How to light a BBQ: smoking tips, tricks and hacks to fire up your grill safely

Barbecuing for the first time? Find out how to light a BBQ correctly so that you get the best flame-grilled results

An Ikea GRILLSKÄR charcoal barbecue grill in black/stainless steel on outdoor deck in backyard exterior setting
(Image credit: Ikea)

Planning a summer of dining al fresco? You need to know how to light a BBQ properly. Perhaps this year is your first at the barbecue, because you've just invested in a new char-broiler to entertain guests at home. Or maybe you are a dab hand with the old smoker, but always struggle to get an even burn on your grill?

Luckily, we've got all the tips you need here – whether yours is a charcoal, hybrid or gas BBQ. Because even if you have invested in one of the best BBQs – it can't light itself!

How to light a BBQ

Lighting a BBQ properly is beneficial for a number of reasons. It can help cut cooking times (good for hungry guests and tired hosts), make grilled food look (and taste) better, but most importantly can ensure that heat is evenly distributed within meat products to ensure harmful bugs such as salmonella are killed. After all, you wouldn't want your guests to leave with a stomach bug as a souvenir from your soirée...

So if you've got all the gear (including the best bbq tools and accessories) but no idea how to light the thing – we've put a bunch of experts in the hot seat with a quick-fire round of bbq-related questions so you can claim your well-deserved grill master or mistress title.

Before you start: BBQ lighting etiquette and prep

Ikea GRILLSKÄR charcoal barbecue in external courtyard with green children's toy on floor

(Image credit: Ikea)

Before you learn how to BBQ, there are a few house rules to bear in mind. Because most barbecuing is done outside in your backyard, there are a few things you'll want to consider, especially if you live in a neighborhood with a communal backyard space or if your external space is in close proximity to someone else's. After all, a cookout is meant to be an enjoyable and amicable experience, so you don't want to annoy your next-door neighbors.

We asked one expert to provide their tip on keeping the peace with nearby residents when lighting a BBQ. But, you may also want to take on this advice when using one of the best portable BBQs in a park or other public green space (being sure to check local rules and regulations to ensure you're permitted to use it in these areas).

'Smoke from a BBQ can be considered a nuisance if it’s blown into a neighbor’s garden,' says Harry Bodell, gardening expert, Price Your Job (opens in new tab).

'Although the position of the BBQ may be OK one day, it may not be the next. Before you begin a BBQ, observe the direction of the wind, and position the BBQ accordingly. If your neighbor is drying their washing in the garden, be sure to alert them of your BBQ so that they may move it.'

Lighting a bbq that uses charcoal

Red LotusGrill smokeless charcoal barbecue available from Cuckooland on outdoor table with beer and glasses with green grass in background

(Image credit: Cuckooland)

Who can resist the smoky flavor that grilling over charcoal adds to your dishes? Not us – that's for sure! But using coal as a fuel source to light a BBQ can be tricky if you don't know what your doing.

It goes without saying that our instructions are based on a barbecue that has been properly maintained. So if you've left it in a bit of a state since your last garden party, we've lots of advice on how to clean a  BBQ. Do this first before moving on...

You will need:

  • Charcoal
  • A charcoal chimney (optional)
  • A barbecue temperature gauge
  • High heat neutral cooking oil (like sunflower oil)
  • Kitchen roll

Method:

1. Season the BBQ when it's cold

Seasoning a BBQ will ensure that the deliciously crispy skin on charbroiled chicken thighs and fish won't stick to the grill. To do this, use a high heat cooking oil, wipe off any excess with kitchen roll and you're ready to go.

2. Give your BBQ time to heat up

Unlike gas barbecues, that are ready to cook almost from the word go, charcoal barbecues need time to heat up – and you need to be adept at lighting them, too. A charcoal chimney (see below) can speed up this process.

3. Prepare the barbecue

For optimum results, remove the grate, and opening the bottom vents. This allows air to circulate around the charcoal, which will help you get an even, strong burning barbecue. 

