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Charcoal Grilling 101: Starting A Charcoal Fire With Lighter Fluid
Listen up, because I’m going to tell you how to do something that most “experts” in this field will refuse to address: how to start a charcoal fire using lighter fluid.
“Lighter fluid” is almost a bad word among serious grilling aficionados and weekend barbecue warriors. Ask one of them how to light a good charcoal fire using lighter fluid and you will get a one-word answer: “don’t.” It will usually be followed by the instruction: “get a charcoal chimney.”
The reason is simple, lighter fluid is a cousin of gasoline, and likewise has a petroleum base which has an awful smell. As a result its possible for the fumes of petroleum based lighter products to affect the taste of your food. As a result, people that are really serious about their grilling and barbecue, often infusing the meat with delicate blends of different wood smoke that compliments their secret mopping sauce, just simply won’t entertain the idea of using it.
Most serious barbecue artists use a charcoal chimney. And that’s excellent advice. I prefer an alcohol-based gel myself, to also avoid any possible odor and taste issues.
But in all reality, most beginners are going to go the charcoal lighter fluid route because it is the most intuitive, it’s available everywhere and what they've seen from other people. When you are just learning your way around a charcoal grill, using a chimney or electric starter or an under-the-charcoal fuel source can be confusing. And here’s the big secret: that’s OKAY. You can create a perfectly enjoyable meal on a lighter fluid-started fire that will satisfy the tastes of 90% of the population. That’s if you do it correctly.
Before you start, choose your charcoal. Go ahead and get the Kingsford briquettes, although they may be more expensive. I've found the quality of store-brand charcoal (often the only other choice) to vary widely. Kingsford will generally ash over quickly and evenly and burn a good amount of time. If you have another premium brand available in your area, feel free to try it. As you get to really know your way around a grill, you may graduate to lump charcoal, which burns faster, leaves less ash, and is easier to adjust the grill temperature with. But for now, a decent quality briquette will offer the consistency and ease of use you want.
First, you want to determine how much charcoal you need. Estimate the space on the grill that your food will cover. Pour in enough briquettes to cover that amount of space below your grate, in a single layer. Then throw in about 6 or 7 more briquettes.
Next, pile the briquettes up in a pyramid. Squeeze on enough lighter fluid to cover all the briquettes that you can see. I also usually try to squirt some in between gaps to get some on the charcoal deeper in the pyramid.
Wait about a minute, but no longer.
Light it by dropping a match, or a long handled lighter. A cigarette lighter usually puts your hands a little close for comfort. I usually try to light the charcoal on each side.
You will see a lot of flames and fire, for a while. Then very shortly, it will appear the fire has gone out. Be patient. Whatever you do, don't spray more fluid on it. It's dangerous. Your fire is not out, the fluid is just burned off and the charcoal is starting.
Eventually you will see the corners of the briquettes turn white with ash, and eventually more and more of the briquette will ash over. Unless this ashing process stops completely, your fire is not out.
As more and more of the coals fully ash, you will probably start to see glowing orange in the center of your pyramid, and flames may even return. You are waiting for the coals to be ashed over pretty completely, all grayish white. This assures that the lighter fluid has completely burned off and shouldn’t seriously taint your food. Now, if you have a few straggling briquettes that haven't ashed over completely, that's ok, it is possible to wait so long for 100% ashing that you miss the prime cooking time of the charcoal.
With Kingsford, it's generally ready pretty quickly, as soon as 15 minutes. Bigger fires, different grills and different briquettes can take longer.
So when the briquettes are completely, or nearly completely, ashed over, use a long handled tongs or other utensil to spread out the briquettes in a single layer. Put your grill grate into place on top to heat up for a few minutes before adding your food (more time for any straggling coals to ash over). If your grate needs brushing, do it now when it's warm but before adding the food.
As long as you've waited long enough for all the lighter fluid to burn off and the briquettes to ash over, most people aren't going to taste any negative residue. There are good reasons to use other lighting methods, and lump charcoal over briquettes as well, but this is the easiest and a totally acceptable way to get started. As you get comfortable around the grill you can investigate all the other options.
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