How to Light Charcoal without Lighter Fluid

There is something uniquely American about dousing a pile of charcoal with lighter fluid and kicking off the barbecue season with a miniature fireball warming the backyard. But sometimes, the lighter fluid reservoir runs dry. Or maybe you’re trying to move away from using lighter fluid because you don’t like the taste or smell it adds to the grill. Luckily, it is incredibly easy to learn how to light charcoal without lighter fluid.

As I have moved my charcoal barbecuing away from the old school briquettes and onto lump charcoal, I have had to hone my charcoal lighting skills. Depending on whether I am setting the barbecue at a low and slow temp for smoking a brisket or cranking it up to its highest temperature as fast as possible to sear a tomahawk steak, there are a few techniques I can fall back on to get consistent results.

My Favorite Ways for How to Light Charcoal Without Lighter Fluid

Use a Chimney!

charcoal chimney

If you’re looking to get your charcoal up to speed fast for a high heat grill then it is tough to beat a chimney.

Think of how you used to start a pile of charcoal. You’ll stack it up into something resembling a pyramid and try to light the bottom edges. Eventually, the pile would light but the edges would still be cold. This would mean moving the briquettes around to try to mix the lit and unlit charcoal.

A charcoal chimney concentrates your charcoal into a vertical column and will quickly transfer the flames up through the entire pile of charcoal when lit from the bottom.

All you need to do to get a ripping hot pile of charcoal is load some crumpled-up newspaper or starter cubes into the bottom of the chimney, then fill the rest with charcoal. Light the bottom, and within 20 minutes, every single piece of charcoal will be lit and the barbecue ready for cooking.

Another awesome hack with the chimney is to use it as a super hot searing station. Once the charcoal in the chimney is fully lit, throw a grate directly on top, and you can apply some serious heat to your steak.

Go Old School With the Pyramid and Newspaper

Despite the fact that we just looked down on the old pyramid method, it still works if you’re in a pinch. Adding some crumpled up newspaper to the bottom and keeping a nice tight pile will help your charcoal ignite quicker.

With that said, you’re probably still going to be waiting a good 30 minutes before the grill is ready to go but at least you’ll have fire to cook with.

Use Starter Cube

Starter cubes, like the ones we mentioned above, are typically either a wax cube or a material like wood shavings coated in wax.

These cubes, when lit, will give off a steady flame for up to 10 minutes. This gives plenty of time for the charcoal to get a head start versus the 20 – 30 seconds you may get out of balled up newspaper.

To use a starter cube place a few of them at the bottom of your charcoal pile or chimney and light with a match. They light super fast and will get your charcoal up to temp in no time.

Try a Cotton Ball Dipped in Oil

If you’re looking for a truly DIY method then head off to the bathroom and scrounge up some cotton balls. A quick dip in cooking oil like canola, coconut oil, or even petroleum jelly (also known as Vaseline) and you have an instant DIY starter cube.

When combined with wood shavings these DIY cubes can burn up to 30 minutes! And they make awesome fire starters for camp fires or as an emergency item to carry on hikes or while camping.

To start your charcoal using a DIY starter follow the method mentioned above of placing it under your charcoal, lighting it, and waiting for the coals to start glowing.

Other Tips on How to Light Charcoal Without Lighter Fluid

Control the Air Flow

A common theme I see when people are starting charcoal is to pile it up in the middle of the grill, light it, and watch it until it gets hot. In this scenario, the air is just swirling around the charcoal and not really doing you any favors.

Whenever I use my kamado grill as a true charcoal grill, I always start using a pile of lump charcoal with a depression in the middle for a fire cube. Usually, within 20 minutes, I have a grill that has topped 500 degrees and is ready for cooking.

The secret is, once the starter cube has been lit, closing the top and fully opening the top and bottom dampers. This pulls air in through the bottom, over the charcoal, and out the top. This airflow acts as a fan that quickly ignites the charcoal and brings it up to temp. It’s a similar idea to the chimney, although I usually do have to rearrange the lump charcoal a bit to ensure even coverage.

Use the Right Amount of Charcoal

It may seem tempting to just throw a few charcoal lumps or briquettes on the grill when you’re looking to cook up a single hotdog but there are strength in numbers. Using a few pieces of charcoal can be a great idea if you’re looking to set up a low and slow cook as the briquettes will slowly burn individually rather than all lighting at once. But it isn’t great when you’re looking for a bed of coals to roast up that delicious frank.

Kingsford has a great set of recommendations, based on the charcoal chimney, on how much charcoal you should use depending on the heat you’re looking for.

They recommend:

  • 1 full chimney of charcoal if you’re looking for high heat to sear steaks
  • 1/2 – 3/4 chimney for medium high heat for burgers or other more tender meats
  • 1/4 chimney for low heat for tender meats like fish

My Charcoal Won’t Light!

Even after using the best options described above your charcoal just seems to refuse to light. If you’re firing up the grill for the first time this season, or maybe your bag of charcoal has been living outside all summer, there’s a chance it has absorbed some moisture over that time.

Wet or damp charcoal can make starting a real headache without, ahem, accelerants. It can still be done but it maybe require going to the effort of literally building a small fire underneath it to dry the charcoal out enough to where it can light and start burning on its own.

I have certainly been a victim to this happening, and usually, it’s best to toss the bag and go pick up a new batch rather than fight with bad charcoal every time you want to start up the barbecue.

Final Thoughts on How to Light Charcoal Without Lighter Fluid

Hopefully, these tips are helpful (I can almost sense the hungry kids looking over your should as you read this), and you’ll be up and grilling in no time flat. Remember to use a good ignition source, pile the briquettes, and use those dampers to your advantage!

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