4. Use the right amount of charcoal

The more charcoal you use, the tighter you pack it, the hotter your fire will be and the longer it will burn. Cooking a couple of burgers or sausages? You can get away with 15 to 20 coals. Searing steak? You'll need twice as much. Hosting a party? Scale the coals up per person, working with around five to 10 pieces of coal per piece of meat.

5. Wait until the charcoal is covered with white-grey ash

Before cooking any meat, fish or veg, make sure your coals lose their black color. This should take up to 30 minutes, and trust us... It's worth the wait. There should be no smoke; if there is – the coals aren't ready. And, make sure you're dressed for the occasion too.

'Never rush, ever,' says Fred Thompson, grilling guru, and author of the Williams Sonoma (opens in new tab) book, Grill Master.

'Grilling is a little zen-like; rush and you’ll make mistakes. Tuck in your shirt, tie back your hair if it’s long and forget the muumuu. Loose clothes and swinging hair have no place around an open fire.'

6. Check the temperature of your BBQ

Grab a barbecue temperature gauge from Amazon (opens in new tab) to ensure your barbecue retains the right amount of heat. You're looking for at least 107ºC+ (225ºF).

7. Control your charcoal BBQ's temperature

You can reduce heat, slow down cooking or lengthen cooking time, by closing down the vents almost completely (never do so completely or the fire may go out); opening the vents will create a fiercer, faster heat.

5 quick hacks for lighting a charcoal barbecue

Is you are struggling to light the coals then don't reach for the lighter fluid. Give these tricks a go:

  1. Light a BBQ using leftover egg cartons: fill an old egg carton with lumps of charcoal and pop it in your BBQ. Light the card and the coals will take too by the time the carton turns to ash.
  2. Light it up using tortilla chips: a few of these crunchy snacks will work like magical little fire lighters thanks to their fat and cornmeal content. Distribute a handful and light to get your fire going. Corn nacho chips can also be used to relight a dying fire.
  3. Use newspaper to light a BBQ: tightly scrunch a few pieces of newspaper and hide among the coals. If this doesn't take, drizzle them with a little bit of vegetable oil to get them going.
  4. Try rubbing alcohol to light a BBQ: a little goes a long way with this one so use sparingly. Make spills out of slithers of newspaper and dip the end in some rubbing alcohol. Put these in the barbecue surrounded by coals and light. Wait until they have burnt away before cooking over them.
  5. Resort to whisky: yep, if you have no rubbing alcohol, high proof alcoholic drinks, like spirits will work. A cheap Scotch or vodka will do the trick – don't waste your best blend or finest single malt on the barbie!

How to use a barbecue chimney starter to light a BBQ

Hate the taste of lighter fluid on your barbecued food? A charcoal barbecue chimney starter is an upright metal tube that lets you start your coals with just some sheets of newspaper and a matchstick. If you barbecue for a crowd (more on that later) on a regular basis, choose the largest chimney starter you can find – John Lewis's Weber barbecue chimney starter (opens in new tab) is a good choice. Its large capacity will hold enough briquettes for a 57cm diameter kettle grill. It's constructed from aluminized steel and has stay cool thermoplastic handles so you don't burn your fingers in the process.

Thompson  says: 'Avoid briquettes infused with starter fluid. The fluid can impart an unpleasant chemical-laden taste to whatever you are grilling.'

'[Also], keep flammables awayOnce your coals are lit, don’t put the hot chimney starter on or near anything that is easily set on fire, such as your grass lawn.'

Weber Genesis II EX-335 GBS smart barbecue in backyard exterior setting

(Image credit: Weber)

How to light a gas BBQ

Prefer to work without coals? To work the best gas BBQs, like the Weber Genesis II EX-335 GBS smart barbecue, available from Home Depot (opens in new tab), connect up the propane, turn the knob, press the ignition... and you're just about ready to cook, give or take 15+ minutes to allow the grill to really heat up.

You will need:

  • A windbreaker or shield
  • Propane tank

How to:

1. Keep the lid open when lighting a gas barbecue

Safety first! If it is windy, make a shield to hold up while you light it. 

