How To Start a Charcoal Grill

How To Start a Charcoal Grill

There’s nothing quite like the taste of food grilled over charcoal. However, firing up a charcoal grill can be a challenge and there are definitely some things you need to know. But it’s really not that tricky to get a charcoal grill started once you know how. And it’s totally worth it.


Our guide to starting your charcoal grill will give you a couple different techniques for lighting your charcoal fast. You’ll learn what it takes to keep your charcoal hot for searing, how to maintain low temps for slow cooking and keep the fire burning for hours. We’ll answer your most frequently asked questions and link you to the products that make charcoal grilling a whole lot easier.


Keeping your grill clean and your grates well-oiled delivers the best tasting food and prevents it from sticking. It will also make your grill last longer and prevent grease fires. So, before you get started, clean your grill thoroughly. Remove any ash or grease left behind from the last time you grilled and wipe down the grate(s) with fresh cooking oil.


Clean your grill grates with a grill brush before and after use. Scrub the interior monthly and detail the interior and exterior at least every season.


Which charcoal should I use?

There are lots of different types of charcoal and it can be confusing. While the charcoal you use doesn’t really impact the flavor, it does affect the heat produced and how long the coals stay hot. But when it comes right down to it, charcoal is available in two basic forms; lump charcoal and briquettes.


Lump charcoal, a favorite among grilling purists, has a more natural composition. It’s usually made from cherry, coconut shells, mesquite and tamarind. Because it’s not compressed like briquettes, it tends to burn hotter and faster. It’s also less ashy. It’s difficult to layer lump charcoal evenly, so grillers tend to use lump charcoal for low and slow BBQ, like pork, ribs and brisket.


Briquettes are made primarily of sawdust, with binding ingredients added to form their pillow shape. The uniform size of briquettes gives you a standard unit of fuel, making it easier to regulate a more precise fire. Briquettes burn a little less hot than lump charcoal and experts tend to use briquettes for foods that require less cooking time, like steak or fish.


One way to get some of the benefits of lump charcoal without the drawbacks is to build a mixed fire: some briquettes and some lump. This will help you get a hotter fire for searing and still maintain more consistent heat for longer-cooking times.


The charcoal you choose primarily impacts the intensity and evenness of your heat. Whichever type you decide on, use a quality charcoal, like our centercut lump charcoal. It burns cleanly and is uniform in size and quality for dependable results every time.

Hot Tip: The size and shape of your grill will determine the amount of charcoal you’ll use. Check your owner’s manual to see what is recommended.
How much charcoal should I use?

When working with charcoal, the basic rule is the more coal you use, the hotter your fire. A good rule of thumb is about 30 briquettes for smaller or portable grills and 50 to 75 briquettes for larger barrel and Kettleman grills. You’ll need more charcoal on cold, windy or rainy days.


You do not need very much charcoal when you’re cooking food like burgers, hot dogs and brats that are better cooked at moderate heat.  A single layer of coals across the bottom will work well.  When you’re searing steak, you need a hotter fire. You want to at least double the amount of charcoal, stacking it 2 to 3 high.


To keep temps low for slow cooking and smoking, use less coals and monitor the temperature. To maintain temp and keep the fire burning for a long cook, add coals, maybe 5 at a time every 30 minutes. If you’re having trouble keeping your grill’s temperature above 200°F, throw a couple extra coals onto the fire.

Can I grill with wood chips?

Adding wood chips to your fire is a quick and easy way to switch up your recipes, infusing meat, fish and veggies with a variety of natural wood smoke flavors. Learn more about how to smoke meat on a charcoal grill.


How do I arrange the charcoal?

The best way to arrange your charcoal depends on the shape of your grill and whether you want to grill with direct or indirect heat. You can create the effect of direct or indirect heat by setting up two “zones” on your charcoal grill. Basically, direct heat is on the lit side, while indirect heat is on the unlit side.

Direct Heat for High Temperature Grilling

The direct heat grilling method is best for steaks, chops, hamburgers, kabobs, vegetables and food that cooks quickly. There is basically one way to arrange the coals when cooking with direct heat. Charcoal is spread evenly across the charcoal grate for even heat distribution. Once the coals are lit, close the lid and preheat for 20 to 30 minutes.

Indirect Heat for Low Temperature Cooking

Indirect heat is a great way to get the oven effect for roasting whole birds, fish, large cuts of meat and other foods that are best cooked slowly. You can set up indirect cooking zones for slow cooking or smoking and to grill foods at  different temperatures. You can also use the warming rack as your indirect zone.


Once they’re hot, use tongs to reposition coals to create indirect heat zones. Then position the cooking grate over the coals and preheat for 20 to 30 minutes. Close the lid and open the vent. You’ll place your food on the area of the grate with no coals under it.

Hot Tip: A light, high heat oil on your food will help brown your food evenly and keep it from sticking to the cooking grate.
There are a variety of arrangements you can choose:

Kettleman Grill Indirect HeatFor round grills, like the Kettleman™, you can arrange coals around the outer edge of the charcoal grate, leaving no coals in the center.


