I remember when I got my first charcoal grill for Father’s Day some years ago. I went out a bought a few sirloin steaks and was excited to throw them on the grill. I poured about half a bottle of lighter fluid on a pile of coals and lit them up. When the coals began to ash over I threw the steaks on and began grilling. Those of you that are avid charcoal grillers are snickering right about now, because you know what is coming.
Because the coals weren’t fully ready, the meat didn’t cook properly. The steaks basically steamed about 40 minutes until I took them inside and finished them in the microwave. Finally I sat down to enjoy the fruits of my labor and took a big bite of steak. It tasted like I was eating gasoline. The rest of the dinner went in the garbage can.
From this experience I learned that you don’t want to put anything on your charcoal that you don’t want to eat with your food. There are far better methods to light charcoal than with lighter fluid. I haven’t used lighter fluid in years and can honestly say that I don’t miss it, in fact using the methods that I will describe below the coals are ready faster than when I used lighter fluid.
There are two basic methods that I use to light charcoal and both work equally well depending on the type of charcoal that you are using.
There are two basic types of charcoal, briquettes and lump. Charcoal briquettes are by far the most common type of charcoal found in most supermarkets today. Lump charcoal is a bit harder to find, but may be the best choice for your next backyard grilling adventure, depending on what you are grilling.
Briquettes are basically ground up lump charcoal with a binder to hold them in the well known briquette shape. Sometimes you will find them with small shards of hardwood, such as hickory or mesquite, imbedded in each coal. These shards will give a stronger smoky flavor. Because briquettes are uniform in size, it is easier to control the temperature of your grill. In short the pros and cons of briquettes are:
- Uniform Size
- Longer Burn Time
- Requires Proper Preparation
- Doesn’t Burn as Hot
Lump charcoal is made by burning hardwoods in an environment without oxygen. This leaves pure carbon behind, which burns clean and hot. Lump is becoming more common in grocery stores, but if you want good lump charcoal you will probably have to shop online. The pros and cons of Lump Charcoal are:
- Burns Hotter than Briquettes
- Easy to Add Charcoal
- Lights quickly
- Burns Quickly
- Irregular Sizes
Your choice of charcoal will depend on your grilling style and the meal that you are cooking. A good backyard chef will use both lump and briquette charcoal. I have found that quick cooking that requires developing a good sear requires the extra heat that lump charcoal can produce, but when I roast a brisket for 12 hours, briquettes give me a more constant temperature and last longer for long slow cooks. If you like to do a bit of dutch oven cooking, then I would definitely recommend briquettes.Once you have chosen the best charcoal for what you are grilling it is time to choose the method that you want to use to light the charcoal. The first method is the Chimney Starter Method. This method works equally well on both lump charcoal and briquettes.
THE CHIMNEY STARTER METHOD
To light charcoal with a chimney starter you just need to fill it with your favorite charcoal, stuff a few waded up newspapers in the bottom, and set it ablaze. When using a Chimney Starter, make sure to follow these two tips:
- Don’t over stuff the bottom with newspaper. I have found that two full sheets of newspaper is the right amount. If you put three, then they tend to smolder and don’t get the coals going. If you only use one, then it burns out before the coals get lit.
- Sprinkle a little vegetable oil on the newspaper before crumpling it up and lightning it. Don’t overdo it; it only takes a little. The oil will turn the newspaper into a wick, and it will burn for a longer time. When the paper coated with oil burns out, your charcoal will be well on its way. You will only need about 1 teaspoon for a sheet of paper. I like to spread it on lightly with a basting brush.
Once the coals are ashen over (look white) they are ready. It can be hard to wait until they are completely ready, but waiting will ensure that the coals reach the target temperature for cooking.
THE IN GRILL METHOD
This method only works with lump charcoal and seems to be the fastest way to get the coals roaring. Basically with this method you turn your charcoal grill into a chimney to light the coals.
Remove the cooking and charcoal grates from your grill. Place three wadded up pieces of newspaper in the bottom of the grill. Use the oil trick described above to give the newspaper a bit more time to burn. Once the newspaper is in place replace the charcoal grate and cover it with lump charcoal.
Now light the paper to get the coals going. Most times I light the newspaper from the bottom vent, just because it is easier access. Once the coals are ashen over you can just put the grill grate on and begin cooking.
Whichever method you choose, it will work much better than lighter fluid.