Grill Hack: How to Light Charcoal without Lighter Fluid

TL;DR: You don’t need lighter fluid to get a charcoal grill going! You can start a charcoal grill using a chimney, electric charcoal starter, or simply with kindling and a match.

Lighter fluid is a useful tool, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of fire starting—and nor should it be. It can affect scent and flavor if used incorrectly and, more importantly, it can be damaging to your health. But for many, lighter fluid is the go-to choice for lighting a charcoal grill.

Starting your charcoal grill without lighter fluid is easier than you might think—all you actually need is matches and kindling—but there are other tools you can use to make the process go more quickly.

So, whether you’re here because you’re looking to part ways with lighter fluid or because you simply don’t have any on hand and you need to start your grill, we’ve got you covered with several different ways you can start your charcoal grill sans lighter fluid.

In this post, we will take a closer look at the following:

  • Why is lighter fluid bad?
  • How to light charcoal without lighter fluid
  • How to keep the coals lit

Let’s turn up the heat and get cooking.

Why is Lighter Fluid Bad?

Lighter fluid isn’t terrible if you use it sparingly and successfully burn it off entirely before you begin cooking. However, some people have concerns about the use of chemicals like lighter fluid when prepping food, and they’re not wrong.

Not only does lighter fluid contain volatile organic compounds (VoCs) like hydrocarbons that can be bad for your health if you inhale or ingest them and the environment, but it can also ruin the flavor of your food if it isn’t burned off correctly. Nobody wants to bite into a burger that has strong notes of gasoline, and

There are easy ways to start your charcoal fire without resorting to lighter fluid that will have less impact on flavor.

How to Light Charcoal Without Lighter Fluid: 3 Methods to Try

There are three main ways to light your charcoal grill without lighter fluid:

  1. Using a charcoal chimney
  2. Lighting the charcoals directly with kindling and a match
  3. Using an electric charcoal starter

In this section, we will outline the items you will need and the steps you have to take in order to use each approach.

1. Using a charcoal chimney

What you will need:

Fast and effective, a charcoal chimney will help get you grilling in about 15 minutes—that’s less than half the time that it would take to light the coals even with lighter fluid. Not only that, but it’s easy to do. Just follow these steps:

  1. Fill the chimney with charcoal. For low-heat grilling or starting a smoker with coals, fill the chimney a quarter of the way full. For medium heat, fill the chimney half full. For high-heat grilling and searing, fill the chimney to the top.
  2. Place the kindling under the chimney on the charcoal grate. Newspaper works if you still get a physical newspaper, or you can use cardboard, other types of paper, or dry hardwood.
  3. Light the kindling.
  4. Place the chimney full of charcoal over the flame. Leave the grid’s lid open for optimal airflow—this will help the charcoal light more quickly.
  5. Once all of the coals in the chimney have turned gray, carefully dump the hot coals (using your grill gloves) onto the charcoal grate and use a charcoal rake to move your charcoal into the desired shape.
  6. Once you are confident the coals are fully burning, close the lid to allow the grill to get up to temperature. Closing the lid too early can result in the coals getting snuffed out, undoing all your progress.
  7. Start grilling!

2. How to light charcoal without lighter fluid or a chimney (direct lighting)

What you will need:

  1. Pile your charcoal into a pyramid shape OR place it into the charcoal baskets.
  2. Open the vents in the bottom of the grill all the way.
  3. Add your kindling (newspaper, paper, cardboard, etc) near the bottom of the pile or around the edges of the baskets.
  4. Ignite the kindling and leave the lid open to help the charcoal ignite. You may need to tend to the kindling to keep it lit.
  5. After about 15 to 20 minutes, the charcoal should be ashy and gray—that means it’s ready to grill with. Use a charcoal rake to move the lit charcoal into the formation you need to cook.
  6. Replace the cooking grids and, once you are really sure the coals are fully burning, close the lid to let the grill get up to the desired temperature. Closing the lid too early can result in the coals getting snuffed out, undoing all your progress.
  7. Start grilling.

3. How to light charcoal without a chimney using an electric charcoal starter

What you will need:

  1. Remove the cooking grids and arrange the charcoal into a pyramid shape.
  2. Place the tip of the electric starter directly into your charcoal pyramid and turn it on.
  3. When the coals start to light, slowly pull the electric starter out further and further to allow it to evenly heat the coals. Keep it in direct contact with the charcoal until they are all lit.
  4. Once the charcoal is ashy and gray, use your charcoal rake to shape the pile into your desired configuration.
  5. Replace the grill grates and, once they are completely lit, close the lid to let your grill get up to the desired temperature. Closing the lid too early can result in the coals going out.
  6. Start grilling.

How to Keep the Coals Lit

If you’re having problems keeping your charcoal lit, there could be a few different reasons:

  • The charcoal is wet. In this case, you’ll have to start over with new charcoal or wait for it to dry out.
  • There isn’t enough air getting to the charcoal. Make sure your vents are open and not clogged with ash—this is why it’s important to clean your grill at the end of each use.
  • Improper charcoal arrangement. If you thin the coals out too much, they will have difficulty maintaining their heat and will go out. If you pile them together too thickly, they won’t be able to get the oxygen they need to stay lit. It’s a fine balance.
  • It’s humid and you’re using charcoal briquettes instead of lump charcoal. Briquettes absorb more moisture and can be slightly harder to keep lit as a result. If it’s especially humid, consider picking up some lump charcoal.

Get Grilling

Lighting a charcoal grill without lighter fluid is easy if you have kindling, matches or a lighter, and a bit of patience. A charcoal chimney or electric charcoal lighter will make the process faster and easier, but they aren’t necessary if you don’t have one on hand.

Learn more about grilling with charcoal: