How to light a BBQ: tips, tricks and hacks for safe summer grills

Barbecuing for the first time? You need our guide to find out how to light a BBQ correctly so that you get the best results

How to light a bbq: George Foreman GFKTBBQ Charcoal BBQ
(Image credit: Amazon)

If you are planning a summer of al fresco grilled dinners, you need to know how to light a BBQ. Perhaps this year is your first at the barbecue as lockdown has you looking for more ways to make staying in the new going out. Or maybe you are a dab hand with the old smoker, but always struggle to get an even burn?

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!

And once you've found out how to light your BBQ, you can check out our favourite BBQ recipes for inspiration.

How to light a charcoal bbq

Lotus Grill Smokeless BBQ from Cuckooland

(Image credit: Cuckooland)

There's some skill to barbecuing on charcoal, but the most important ways to ensure the results are perfect are: 

  • Lighting time: 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.
  • Prep the barbecue by cleaning out any old ask, removing 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. 
  • 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.
  • Wait until the charcoal is covered with white-grey ash before cooking. This should take up to 30 minutes. 
  • There should be no smoke; if there is, the coals aren't ready.
  • Get a barbecue temperature gauge to ensure your barbecue retains the right amount of heat. You're looking for at least 107ºC+ (225ºF).
  • Control a charcoal barbecue's temperature with the vents: 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.
  • Season the BBQ grill when it's cold. Use a high heat cooking oil, wipe off any excess with kitchen roll and you're ready to go.

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. Use 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. Use tortilla chips: a few of these will work like magical little fire lighters thanks to their fat and corn content. Distribute a handful and light to get your fire going. Can also be used to relighting a dying fire.

3. Use newspaper: 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: 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 drinks will work. A cheap Scotch of vodka will do the trick – don't waste your best bottle. 

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 match. 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 is a good choice. Its large capacity will hold enough briquettes for a 57cm diameter kettle grill. It's constructed from aluminised steel and has stay cool thermoplastic handles.

How to light a gas bbq

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.

  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • Turn down the heat and get ready to cook. 
  • 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. 

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. 

There are, however, more combo options. 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. See more on smoker grills below and lighting tips above. 

How to light BBQ smokers

Smoker grills 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.

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.

As for cooking times, you're slow cooking, so it's going to take longer. Build this into your BBQ schedule.

Use these tips for cooking on a smoker grill:

  • Put cold meat in the smoker: straight from the fridge will absorb the smoke better than room temperature meat.
  • 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 flavour – 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.
  • 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.

More barbecue know how: