How To Start A Charcoal Grill For The Perfect Sear

A backyard BBQ filled with tasty meals and laughter makes the best memories for family gatherings. Learn how to start a charcoal grill with this article to get the juicy, perfect sear every time. You’d be surprised to know you can prepare the grill and start cooking in just five steps!


In this article, you will learn:

Each section covers the detailed steps from start to finish, plus expert tips for maintaining your equipment. Even if you are a beginner, you can apply these steps with ease.

Five Quick And Easy Steps To Start A Charcoal Grill

In the first segment, we will guide you through the steps to get the grill ready and light the charcoal in a safe and effective way. We recommend you choose metal equipment in these steps as metal has the highest safety level upon contact with heat.

Step 1: Prepare The Grill

Start With A Clean Grill And Cooking Grate
Start With A Clean Grill And Cooking Grate

A clean grill enhances airflow, which is the key factor that keeps coals burning for a long time. Start by checking the bottom of the grill to ensure there are no ashes from the previous cooking session. Remove all debris, especially at the vents.

When you have finished checking for residues, open all the vents on the bottom and the lid. Then, have the grill grate also clean. Don’t worry if you have tough residues sticking to the grate; the preheating step will remove them completely.

Step 2: Arrange The Coals

Each type of grill has a suitable coal arrangement to promote cooking efficiency. A rule of thumb is to place the coal manually. With a pair of protective gloves, handle the coals gently to avoid breaking them.

A Simple Coal Arrangement For The Kettle Grill
A Simple Coal Arrangement For The Kettle Grill
  • Kettle grill: This is the most common type of grill in household use. Start by placing the coals around the edge of the inner side of the bottom part.

Then, spread the coals evenly to leave enough room to place the cooking grate. You will need it to stay flat and balanced to ensure safety when you cook.

Place Coals In The Center Of The Barrel Grill
Place Coals In The Center Of The Barrel Grill
  • Barrel grill: There are two types of coal arrangements for the barrel grill. For the first way, you can put the coals in the center of the grill and spread them out evenly.

As for the second way, you will create two parallel lines of coals. Each line runs along the length of the barrel, leaving a small gap in between. Remember to let air flow through the vents in both arrangements.

The Ceramic Grill Requires Charcoal Stacking Method
The Ceramic Grill Requires Charcoal Stacking Method
  • Ceramic grill: This setup needs wood chips or wood chunks to start the fire. The main difference lies in the quantity and the timing that you add the material to the coals.

If you are using wood chips, you will stack the coals before placing the pieces of wood. Soak about three  handfuls of wood chips in water so they will be ready by the time you have finished preparing the coals.

The first step is to form a layer of coal by using large pieces. Next, stack the smaller pieces up to right below the grate.

Remove each piece of wood with one hand, shake off the water, and use the other hand to place the piece in between the coals. By doing it this way, you can keep the layer of charcoal dry. Distribute the wood chips evenly on the top of the coals.

As for wood chunks, start by placing 2-3 dry chunks around the outer edge of the bottom. Then, stack coals with the same rule of large lumps go in first, smaller pieces of charcoal stay at the top.

  • Charcoal chimney: One convenient method for beginners is using chimney starters. Fill the chimney with charcoal up to the top, leaving about 0.4 inches away from the rim.

Step 3: Light The Coals

Depending on the materials you use, you will have a corresponding way to light the fire.

  • Lighter fluid: The key factor to use the lighter fluid safely is getting the right quantity. Start by pouring the fluid evenly on the layers of charcoal, then let it soak for 30 seconds. Next, point the grill lighter or a long match at the bottom and light the coals.
  • If the fire spreads slowly, use the lighter again at different spots until you have a well-lit grill. Avoid adding lighter fluid when the fire is burning.

Another thing to remember is that do not use fuel since this material is dangerous, especially when you have the grill surrounded by flammable objects in the backyard.

  • Paper: Newspapers should be your top choice because they burn better than glossy magazines. First, gather old newspapers around the house, cut them into hand-sized pieces, and crumble them. This size is sufficient for air to pass through, which ensures the fire stays burning.

Next, surround your charcoal arrangement with paper. Then, place around 20 twigs on top of the paper. Use the grill lighter on the bottom of the grill, then cover the lid and wait from 15 to 20 minutes.

