Building and Maintaining a Fire in a Charcoal Grill

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Building and Maintaining a Fire in a Charcoal Grill. Build a fire in your grill -- without lighter fluid or self starting charcoal, for the ultimate flavor when cooking out.

Cooking over charcoal requires time. After lighting, you should be ready to cook in 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of the grill and the number and type of briquettes or other grill fuel you use.

You Will Need

Because of their uniform shape and size, charcoal briquettes make a good cooking medium that is more easily controlled than wood. While some folks like the convenience of self starting charcoal -- avoid it. Who wants that icky chemical smell anywhere near your food? Ditto lighter fluid. Trust me, you don't need them. Learn to build your grill fire without chemicals, your food will taste better and your yard will smell better.

Even regular charcoal briquettes contain additives like furniture scraps, coal dust, borax, and petroleum binders, in addition to raw wood. Once the charcoal is lighted and burned until a light coating of ash covers the briquette (as it needs to be for cooking) these additives will have burned off.

For a completely natural fuel, choose hardwood lump charcoal -- which is actually charred pieces of wood with no additional additives. While some folks find it slightly more difficult to control because of its irregular shapes and sizes, it really isn't much more difficult than briquettes. If you want a super hot fire, hardwood lump charcoal, especially mesquite, is the way to go.

Don't confuse lump charcoal with lump hardwood. The latter are small (about grapefruit sized) pieces of cured wood used to add smoke flavor to cooking foods. You can also get wood chips for this purpose (which are soaked then added to hot coals to produce smoke). For more on smoking click to visit our Smoking Foods tutorial (see links at end of this article). Popular varieties include mesquite, hickory, alder, apple or pecan wood.

Starting a Grill Fire With a Chimney Starter

starting a grill fire with a chimney starterThe easiest way to get a fire going is by using a chimney starter -- a low tech device that resembles a large can with a handle. Inside the double opened ended "can" are two chambers separated by a perforated metal divider. Crushed and crumbled newspaper is stuffed into the bottom chamber, while the top portion of the chimney is filled with charcoal briquettes. Using one of the small vent holes around the outside of the bottom of the chimney, a long match is used to ignite the paper, which in turn burns and ignites the charcoal. In about 10 minutes when the briquettes are burning nicely, carefully dump them into your grill, and use tongs to spread them as you need .

The new large chimney starters hold about 4 pounds of briquettes. You can always start a second batch while the food is cooking, which is what I do when smoking ribs or other slow cooked foods.

A good trick for starting a larger fire is to spread about a pound of briquettes in your grill and empty the chimney of hot coals on top of them. Wait a few minutes for the new coals to catch fire before distributing the briquettes for cooking.

Charcoal Fire Tips

  • Use enough charcoal. For a hot fire in the average size kettle type grill, plan on 5 to 6 pounds of charcoal. There's nothing worse than running out of charcoal in the middle of grilling. Light enough to form a bed of glowing coals three to four inches larger on all sides than the surface area of the food you?re cooking.
  • It's a good idea to leave some space on the grill where you can move charcoal to in case of flare ups or for a fire that's burning too hot -- in other words, while you want to use enough charcoal, you don't want to overcrowd the grill.
  • Once the goals are burning, why waste the heat? Plan ahead and cook tomorrow's dinner while the grill is still hot. I usually have a spare chicken or London broil, or a bunch of veggie kebabs ready to take the space on the grill, once my current main course is done. It saves money and time. If you want to enjoy dinner and not tend the grill, move the coals to one size to use an indirect method of cooking. Cover the grill and enjoy your dinner, as juices do not drip onto the fire with indirect cooking, there is little danger of fires and flare ups.