2. Allow the grill to heat up for at least 10 minutes

Once you've lit your first burner, turn on the others. This will allow the grill to heat up properly and will burn off any food and grease left over from last time. If it's smoking, it's not ready – so allow that grease to burn off properly first.

3. Reduce the temperature

Turn down the heat and get ready to cook delicious food items such as lamb kofta and marbled rib-eye steaks.

4. Control heat further

If your gas grill is too hot and you can't close vents or turn down the burners further, trying reducing the amount of gas on the propane tank itself. Also, keep the lid open to allow some of the heat to escape. 

Char-Broil Gas2Coal BBQ in backyard exterior setting

(Image credit: Char-Broil)

How to light a hybrid BBQ

A hybrid barbecue – you might have heard them referred to as combo grills – are at their most simple level a dual fuel option: one side of the barbecue is for charcoal grilling, the other for gas. A good example of this is the Gas2Coal Char-Broil bbq, available from Amazon (opens in new tab).

There are, however, more combo options. For example, a hybrid infrared gas grill is a gas grill; on one side you get traditional convection burners, and on the other an infrared burner. On this infrared burner, you can cook foods at lower temperatures as well as high. 

Gas smoker combo grills are another option – allowing you to cook on gas and charcoal and to smoke foods, too.

How to light BBQ smokers

A man wearing a blue t-shirt and cream pants holding metal tongs and opening a red Kamado Joe barbecue smoker grill

(Image credit: Kamado Joe)

Smoker grills like the Kamado Joe, available on Amazon (opens in new tab), are ideal for cooking food at lower temperatures, meaning you get gentler, slower cooking over a longer time, and incredibly crispy on the outside, tender on the inside meat. The other advantages of smoker grills? 

Smoker grills tend to have a long, horizontal chamber next to the heat source rather than above it, which makes topping up the fuel and adjusting the heat easier. That said, for first-timers to smoke grills, there's still a learning process to get the cooking temperatures just right.

Typically, the firebox attached to the side of a smoker grill sends smoke into the cooking chamber.

Gauging temperatures is tricky, and smoker grills are trickier to use than kettle barbecues, as we've said above, and the most difficult aspect is ensuring the temperatures are right for what you're cooking. Don't rely on the temperature gauges provided (especially on budget models); instead, buy yourself a digital air probe to track temperatures. This DOQAUS device, available on Amazon (opens in new tab) has over 26,000 reviews and is recommended by the online outlet too.

As for cooking times, you're slow cooking, so it's going to take longer. Build this into your BBQ schedule to avoid hangry guests waiting around for the main event.

Tips for cooking on a smoker grill

  • Put cold meat in the smoker: unlike the aforementioned BBQs which perform better with cuts that have come to room temp, with a smoker grill you'll want to use meat straight from the fridge as it'll absorb the smoke better.
  • Use the smoker's vents to control heat – open them before adding fuel, and adjust them when the smoker heats up.
  • Use a chimney starter to fire up your smoker grill. 
  • Use wood for flavor – but as a supplement fuel not the main fuel. Large pieces of wood will burn more slowly than kindling, and put them to the side of the fire, not on top to infuse.
  • Put a pan of water on the grate; this helps keep the meat juicy and stops it from drying out.
  • Wait until it reaches slow cook temperatures – around 107ºC (225°F).
  • Keep the doors closed as much as possible: opening them regularly allows the much-needed smoke to escape.

Lucy is Global Editor-in-Chief of Homes & Gardens having worked on numerous interiors and property titles. She was founding Editor of Channel 4’s 4Homes magazine, was Associate Editor at Ideal Home, before becoming Editor-in-Chief of Realhomes.com in 2018 then moving to Homes & Gardens in 2021. She has also written for Huffington Post, AOL, UKTV, MSN, House Beautiful, Good Homes, and many women’s titles. Find her writing about everything from buying and selling property, self build, DIY, design and consumer issues to gardening.

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