Charcoal Chimney Is Easy To Use For Beginners
Charcoal Chimney Is Easy To Use For Beginners
  • Charcoal chimney: For this method, add small sheets of newspapers at the bottom of the chimney. Then, light the bottom part and wait until you see flares coming out of the chimney. Carefully use the handle to pour the coals onto the bottom of the grill.
  • Electric starter: After you have plugged the starter in, place the nose directly in the middle of the coals and wait until you see tiny sparks. Next, move the nose slightly away from the center and keep it in the coals.

Put away the starter as soon as there is a fire. If the fire has a slow spread, use coal tongs to pull hot coals to the others.

Always Remove The Lighter When The Coals Are Lit
Always Remove The Lighter When The Coals Are Lit
  • Heat gun: In the first step, point the gun at the center of the coals, but maintain a distance of a few inches away from the surface. Next, start the heat gun at the highest temperature possible. Hold the heat gun in a stable position until the coal sparks.

Then, move the gun around the surface of the unlit coals. Turn the heat gun off when you have the fire.

Step 4: Preheat Your Grill

White Charcoal Means The Heat Is Good To Go
White Charcoal Means The Heat Is Good To Go

Learning how to start a charcoal grill builds the foundation for your cooking session, but the secret to having flavorful meat is grill preheating.

The one principle for all charcoal lighting methods is you can start preheating the grill once the charcoal has white ash. With this step, you will shorten the cooking time and lower the chances of having food stuck to the grates. Plus, the fire removes residues on the grate, which ensures you have a tasty meal.

The recommended time to preheat the grill is 15 minutes. Make sure you keep all the vents open during this time.

Step 5: Keep The Charcoal Hot

Ensuring The Right Heat Provides Well-cooked Meat
Ensuring The Right Heat Provides Well-cooked Meat

The key to juicy and tender meat lies in maintaining the right temperature throughout the cooking process. For a charcoal grill, you can adjust the temperature by using vents.

There are intake vents at the bottom of the grill and exhaust vents at the top of the lid. Most grills on the market come with a built-in thermometer, which becomes your helpful companion.

Ideally, the grill vents need to stay open all the time to let air flow in and keep the fire burning. A consistent intake of oxygen is the essential factor for preserving heat.

Since the lid vents have a low impact on the heat, you will only need to close the bottom vents when you need to adjust the temperature. If the coals burn out before you finish grilling, always use a metal tong to add supplies. Use the existing coals to spread fire to the new ones quickly.

Charcoal Grill Hacks For The Perfect Meal

Now that you have solved the question of how to light a charcoal grill, let’s learn from these pro tips to make your cooking time more enjoyable!

#1 Choose The Right Charcoal

By applying the right heat control methods to each material, you can keep the fire burning for a long time. There are three types of charcoal:

  • Charcoal briquettes: This material is the go-to option for beginners. Thanks to the average burn rate, you can control the heat easily.

One thing to keep in mind is that you need to keep providing oxygen during the cooking session. Plus, the price for charcoal briquettes is budget-friendly when you buy them in large bags.

  • Hardwood briquettes: This type of charcoal has a slow burn rate, but it compensates by providing a high heat preserving level. This factor removes the hassle of pausing your cooking session to add charcoal to the fire. Hardwood charcoal is friendly for both beginners and experts in grilling meat.
  • Lump charcoal: This material is the easiest type to catch fire and provide high temperature with just an average quantity. While lump charcoal has these double benefits, you should use it when you have gained experience from numerous sessions.
  • When you are preparing these coals, we highly recommend stocking up in case the coals burn out too quickly. Lump charcoal requires you to keep an eye on the temperature and control it quickly by using vents.

#2 Understanding Direct And Indirect Heat

Each method brings out a unique taste in every meal whether you cook with direct or indirect heat.

  • Direct heat: As the name suggested, you will place food on the grate to let the fire reach and cook it. With this method, you will get a crispy golden-brown surface along with Instagram-worthy grill marks.

Direct heat is the popular method for a wide range of boneless meat, from steak, chicken to shrimps and even skewers. In terms of size, this method works for both small to medium-sized meat.

  • Indirect heat: You will put the food in the space surrounding the heat source for this method. Then, wait for the hot air to cook the food.

Using indirect heat is the preferred method for cooking food at an average temperature but requires a long waiting time. After you have finished placing the food, close the lid for 20 to 25 minutes to cook the food completely.