Kettleman Grill Indirect Heat ArrangementWith round, rectangular and barrel-shaped grills, you can simply put your coals on one half of the grill and leave the other side without coals.


Charcoal ManagerOr you can use a Charcoal Manager to set up your coals for a slow burn with 3 to 7 hours of heat.


Lighting charcoal can be a daunting task, especially for new charcoal grillers. The first step is knowing how to light the coals. Here are a few different ways to start your charcoal that will get you grilling in no time.

Lighting Charcoal with Lighter Fluid

Ready to have your mind blown? You don’t actually need lighter fluid to light your charcoal. And there are a couple of really good reasons to skip the lighter fluid. Chief among them are fire hazard and fumes.  Lighter fluid fumes can affect the smell and taste of your food.  In addition, charcoal lighter fluid is made of either petroleum (mineral spirits) or alcohol (ethanol and methanol) which are regulated and even restricted in some areas because they have the potential of causing photochemical smog.


If it just doesn’t seem right to light your grill without lighter fluid, all we ask is that you don’t go crazy. The most you should use is 1/4 cup of fluid per pound of charcoal. Allow the lighter fluid to soak in for 30 seconds before lighting. And NEVER douse a burning fire with lighter fluid.

Using Newspaper to Start Your Charcoal Grill

One of the easiest ways to recycle newspaper is to use it as a fire starter for your charcoal grill. Insert rolled up newspaper underneath closely-packed charcoal in several different spots. Light the newspaper with a fireplace match or lighter. Add newspaper to the fire until it’s well-lit.


While there are several effective methods to light charcoal, using special equipment can make the job easier. Here are a couple of tools that make lighting charcoal faster and easier.

Lighting Charcoal with a Charcoal Chimney

Charcoal StarterLoading charcoal into a charcoal chimney or charcoal starter keeps the charcoal packed together with space between lumps or briquettes for easy ignition. You can place balled-up newspaper on the charcoal grate and set the chimney starter on top of the newspaper. Light the newspaper through holes in the bottom of the starter. The coals will be ready to cook when they’re ashy, about 15 minutes. When they’re ready, pour the charcoal onto the bottom grill grate and spread it out with a long-handled grill tool like a spatula or tongs.

Starting Your Grill with An Electric Charcoal Starter

Electric Charcoal StarterAn electric charcoal starter is a device with a handle on one end and a metal loop (the heating element) on the other. Plug in the charcoal starter, using an outdoor-rated extension cord. Load one layer of charcoal close together, near the center of the grill. Place the heating element of the electric charcoal starter onto the center of the pile. Lay a second layer of charcoal on top of the heating element and the surrounding coals. When the charcoal is well-lit, remove the charcoal starter.


Electric starters ignite coals a little more slowly than an open flame, but when you start your grill with an electric charcoal starter, you won’t need lighter fluid, newspapers, matches or lighters.

How to Keep Charcoal Hot


Use your tongs to keep the coals together. You don’t want them so well packed that they can't get air, but you also don't want them separated.

Hot Tip: Cooking temperatures on a charcoal grill are controlled by opening and closing the vents. Opening the vents feeds the fire, raising the temperature. Closing the vents deprives the fire of oxygen, lowering the temperature.

Keep the top and bottom vents open to get the hottest temperature. The more air you get to the fire, the hotter it will cook.


Empty the ash frequently. Ash takes up space for air and will smother the coals as it builds up.

Fastest Way to Keep Your Charcoal Grill Hot

Add coals regularly to keep your grill burning hot. Don't wait until you're almost out of briquettes to add more. Instead, add 5-10 pieces of charcoal when you have roughly half of your charcoals remaining, usually every 30 minutes or so.

Hot Tip: Wearing gloves while lighting charcoal will help protect your hands from the intense heat.


Should I open or close my grill lid when starting charcoal?

The lid should be open while you arrange and light your charcoal. Once the coals are well-lit, close the lid. Most charcoal grills are hotter right after lighting. The heat then tapers off.

Do I open the vents or close them when lighting charcoal?

As we said above, fire needs oxygen to burn. So, open the lid, lid vent and vents on the bottom of the grill to let in air to fuel the flames. This will help oxygen reach the coals once they’re lit so they can burn hotter. Once they’re fully lit, you can adjust the vent opening to control the cooking temperature.

How do you light charcoal fast?

The key to lighting charcoal fast is arranging the charcoal close enough together to spread the fire to adjacent coals and leave enough space between coals for air flow to feed the fire with oxygen. Another factor that affects fast lighting is using old charcoal or charcoal that’s been exposed to wet weather— always use fresh charcoal.

How can I make charcoal start faster?

Since fire needs oxygen to burn, one way to make charcoal start faster is to increase the air flow. You can use a hair dryer or other device that blows air to fan the flames.

How long does it take to heat up a charcoal grill?

For optimum results, give your grill enough time to preheat, generally around 20 to 30 minutes for the briquettes to be ready.

How do you know when the coals in a charcoal grill are ready?

The coals are ready when at least 2/3 of the outer surface turns white and the inside glows red/orange. Once they turn to ash, they will continue to put out heat for a while.

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