Lighting a charcoal fire is something that many inexperienced at the art of barbecuing find difficult. Even experienced barbecue enthusiasts sometimes find it a chore. And I know from experience: I’m one of them.
There are of course BBQ quick-light bags with briquettes already doused with lighter fluid. Some of these bags are available at a discount in special offers. If you put a couple of these 2 kg bags side by side and light them both, they can provide enough heat for a large charcoal grill. They promise that all you need do is light the corner of the bag and leave it , without needing to fan the flames. These quick-light bags do work, but are they the best deal? In reality, the right ventilation and air flow can still affect how quickly they work.
Some people use fire starter liquid which burns for a while and then seems to stop, unless you fan the flames vigorously. When the flames appear to subside, there is a temptation to spray more firelighter liquid onto them. But this is dangerous. It can flare up into a flame that burns your face or catches your clothes. If you use gasoline (petrol) it can be even more dangerous to add more once the charcoal is lit.
Fire lighter solids are an alternative, but they also tend to fizzle out and it is always a problem putting them in the right position. Under the charcoal? In the middle? Wherever you put them, it never seems to be quite right.
Another problem is that because fire lighter liquid and solid are slow burning, there is always the concern that even if they appear to have burnt out, they will still be burning with the charcoal once you are ready to put the food on. And nobody wants to risk eating these chemicals - let alone feeding them to their kids!
Others try to use old newspaper or torn-up junk make as kindling, only to see it blow away in the wind, or even just in the updraft of the heat generated by the flames. You end up finding yourself stamping out burning bits of paper before they set fire to the backyard or garden.
But there are ways of starting a fire that don’t make you lose your will to live. I will tell you a couple of them here.
This is probably the easiest way to start a charcoal fire. A chimney starter is essentially a pot with air holes into which you place the charcoal and kindling. You get the charcoal red hot and glowing in the chimney starter and then transfer it to the grill or BBQ. They have insulated handles so you can hold them without burning.
If you do regular barbecues or use your charcoal grill a lot, they are well worthwhile. They are not expensive and you should treat them as just another essential BBQ tool.
The reason they are particularly useful is that not only do they get the fire started and the charcoals hot pretty quickly, they also ensure that all the charcoal glowing evenly. You don’t get any of those cold spots, where the charcoal didn’t catch the flame.
You use a chimney starter like this:
1. Crunch up some piece of paper. (Newspaper is ideal, but you can also use junk mail, just as long as it is non-glossy.) Don’t squash it tightly, just in a loose ball with some air in between. It needs that air to burn. Use at least two pieces. Three or four are better. This is your kindling.
2. On top of the paper, pour in your charcoal. This can be lump wood, briquettes, wood chips or a mixture. (If you want to avoid chemicals, don’t use briquettes.) Make sure you put in enough charcoal so that when it is poured out and spread over the grill, the whole grill surface will be covered. Nothing could be worse than finding that some of the sides or corners are left empty. In practice, you may as well just fill the chimney to the brim.
3. Inserting a lighted match or taper, set the paper on fire in several places.
4. Place the chimney on the charcoal bed or charcoal grate of the grill (not the food grate) and let it do its work. The burning paper will incinerate first. But it will ignite the wood or heat up the charcoal from the bottom until it is smoldering.
5. The charcoal will turn first a glowing red hot and then into a white surface ash. (Wood will burn first and then turn to a red-hot smoldering state.)
6. As the heat rises, it will reach the top, until the charcoal/wood on top develops a white ash on the surface. At this stage, it is ready for cooking. (This usually takes 12-15 minutes. Certainly, less than the 20-30 minutes if you try to light the charcoal on the grill itself.)
7. Tip the hot charcoal onto the center of the grill and spread it around using an implement that will not be used for food. (One can get charcoal tongs or use more traditional boy scout methods like a thick stick.)
If you are planning on cooking for a long time and think you will need more charcoal, you can add more at this stage, so that it can heat up on the grill.
Some chimney starters don’t have a bottom and must be placed on the charcoal bed or grate before Point 1 above. Then you just lift the chimney away and spread the charcoal.
