Starting a charcoal grill can be a relaxing pleasant experience, or it can be a major lesson in frustration. Nearly everyone who has cooked on a charcoal grill has spent an hour or more trying to get it lit with a hot but even fire. Time and experience do not solve all of the problems, but most do vanish as you grill summer after summer on a charcoal fire.
Make sure that the fire pit on the grill has been cleaned from the residue of the previous fire.
A good cleaning will help your barbecue grill last longer and burn better. While you are dirty from this, it is a good time to go ahead and clean the part of the grill where the food will be prepared. If the old ash and bits of charcoal are not removed, the new fire may not be ventilated properly for even burning. By cleaning it first, this potential problem is eliminated.
Set the air vents wide open.
You do not want to starve the new fire of oxygen. You can close them later after the coals are well-lit. Leave the grill off of the pit until you have the fire ready for cooking. This will do several things for you. It will keep it clean until the food is ready to cook. This will also keep the grill cool. Meat does not stick as badly to a grill that is cool when it is first applied. It also keeps the flavor of charcoal starter from tainting the meat. You may opt not to use charcoal starter, but it is still better to wait until the fire is ready to put the grill onto the barbecue pit.
The type of charcoal is not as important as some would lead you to believe.
The brand of charcoal does not make much difference about lighting or cooking. Some types might add a slightly different taste of smoke to the meat, but this can be accomplished by using some of your favor wood chips that have been soaked in water to generate flavored smoke. While match light charcoal is easier to light, it is also much more expensive and may not be worth the difference once you have mastered the art of lighting the charcoal grill. Very few people will benefit from buying the expensive types of charcoal over the cheaper private label brands offered by most retailers.
You have two choices about how to start the fire.
The first choice is to add the unlit charcoal directly to the barbecue pit. Make sure that you have added enough charcoal to cover the entire area where the fire is located. This will help assure that you have an even distribution of the heat across the cooking surface of the grill. If it is not perfect, it is no big deal because the lit briquettes or chunks can be rearranged with a stick or poker later. The middle of the charcoal should be slightly cone shaped for best lighting results.
Saturate the charcoal with charcoal lighter.
Once the lighter fluid has been applied, wait about 30 seconds before lighting the fire. Because charcoal lighter is not explosive when applied to charcoal that has not be lit, there is little danger of a flash fire occurring when you apply the match or lighter. Light the charcoal in several places around the perimeter of pile. Let the fire burn until all of the charcoal is turning gray or is glowing from the fire. You should be able to feel the heat rising from the briquettes. Redistribute hot charcoal to areas that seem to be too cool until the heat is relatively even. You are ready to put the grill back in place and start cooking food.
Using a canister to light charcoal is a good way to start the fire without charcoal lighter.
A charcoal lighter is a cylinder with a handle on one side. The upper two thirds of the cylinder is to be filled with charcoal. The lower third of the cylinder is filled with wads of paper. There are ports to allow the heat to flow from the paper up through the column of charcoal. There are also ports on the side so that the paper can be lit while the canister is sitting on the ground or a stone or concrete surface.
Until you get the hang of it, you may need to add additional paper and relight it to get a good fire started.
Once the paper is burning and it is obvious that the charcoal is beginning to ignite, you will need to let the cylinder sit for about 20 to 30 minutes to get a good fire throughout the column. Once it feels very hot when you pass your palm over the cylinder at a height of about 1 foot, the charcoal is ready to use. Just pour it into your barbecue pit and start cooking.
For a family barbecue, the amount of charcoal in the cylinder will be sufficient to cook all of the food.
If you are having a larger group, you may need to use a second cylinder full of charcoal or add the burning charcoal over a layer of unlit briquettes in the barbecue pit. The burning charcoal along with food drippings will light the rest of the charcoal as you cook. Make sure that the lit charcoal is distributed to give you an even fire to cook over. Adjust the air vents to achieve the cooking temperature that you desire.