I have always been a proponent of grilling with charcoal. Propane grills do have a couple of obvious advantages. For one, they get up to cooking temperature very fast. Another advantage is that you can leave the grill hot for a long time more easily than you can with a charcoal grill, which is handy for cookouts and other get-togethers.
The final advantage as I see it is clean up is a little easier with a propane grill. Charcoal ashes build up over time and need to be dealt with. Other than that though, I think charcoal is better in every other aspect.
One of my favorite things about grilling is the relaxation of smelling the charcoal starting to heat up, having an adult beverage and soaking up the sun on the deck. It definitely takes longer, but that is part of the appeal to me. If I am super pressed for time, I do not feel like it is the best time to grill. I want to be able to take my time and enjoy it.
You probably already know that grilling with charcoal takes a bit of patience, but you may not have known that if you are willing to spend a bit more time, you can start your charcoal grill without even using lighter fluid. We will look at some of the methods to do so, but first, why skip the lighter fluid at all?
Why Going Without Lighter Fluid is Beneficial
One reason to try to avoid lighter fluid is safety. When I was in college, some of my buddies and I went on a fishing trip in northern Minnesota. We got skunked the first day of fishing, but fortunately came prepared with hot dogs and bratwursts just in case. One of the guys doused the charcoal in the grill with lighter fluid and lit it. It was a bit windy though, and seemed to have gone out. He squirted some more fluid onto the coals, and a huge fireball almost burned him in the face.
Since he was fine, it was actually pretty funny, but could have been a very serious injury. It is very important to remember how volatile lighter fluid is. Do not squirt any on hot coals for this very reason.
Another good reason to skip lighter fluid is it is a poison. No it will not poison your food, but it is harmful if swallowed. If you want to use lighter fluid but have small children and/or pets, it is imperative to store it responsibly.
Finally, you can save a few bucks by not using it, as you will see below. My wife and other people also claim that lighter fluid negatively affects the taste of the food. I can’t say I have noticed that personally, but it does make the lovely charcoal smell a little less pleasant, so I certainly would not be surprised to find out that it is true.
Now, onto some other charcoal lighting methods.
Method One: Use Fluid-Infused Briquettes
Okay, so this one is a bit of a cheat. However, if you buy charcoal that is infused with lighter fluid, you do not need to add additional fluid. The most famous product in this vein is Kingsford Match Light. Generally speaking, the briquettes are going to be a couple more dollars per bag, but the difference in lighting efficiency is apparent. It also removes the need for separate lighter fluid.
As this review from Consumer Reports points out though, there is one important thing to remember when using this product. The briquettes will dry out if exposed to air. Assuming you are not using the entire bag in one sitting, you have to ensure that the bag is closed tightly, otherwise the lighter fluid will evaporate out and the briquettes will be the same as an ordinary bag of charcoal.
I used Match Light charcoal quite a bit until I purchased a product that works even better, as I will go over at the end of this post.
Method Two: Start a Fire Then Add Coals
A simple but messy way to start charcoal is to build a very small fire in the base of your grill, then add the charcoal on top of it. I have used this method in the past.
I rushed out of work, picked up the ingredients for a burger cookout and excitedly went home. The good news was that I had charcoal but the bad news was I was out of charcoal fluid. Darkness was starting to set in, so I did not want to head back to the store. I had a lot of junk mail sitting on the coffee table and decided to try to kill two birds with one stone. Crumpling up a bunch of old mail in the bottom of the grill, I started a fire. Next, I added some thin cardboard (essentially cardstock grade). Finally, I added the charcoal on top. The good news is that it technically worked, but I was not a fan of how it turned out.
The problem is that the coals started but there was still some cardboard that was not all the way burned up. I kind of felt like I was cooking on cardboard. It also proved to be more of a mess to clean up the bottom of the grill. In a pinch, it works, but I would only do it again if I absolutely had to. That brings us to the best way to light charcoal.
Method Three: Using a Charcoal Chimney
As someone who has done a ton of charcoal grilling, I can tell you that charcoal chimneys are fantastic for several reasons. For one, they are cheap. A quick look at Amazon shows them ranging between $11 to $19 dollars. The money saved from not buying fluid will more than make up the difference eventually. The next benefit is that they are durable. The chimney I am currently using was a wedding present in August of 2015. Here is how it looks now:
It is showing its age a bit through corrosion, but is still perfectly functional. As long as I don’t leave it out in the rain I will get several more years out of it.
How to use charcoal chimney to light a charcoal grill
- Crumple up some paper and cardstock if you have it in the bottom section of the chimney.
- There is a grate inside the chimney that separates the bottom from the top. Fill the top portion all the way to the top with charcoal.
- Light the paper in the bottom portion, either on the grill grate or on the bottom of the grill, then simply wait.
- The paper will light the lower coals, then the heat rises from there. The paper turns to ash to the point where it is not nearly the mess as the normal fire in the bottom of the grill is.
- After about 15 minutes, you will have perfect coals.
There are chimneys that have a release that allow you to drop the coals without tipping the chimney over, but I have never felt the need to spend the extra money to get one.
So there you have it! There are multiple ways to start charcoal without lighter fluid, but the best by far in this griller’s opinion is a charcoal chimney.