1. Remove the food grate from the grill.
2. Open any air vents at the bottom of the grill.
3. Make sure there is no ash left in the charcoal bed from last time.
4. Pile about half the charcoal (or wood) that you plan to use in the center of the grill in a cone shape. Try to make the pile high rather than wide, although in practice some of it will slip away if you try to make it too high relative to the diameter of the base. (You might like to wear gloves or use charcoal tongs when you do this, unless you don’t mind getting the stuff all over your hands.)
5. Pour or spray some lighter fluid around the charcoal at the base of the pile and a bit more on the top. But don’t overdo it: it won’t all burn up at once. (If you can get some of the fluid in the center at the base, that is best of all. One way is to spray them with lighter fluid when the pile is low and then add more on top.)
6. Allow a couple of minutes for the charcoal to absorb the liquid. Don’t be impatient.
7. After at least two minutes (three is better), then spray on a bit more lighter fluid.
8. Light the pile in several places with a long match or lit taper.
9. After a couple of seconds, the fire will flare up and then subside slowly. When that happens, you will see white smoke rising up from the coals. This means that they have now caught the flame and are smoldering.
10. Leave the charcoal like this for 10-15 minutes to make sure that they have all caught and are sharing their heat. At least ⅓ of them should be glowing red by this stage - possible even ½. Spread them around the grill and leave them for five to ten minutes until all or at least most of them are covered in a white ash. At this stage, they are ready for cooking.
11. Put the food rack back in place above them and put the food on!
● Regardless of the method you use to cook, you can always add more charcoal to extend the cooking time.
● But don’t dump a whole load on in one go. Add no more than 6-8 briquettes or 4-5 piece of lump wood charcoal on at a time.
● Try to put in on an area of the grill where the coals are glowing red, but where you are not currently cooking food.
● One way to make the coals glow red is to fan them vigorously. The airflow will bring out the crimson or orange glow and show you which is the best area to add the new charcoal.
Now check out our review of Things you need for lighting your BBQ in 2017.
Enjoy your barbecue!
As mentioned in our review of Barbecue Tools, doctors are advising people to throw away their barbecue brushes, because of the risk of getting bits of steel fiber in the food and from there into the digestive tract. Fragments of metal wire can come off the brushes and get stuck to the grill. Then after that they can get picked up by the food and then get into your mouth, throat or even small intestine. What’s more, they can cause damage at any stage of their journey through your body. That’s a high price to pay for getting a few bites of good BBQ food in your belly.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to buy a barbecue brush when there are so many available on special offer. But emergency room surgeons are worried about this – to the point of advising people not to use barbecue brushes. And the danger is compounded by the fact that not all doctors recognize the symptoms. Sometimes they think it’s just food poisoning and give the wrong treatment.
So how, then do you clean the food grate of your grill safely, without the risk of someone swallowing a thin sliver of iron or steel wire?
Obviously, if you have a dishwasher and the grate is not too big and is dishwasher-safe then this is the ideal method. You might want to give the grate a preliminary scrub and rinse in the sink to remove the larger bits of food debris, rather than risk having them clog up your dishwasher.
The good thing about the dishwasher method is that it really cleans and disinfects with heat in a full cycle.
An alternative method is to lift the food grate out and clean it in the sink. But this requires you to put in a bit of effort.
1. Prepare a small bowl of soapy water by the side of the sink
2. Put the food grate in the sink (if you have more than one, do one at a time)
3. With a sponge, Scotch-Brite or steel wool, clean the grate, dipping the sponge or Scotch-Brite into the soapy water to replenish it until the grate is cleaned.
4. Rinse the soap off the grate under fast-running water.
5. Dry the grate immediately or place it on a surface where it can dry quickly.
6. Throw away the sponge, Scotch-Brite or steel wool
NOTE: It is okay to use steel wool if you clean the food grate in the sink, because rinsing it under running water will get rid of any wire fibers and residue.As an alternative to a sponge, Scotch-Brite or steel wool, you can use a nylon bristle brush.
Soapy Water Soaking
It is a well-known fact that the best way to loosen cooked-on food residue from utensils is to soak the utensils overnight in water.
