How to Light a Charcoal Grill

  • Backyard cooks have several options at their disposal when it comes to lighting a charcoal grill:

    You may be tempted to use lighter fluid, but we strongly advise against this method because lighter fluid is a petroleum byproduct that gives off a chemical taste and odor. This is especially important for ceramic kamado grills, which will absorb the lighter fluid and may add that “flavor” to your food long after you use it. For that same reason, we recommend you grill with lump charcoal instead of charcoal briquettes. This type of charcoal is filled with additives that negatively influence flavor and make ash disposal more complicated.

  • Margherita pizza cooking on a pizza stone in a gas grill.

How to Arrange Charcoal

Chef Tony stacks his charcoal in a pyramid before lighting, especially when doing so from the bottom. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but the pyramid setup creates more contact between the individual coals, which in turn promotes faster ignition. After your bottom-lit pyramid has burned for about 10 minutes and every coal is lit, use an ash tool or rake to position the charcoal however you need it. An even layer will produce even heat across your grill grates, whereas banking all the coals to one side will allow you to take advantage of dual-zone grilling.

Where to Light Charcoal

While ignition method is simply a matter of what you find most convenient, the spot where you light your charcoal — from the top or bottom of the pile — will directly affect heat levels in your grill. Lighting from the top is the preferred choice for low-and-slow cooking because the lower coals will light only as needed once the upper layer smolders out, allowing you to maintain moderate temperatures for longer cooks. Conversely, a fire started at the bottom will rise and ignite every piece of charcoal on its way up, resulting in the roaring-hot temperatures needed for searing.

You can use a charcoal chimney for either method. Just pour hot coals from the chimney on top of unlit ones in your pit for top-lighting, or add more unlit coals after you empty the chimney into your grill for bottom-lighting.