I will admit that I was lighting charcoal with lighter fluid only a few years ago. Truth be told it was only one time a year at our annual pig roast in which I had to light 100 lbs of charcoal for that cookout. At the time I only lit my coals with a charcoal chimney. Well, a chimney that can hold 100 lbs of charcoal is not something I want to try to lift and dump when full of hot coals. I’m not even sure one could get close enough to that to dump without needing a trip to the ER. But then I learned about the weed torch the third time we documented our whole hog cookout. It cost me less than $50 and it saves me the embarrassment of using lighter fluid. Oh, and it can be used on a few pounds of charcoal just as well on 100 lbs. Buying that weed torch made me think of other ways of how to light a charcoal grill. That’s where I came up with this list of top 10 ways to light charcoal without lighter fluid.
Again this journey started when I was trying to figure out how to start 100 lbs of charcoal to roast a whole hog:
I used the dreaded fluid and had to let the charcoal sit for like 45 minutes to make sure that toxic stuff had all burned out so it wouldn’t leach into my pig:
Before that, my only other way to light the charcoal was one of these:
1) Charcoal Chimney
The charcoal chimney is a metal tube with a handle on one side, a metal grate near the bottom and some holes for ventilation. This is the one item that everyone should have to light a charcoal grill. To use the chimney, fill the top section with charcoal:
Stuff some newspaper or a fire starter in the bottom and light. In 10-15 minutes you have a chimney of hot coals:
Yes, that charcoal chimney is a rust bucket. I’ve had that one for maybe 4 years because the one I’d had for a good 14 years finally disintegrated. Basically, that means if you drop maybe $15 for one of these, it will likely be about $1 a year for consistent fire.
This leads to the second option for lighting charcoal.
2) Charcoal Starter or Fire Starter
These are a small incendiaries that can be like a little nest or dense board like material. Some even have a match stick material on the end that just need a little friction to get lit. Set one in the bottom of the grill, pile some charcoal on the top, light the fire starter and in 20 minutes or so you have a blazing rager:
Here are the more standard fire starters which just need to have the corner lit and placed under a chimney or under a pile of charcoal:
And here are the nests:
Getting back to the Pig brings us to probably the most fun, but also the most dangerous fire starter:
3) Weed Torch
The weed torch connects to a standard 20 lb propane tank. Be careful with these, particularly on a wooden deck. At less than $50, these are probably the fastest way to get the coals going (or that deck). This was my first year lighting the coals for the pig roast with this bad boy. It’s been a biscuit since this pic was taken because I’ve got no goatee and not wearing the specs, not to mention those cargo short!?!
The next option on the docket is also a cool device
The Homeright ElectroTorch is quite brilliant. It’s an industrial heat gun and a hair dryer rolled into one. Why is that brilliant? Well, first the heat gun aspect of this unit gets to 1,500 degrees. Aim that at the charcoal until there’s a glowing ember then kick it over to the hair dryer function and blow air on the ember and in less than 5 minutes, there will be a raging fire.
Yes, it looks like a curling iron. That’s part of the charm.
Did I mention that the ElectroTorch is about $50 and works phenomenally indoors if you have a wood burning fireplace. I use it all the time when my firewood guy swears that the latest load, that smells so green it still has leaves attached, that it’s been aging/weathering for six months. The blow dryer function can make a struggling fire into a contained conflagration in a minute or two. Throw away the bellows because this thing smoked them (see what I did there?!?)
5) Plumbers Torch
A plumbers torch is a handy tool for any pitmaster. It can be used to kick start a fire or use it like a creme brulé torch to caramelize proteins or sugars on the outside of food. I’ve used one in conjunction with a charcoal chinmey by dumping the charcoal in the top and hitting the bottom of the chimney with the torch for a few minutes to get that chimney going. It can also be blasted on a pile of charcoal (sans chimney) for a few minutes and that pile will be hot coals in less than 10 minutes.
The nozzle for the propane tank can be had for less than $20 all over the interwebs. This one is even cheaper than that. I highly suggest ordering the nozzle online but buy the 1 pound propane tanks at a brick and mortar. I don’t know why, but online those tanks are three times as much as I can get them locally. I’m guessing shipping them is the problem.
6) Gas Grill
How to light a charcoal grill with a gas grill! Wait, what? I’ve mentioned that a couple of these fire starting methods can be used in conjunction with a charcoal chimney. Here’s another one of those methods. One of the things that happened during the Covid lockdowns is that a lot of people added second and third grills to their decks. I mean, hey, we were locked in the house, might as well grill, right? More and more people have both a charcoal and a gas grill. Well, fill that charcoal chimney and set it on the gas grill. Crank up the gas burner underneath the chimney and wait about 15-20 minutes.
One warning on the gas grill method. Make sure the handle is not over the heat. Slide it to just off the front or the side of the grill so that it doesn’t get that direct heat and doesn’t melt.
7) Gel Fire Starter
One of the occupational hazards of grilling for a living is having to do it in some pretty miserable weather conditions. Deadlines are deadlines and there have been times I’ve had to grill with temps in the 20’s and thus I finally put a heater on the deck. It’s an Even Embers Pellet Heater and couldn’t be happier:
The unit recommended gel fire starter to light the pellets:
One squirt of the gel on a pile of charcoal, light it and come back in about 15 minutes. It doesn’t take long for the gel to burn off and the coals to be raging. Evidently this stuff is pretty benign in terms of chemicals:
8) Egg Carton
Eggs rarely come in Styrofoam any longer. They come in cartons made of recycled material that is not only flammable, but with the shape of the container, we create cavities for air to get in and around the carton and charcoal which makes this a fantastic fire starter. And a single egg carton can light the grill four times.
9) Paper Towel and Vegetable Oil
A fire can be started by putting down some wadded up newspaper and piling on some charcoal, but that is hit or miss. Without the chimney to concentrate that heat, the paper can burn out before the charcoal gets going. Take that newspaper or paper towels and drizzle with vegetable oil and pile charcoal on and the initial burn of the paper will last a lot longer:
10) Junk Mail
How to light a charcoal grill and save the environment! Junk mail is a little sad. All that paper for what? How often does someone actually read this crap? I can see it’s junk mail just by looking at the envelope. The mailers and the ads can be put to good use though. Stuff it in the bottom of the charcoal chimney in lieu of newspaper and save the cost of the newspaper because we both know that the vast majority of us get our news on our phones anyway. Or wad it up, drizzle with a little oil and pile the charcoal on top. The best part is, they deliver this stuff to your house for free almost every single day. Put it to good use:
Finally, if lighter fluid is all you have (I can admit that might be the case once in a blue harvest super moon thing), just make sure you let it all burn off. This usually means letting the charcoal burn down quite a bit so expect to reload with fuel, letting that new charcoal get hot, before loading up the grill with meat.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below or send me an email.
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