Cooking over charcoal undoubtedly gives food an irresistible smokey, charred flavor. Plus, charcoal grills tend to be more affordable than other options, making them a budget-friendly choice for backyard cooking. Trying to get the coals lit however — especially if you are out of lighter fluid — could take forever (we’ve been there!). So we asked BBQ experts just how to light charcoal without lighter fluid, and thankfully, they gave us plenty of options so you can still enjoy the smoky flavor on your food in a flash.
Why do you need lighter fluid to light charcoal?
Charcoal needs an initial spark to catch fire. That’s where lighter fluid comes in handy. It’s a flammable liquid that helps kickstart the charcoal ignition process. When you pour a bit of lighter fluid on the charcoal and then apply a flame, say from a match or a lighter, it ignites quickly. The fluid’s volatile nature helps create a consistent and steady flame, making it much easier to get your charcoal burning for that perfect grilling experience.
If you attempt to light charcoal without using lighter fluid or some other form of accelerant, it could result in a longer wait time and more effort to achieve the desired temperature for cooking. Using lighter fluid or alternative methods helps ensure a smoother and quicker lighting process.
One caveat, says Emma Parker, cooking expert and co-founder of TheTroutFish.com: “No matter what method you choose, remember to prioritize safety throughout the lighting process. This includes always wearing heat-resistant gloves, using long tongs when handling hot charcoal and avoiding using gasoline or other highly flammable liquids to start the fire, as they can lead to dangerous flare-ups.”
How to light charcoal without lighter fluid
Have newspaper? Try the pyramid method
When you don’t have lighter fluid on hand, simply being mindful of the way you place your charcoal briquettes can help make lighting them a cinch. “This traditional method involves arranging charcoal in a pyramid shape to facilitate ignition,” says Parker.
Her how-to: Place a few pieces of crumpled newspaper in the center of the grill and stack the charcoal in a pyramid shape on top of it. Light the newspaper in several places, this will help to ignite the charcoal. Once the charcoal is burning and covered with a layer of white ash, use long-handled tongs to spread it out evenly before placing the grill grate on top.
The pyramid trick allows the heat from the bottom coals to rise up, and since the charcoal is close together, it disperses the heat from one briquette to the next.
Another way to use newspaper to light charcoal with no lighter fluid: “Putting a touch of cooking oil on the crumpled newspapers can be a great lighter fluid alternative,” shares JL Surjan, who writes about BBQ at JLSurjan.com. “It’s like recycling with a BBQ twist!”
Simply drizzle the oil onto some sheets of balled up newspaper, tuck them down into the coals and light. The flammable oil will help ignite the charcoal.
Have an empty egg carton? Set the charcoal inside
“Place an empty egg carton inside the grill, put your charcoal in the egg compartments, then light the carton,” says Sarah Clemence, founder of BusyBloomingJoy.com. “It’ll burn at just the right speed to light the briquettes so you can start cooking — no lighter fluid required.”
Have tree twigs? Make a small nest
Whether you’re cooking in your backyard or on a camping trip, natural fire starters can still get the job done! Dry twigs, leaves and coconut husks are all great options.
“Create a small nest of natural fire starter materials in the center of the charcoal pile,” explains Parker. “Stack charcoal around the nest, leaving space for air circulation. Light the fire starter materials and wait for the charcoal to catch fire and ash over. Once ready, spread the charcoal evenly and start grilling.”
For a chemical-free way to light charcoal: Try a charcoal chimney
An affordable tool that can make it a breeze to light charcoal without lighter fluid? A charcoal chimney (Buy from Amazon, $14.98). These handy metal tubes feature a grate inside to allow for more airflow.
“It’s the fastest and cleanest way to light your charcoal grill quickly,” says Kita Roberts of food blog GirlCarnivore.com.
To do: Add an all-natural fire starter like crumpled newspaper to the bottom of the chimney, then fill with charcoal on top. Light your fire starter through the holes at the bottom of the tube. In 10-15 minutes when the charcoal is ashed over the top, carefully add it to your grill and you’re ready to go!
“We love this method because there are no chemicals involved, and you get the best grilled flavor on whatever you’re cooking,” adds Roberts.
Another form of kindling you can use instead of newspaper? Tumbleweeds, which you can get at your local supermarket, says chef Mallorey Atkins of the catering company the Farm to Belly. Simply put them at the bottom of your charcoal chimney or before forming your charcoal pyramid. Since they’re made of wood and paraffin wax, they’ll help the coals catch once lit.
(Popping open a bottle of wine at your BBQ? Click through here to learn How To Remove a Cork Without a Corkscrew: Wine Pros Weigh In on The Do’s + Dont’s.)
To see some these (and more) tricks in action, check out the below video on how to light your charcoal without lighter fluid:
For great grilling recipes to try once your charcoal is lit, keep reading!
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