Indirect heat cooks through meat with thick layers, such as ribs, chicken drumsticks, or pork shoulders.

By having your food done from the inside out, you will tender, juicy meat that comes with high food hygiene. Moreover, indirect heat cooking also leaves the meat with a nice smoky flavor.

#3 Prepare The Meat Like A Pro

One of the most common mistakes for first-timers is cooking frozen meat. The myth of using charcoal fire to thaw the ice and cook the meat to save time is false. Frozen meat can’t absorb any spice, which results in a bland taste. Not to mention the long cooking time decreases the nutritional value.

In the meal preparation time, defrost the meat completely with the microwave. Then, marinate the food in your favorite spices before bringing it out to the grill. Aside from preserving the texture and nutrients, fresh meat also absorbs spices better.

Moreover, your cooking process will become easier to navigate how cooked the meat is. A hearty meal with crispy bites guarantees a refreshing, tasty culinary experience.

#4 A Safe Way To Put Out The Fire

The Fire Takes At Least 48 Hours To Cool Down
The Fire Takes At Least 48 Hours To Cool Down

The rule of thumb for cooling down a grill is to avoid water. Pouring water on the coals causes a drastic temperature change. This change will crack the interior, while the smoke from charcoal is harmful to your lungs.

After you have finished cooking, use a metal tong to remove the cooking grate and set it on a dry, clear area. Next, close the lid and all the vents to cut off the oxygen supply, then wait for the fire to cool down.

A charcoal fire can take up to 48 hours to put out completely. As for the ceramic grill, this period extends for a couple of hours because ceramic retains heat well.

The Right Method For Grill Maintenance

Clean The Grate With A Brush For Best Efficiency
Clean The Grate With A Brush For Best Efficiency

In the final section, let’s dive into the proper way to clean and preserve the grill quality. Frequently cleaning the grill after use prevents ash buildup, which is the main cause of corrosion.

The compulsory equipment includes a pair of heat-resistant gloves, a metal bucket, a metal garbage can, steel wool pads, and dish soap.

Before you begin the cleaning session, wear gloves to protect yourself from accidentally touching the hot coals. No matter how the pile of coals may look, there are still hot charcoals in there, especially in the center part.

First, scoop the ashes with a metal bucket, then put them into a metal garbage can. Avoid plastic cans because the embers will burn through them.

An alternative option is spreading a layer of aluminum foil on the ground to act as a charcoal container. Pour the ashes carefully onto the foil, then fold the foil up. Seal the foil to keep the coals inside. Then, place the foil in the garbage can, away from plastic objects.

Next, bring a stainless steel brush to the grill. Use this brush to remove grease and smoke marks on the grill interior. Soak a steel wool pad in mild dish soap water, then use it to wash the interior.

As for the grates, use a different steel wool pad to scrub the residues off. Then, soak the grates in soapy water for an hour. Afterward, rinse it with clean water. Finally, air dries the interior and grates before you reassemble everything together.

As for the exterior, soak a soft cloth in warm soapy water to wipe it down. If you only have BBQ in the summer, use the grill cover to protect your equipment from dust and humidity.


We hope this article solves the mystery of how to start a charcoal grill to get the perfect sear right in your backyard. When you are new to grilling meat, it is best to prepare the right equipment to ensure a high safety level.

Each grill requires a specific coal arrangement to get the fire burning. Utilizing suitable materials also boosts the process and keeps the charcoals hot throughout your cooking session. A helpful rule for beginners is to always keep the vents open to promote airflow.

Aside from the equipment, understanding how to use heat also gives you the chance to try effective methods for each type of food. Remember to defrost and prepare the meat carefully to get the golden-brown crispy taste!

After every grilling session, keep both the interior and exterior squeaky clean. Always put on protective gloves to prevent any charcoal burn, and wash the grate in soapy water. Having a proper maintenance method means your grill will last for more tasty BBQ sessions to come.

Roger Lee
Roger Lee

Thanks for visiting my website. My name is Roger Lee, and I am a 30-year-old man with a hybrid blood of Chinese and Russian. I decided to set up this site to share with everyone my love and passion for open-air cuisine. It all started when my parents opened a restaurant and I had the chance of getting exposed to the art of outdoor cooking.
This website aims at sharing about my hobby, recipes, and tips for cooking to everyone. Try them out and tell me about your experience.