1. Find a large bucket or plastic trough big enough to accommodate the grates.
2. Fill the bucket or trough with washing up liquid of soap and water (initially hot water, even though it will of course get cold).
3. Place the grates in the soapy water at least for two hours, ideally overnight.
4. The following morning, rinse off the grates under running water.
5. Dry the grates or leave them somewhere they can dry quickly
As an alternative, you can mix water with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and soak the grates in that.
Vinegar and Sodium Bicarbonate
Related to the above method is one that combines both vinegar and sodium bicarbonate.
1. Mix a cup of sodium bicarbonate with two cups of vinegar in a thick black bin liner.
2. Put the food grate(s) into the mixture
3. Seal the whole thing with a strong rubber band.
4. Let it soak overnight
5. The following morning, rinse the grate(s) under running water, using a sponge to scrub off any remaining grease and food residue.
6. Dry the grates or leave them somewhere they can dry quickly.
The Onion Method
This method is well-known to veteran barbecue users.
1. Light the grill and let it heat up.
2. Put some foil on the food grate (shiny side down) to reflect and trap the heat.
3. Cut an onion in two at the “equator” between the root and stem (i.e. NOT from pole to pole like a longitude on the earth).
4. Stick a long fork through half, from the side with the skin, not going all the way through.
5. Remove the foil from the food grate.
6. Using the fork to hold the onion, slowly rub the open side of the onion (i.e. without the skin) all over the hot food grate. Make sure to go over every inch of the grate.
7. Check the surface of the onion from time to time. If it has gone black before you have gone over the grill thoroughly, throw it away and use the other half of the onion to finish the job.
What happens is:
● The heat of the grill extracts moisture from the onion, both as liquid and steam.
● The hot steam cleans the food grate like any other steam cleaner.
● The enzymes in the liquid break down any food stuck to the grill, as well as any rust.
● The solid onion acts as a sponge, so that any rust and stale food from the last use of the grill that doesn’t simply fall off is instead absorbed by the spongey onion.
If you are one of those people who cleans the grate after you have finished, then the grill is already hot and it is a lot easier than waiting for next time. And good on you for doing it right away and not being lazy after stuffing your face!
Nevertheless, I recommend using this method before you start cooking even if you did clean the grill last time. Depending on how long since you last used the grill, it may have gathered dust and in any case, the onion method is so easy and straightforward. After all, you must heat up the grill in any case to cook the food. So why not give it a quick clean with an onion beforehand? It can’t hurt and it gives you that extra guarantee that the food grate is clean and hygienic.
If you have a large grill and/or want to be really sure, you can use both halves of the onion. Oh and don’t be tempted to eat the onion afterwards. JUST THROW IT AWAY!
Regardless of which method you use to clean your grill, the most important cleaning tool is your eyes. You use them to judge if the job is done properly.
● If you use the onion method, look at how black the onion gets on the side that you rub on the grill.
● If there is much less blackness on the second half of the onion than the first, you’ll know that you’ve done the job well.
And look at the food grate itself:
● If it is made of chrome, is it now sparkling and shiny again?
● If it is a black-enameled grate, is it clean and even and a consistent shade of black?
A clean barbecue grill is not only a source pride, to show off to your neighbors, it is also a source of confidence that your food will not be contaminated with residue from the last time you used it. And if you’re cooking for children, that’s especially important.
There is however one barbecue cleaning tool that we would recommend and that is a wooden barbecue grill scraper (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06XCBPQNS). You use this by heating the grill and when it is hot, scraping it with the wooden scraper. As you scrape, grooves form. This is because wood is coming off or being burnt off. But unlike metal this will be incinerated in the heat and so will not form a health hazard. Once groves have started to form, you can then align them with the next row, to ensure that only one set of grooves forms. At that stage, you can even turn off the heat and thereafter use the scraper on the cold grill. The wood that breaks off will burn up in the heat next time you light the grill. So, it is no more of a health hazard than wood chips.
And now that you know how to clean your food grate, check out some of the tools you’ll need for your barbecue!