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Lesson 3: How to Start a Charcoal Fire

Sarah Breckenridge; Video by Bruce Becker and Dariusz Kanarek; Editing by Cari Delahanty. Shot on location at the Dana Holcombe House, Newtown, CT.
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Lesson 3: How to Start a Charcoal Fire

Whether you’re already an accomplished griller or just a novice, grilling cookbook author Fred Thompson will turn you into a grill master in ten short episodes.
Using a chimney starter is the most efficient way to get your charcoal fire going. It’s fast, and it doesn’t involve a lot of chemicals that can end up flavoring your food the way lighter fluid can. They’re really simple to use and I’m going to show you how it’s done.

Look for the oversized chimney starters like this one from Weber. You can find cheaper ones out there, but this holds enough charcoal for a good long grilling session, and it also has a double handle that makes it easier to empty the coals into the grill.

Recipes from the grill
Agujas Classic Barbecued Chicken Apple-Bacon Barbecued Ribs  
Agujas (Grilled Chuck Steaks)   Classic Barbecued Chicken   Apple-Bacon Barbecued Ribs (Gas Grill Version)    

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to stuff the bottom of the starter with too much newspaper, which can stifle the flames. Instead, compact the paper lightly and only use enough to just fill the bottom.

Set the starter on the grate. Light the paper with a long match or lighter. Leave the lid off so the paper ignites the coals. At this point, you can leave the coals unattended and work on prepping your food for the grill. It’ll take about half an hour until the coals are ready.

When the coals are glowing red and covered all over with a light coat of ash, that’s a hot fire. Empty the coals onto the fire grate and arrange them for a direct or indirect fire, as your recipe instructs.

How hot is your grill?
To test the heat, hold your outstretched palm an inch or two above the cooking grate. The length of time you can stand the heat tells you how hot the grill is. The same test can be used for gas grills.

Time palm can
be held
over grill

Grill heat Temperature range
less than 1 second very hot
over 600°F
1 to 2 seconds hot 400° to 500°F
3 to 4 seconds
medium 350° to 375°F
5 to 7 seconds medium-low 325° to 350°F

How to keep the fire going
If you’re cooking over indirect heat for a long time, a batch of  briquettes will die down within about an hour, so it’s a good idea to start you’ll need to add additional coals. Here’s how you can get them going in your chimney starter before you add them to the fire:

  • Put an extra grill grate over a galvanized metal bucket or another large, heatproof container. You want air to be able to circulate under the chimney.
  • Load your chimney starter and set it on the grate. Light the paper and let the coals start to burn.
  • When the coals are glowing and ashed over, pour them into the grill. If your cooking grate doesn’t have a flip-up door on one side, you may need to use tongs to add coals to the fire.

Charcoal Grilling Recipes
Hoisin Barbecued Ribs
Mexican Grilled Chuck Steaks
Master Barbecued Chicken Recipe
New England-Style Clambake
Maple-Brined, Wood-Smoked Grilled Turkey
Apple-Bacon Barbecued Ribs

Related Articles
How to Judge the Temperature of Your Charcoal Grill
Hardwood Charcoal vs. Briquettes
The ABCs of Grilling Gear
Becoming an Expert Griller

Other lessons in this series
Classic Ultimate Burgers New York Strip Steaks with Blue Cheese Butter How to Start a Charcoal Fire
Lesson 1: The Perfect Burger
  Lesson 2: Great Steaks on the Grill   Lesson 3: How to Start a Charcoal Fire
The Two-Zone Fire Buttermilk Brined Chicken Breasts How to Add Smoke to a Gas Grill
Lesson 4: The Two-Zone Fire   Lesson 5: How to Grill Bone-In Chicken Parts   Lesson 6: How to Add Smoke to a Gas Grill
Grilled Fish Tacos Lump vs. Briquette Charcoal Fred's Ultimate Smoked Pork Shoulder
Lesson 7: How to Grill Fish   Lesson 8: Lump vs. Briquette Charcoal   Lesson 9: Slow-Smoked Pork Shoulder
Fred's Finest Baby Back Ribs    
Lesson 10: Real Barbecued Ribs        


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