Then you can carefully light the charcoal in a couple of places around the grill to get them burning evenly.

Step 3: Get to Grilling

Once you have the charcoals lit, you can carefully replace the cooking grate on top and close the lid. You’ll want to wait until you see that most of the coals have a thin layer of white or grey ash on them before you throw the meat on.

If you need to cook for longer than 30 minutes, you’ll want to add several more pieces of charcoal when your coals are down to half the size that they were when you started.

How to Start a Charcoal Grill Without Lighter Fluid

You’ve got a few options if you don’t want to use lighter fluid to start your charcoal grill. Many purists insist that lighter fluid makes their food taste like chemicals, and so recommend using items like a charcoal chimney starter to light your grill.

Step 1: Fill and Light Your Chimney

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How many briquettes you put in your chimney will depend on the size of your grill and the arrangement you’re going to use. Usually, you’ll want to put 50 to 100 pieces of coal in your chimney to get started.

This step is dependent on your specific chimney’s instructions, but usually, you’ll want to put a piece or two of lightly-twisted paper in the area underneath the coals. Light the newspaper and then let the chimney sit for about 10 minutes, checking it occasionally to make sure the coals are heating. The best place to do this is on your grill grate, as the chimney will get very hot and can leave marks on whatever surface it sits.

Tip: If your paper is burning too quickly, simply coat your new papers with a little bit of cooking oil and then light them in the chimney. 

Step 2: Pour The Coals

Once you see flames reaching the top of the chimney and/or the coals inside developing gray ash, you can pour them. After you pour them onto your charcoal grate, close the lid and wait a few minutes until most of them are covered in ash. At this point, you can move them into whichever formation you need and begin cooking.

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Lighting Your Charcoal Grill Without a Chimney

If you don’t have a chimney and you don’t want to use lighter fluid, you can still light your grill easily. This method takes a little longer but is just as effective.

Step 1: Arrange Fuel and Coals

For best results, use a slightly twisted piece of newspaper. You can also use some of the brown paper from the charcoal bag. After you’ve twisted the paper, make it into a circle, and pour a little bit of cooking oil on it to help it burn longer. Place the paper on your charcoal grate and light it.

Once the paper starts burning steadily, place a few coals on top of it and watch for ash developing on them. When ash forms on the bottom of the coals, you can flip them over to heat the other side. Once those coals have ignited, you can place others on top of and around them and close the lid. The burning coals will ignite the other ones. This usually takes about 30 minutes.

Tip: If you’re having trouble getting the coals to ignite with paper alone, you can get a small fire going by adding twigs to the burning paper. Once the twigs are burning well, then you can add a few pieces of coal. Once those pieces of charcoal are burning, you can add more, close the lid, and wait for them to develop gray ash.

Step 2: Arrange the Coals and Get To Grilling

Once you have your desired amount of coals burning and showing grey or white ash, you can arrange them in whichever way is appropriate for the food you’re cooking. Then, you can get to grilling!

Proper Grill Vent Usage

Whether you’re using lighter fluid, a chimney, or just paper to light your charcoals, keep in mind proper vent usage. If you’re cooking your food quickly, at a high-heat, you’ll want to have your vents fully open. This lets air flow through the grill, keeping the coals burning bright and hot. 

If you’re going for medium heat, you can leave them open halfway, for some airflow. If you’re slow-cooking, you’ll want to close them entirely or leave them open just a little bit, depending on your grill and the meat you’re cooking.

In Conclusion

How you decide to light your grill is a matter of personal preference. If you’re using lighter fluid, be careful and remember not to spray it on flames or ignited coals. A chimney starter is the quickest and safest way to get your grill going, but you can also use paper and twigs if you want. 

Remember to clean your grill regularly and keep in mind the different charcoal formations you can use to cook different foods. Add wood chips for a little flavor, use your grill’s vents to your advantage, and always check your food with a thermometer prior to enjoying! I hope this article has been helpful and as always, thanks for reading!

Justin Childress

Justin Childress is the creator of He is also a devoted husband and father of his 1-year-old son Gabriel. Justin enjoys spending time with family, reading, and, of course, contributing to Read more about me or follow me on Pinterest to stay connected.

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