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Catching Fire

Avoid these common pitfalls as you get ready to light your charcoal grill

By: Tasting Table for Crate and Barrel

Grilling over charcoal is great for so many reasons: for the incomparable smoky flavor it imparts to everything from chicken thighs to sliced eggplant; for the ease of cleanup afterward; and for its simplicity.

Simplicity, that is, if you’re lighting your coals right. But if you’re new to charcoal grilling, chances are your attempted shortcuts are doing you more harm than good. Here, then, are the five most common mistakes made when lighting coals. Be sure to avoid them—and watch this step-by-step video to see how to do things right.

Mistake #1: Using anything other than a chimney starter

Whether you’re piling your coals into a heap and throwing a match (or 20) at them or inefficiently heating them with one of those plug-in electric coils, any method other than using a cheap, super-effective chimney starter is, quite simply, a waste of your time and effort.

Mistake #2: Using lighter fluid

This potent, oily mixture of petroleum byproducts (or, sometimes, alcohols) imbues your food with a heavy chemical aftertaste and might even be carcinogenic. Once again, if you use a chimney starter, you simply won’t need the nasty stuff.

Mistake #3: Winging it

Backyard grilling should totally be a casual affair, the opposite of an intricately planned indoor dinner party. But you’re setting yourself up for failure if you start grilling willy-nilly without considering the particulars of your meal. How many people are you feeding? Will one starter full of coals suffice, or will you need two? What are you cooking? Will everything require high heat, or will you need to set up a few temperature zones? And finally, remember to clean out the ash pan and scrub down the grill grate each time you grill.

Mistake #4: Dumping the coals too soon (or too late)

So you’ve learned from past mistakes and finally invested in a chimney starter—which is great. Now don’t mess everything up by dumping out the lit coals at the wrong time. Too soon, and they’ll immediately cool down once they’re spread out on the grill grate, creating a major snafu for the grillmaster. Too late, and they’ll burn out way too quickly in the grill, again rendering it impossible to cook all your food to temperature. Learn the cues: generally, coals in a chimney starter will be ready within 15 to 20 minutes, when they’re smoldering and covered in a layer of gray ash.

Mistake #5: Using charcoal briquettes

Have you ever stopped to wonder what, exactly, is in those perfectly formed little black lumps? The answer: wood pulp and by-products, smushed into a paste and held together with chemical additives that can coat your lovingly prepared steaks and skewers with an acrid, artificial flavor. Spring for more expensive, but infinitely better-tasting, pure lump charcoal.

Now that you know how to light your grill, learn how to set up heat zones.

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