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Lighting a BBQ? Here’s everything you need to know

An illustrated steak burning on a grill after lighting a BBQ

We’ve all heard the expression, ‘You can’t run before you can walk’. The implication being that to excel at something, we must first cover the basics. This rings true in all areas of life including the BBQ world. That’s right Big K family, to grill with finesse you first need to know the fundamentals about lighting charcoal in your BBQ. So sit back, switch on those beautiful brains of yours and soak up some knowledge.

We know it can be tempting to chuck a load of charcoal under the grill, douse everything in lighter fluid and become a culinary arsonist. However many singed eyebrows and cremated dishes stand as evidence to the contrary.  It’s not rocket science for sure, however there is skill and technique involved in lighting a BBQ. The right preparation and execution of your fuel-foundation (a new BBQ buzzword for you there) will determine everything from the type of heat produced for cooking, to the usual suspects of taste, texture, succulence and so on. If cavemen could do it based on pure instinct, we’re sure you guys (with all the insight and tools at your disposal) can create a thrilling grilling experience. Here are some tips to help you when lighting your BBQ.

Flames from burning charcoal appear after lighting a BBQ


Lighting a BBQ? Safety first, safety second, safety third

The Big K fan base is very diverse consisting of passionate foodies and BBQ enthusiasts to the occasional afternoon griller. The point here is that we are offering advice and insight to everyone from the layman to the pro. If you know the safety basics then please bear with us, for the newbies out there listen closely. Any conversation about lighting your BBQ begins with safety. There’s no point setting out with good intentions only to end up calling the fire brigade or ambulance for an emergency evac. To be honest it’s mostly basic common sense.

  • Set up on a flat surface to avoid instability and your barbecue toppling over
  • Ensure that your barbecue is a safe distance from fences or trees. We are dealing with open flames after all.
  • Have a bucket of water or a fire extinguisher within reach at all times.
  • Ensure that children and pets are kept at a safe distance from the heat source.
  • It’s a good idea to use long-handled tongs and proper barbecue equipment with insulated handles to avoid any burns.

For more safety tips, watch celebrity Chef Theo Michaels’ video and enhance your safety credentials.


Use high quality charcoal when lighting a BBQ

Again this is fairly obvious stuff. If you’re thinking of lighting a BBQ any time soon, don’t neglect this simple fact. Quality charcoal equals quality flavour. Try to buy high-quality sustainably produced charcoal made from coppiced wood or forestry commission approved wood where possible.  Of course there are other products out there, such as instant light charcoal, which you can use. It all just depends on your preferences and what you are looking for in a charcoal product. Not to blow our own trumpet but it’s safe to say we are experts in the charcoal game. In fact, we’ve been developing our range of high quality and high performance charcoal for over 50 years. Don’t take our word for it. Explore our charcoal range and see for yourself. 

Stack before your start

We will guide you through a few ways to light your BBQ but first let’s talk some classic technique. The stacking method is tried and tested. Simply take your charcoal and stack the individual pieces into a mound or pyramid. Ensure that you leave multiple gaps between the pieces. This helps increase the airflow through the mound, making lighting your BBQ quicker and more efficient.  The pyramid shape also improves coal-to-coal contact, helping the fire to spread.

Next we are going to need something to get the fire started. If you’re wondering how to light a BBQ without firelighters, it’s fairly straightforward. Just scrunch up some small balls of newspaper (you can also dip these in cooking oil if you want) and insert them into some of the gaps in your charcoal stack. Alternatively you can place them into your mound as you are piling it up initially. You can also follow the same process using natural firelighters such as wood chips or wool. Finally all you need to do is light the paper or natural firelighters and let the flames catch.


A charcoal stack engulfed inn flames after lighting a bbq

Word of advice here, it pays not to force the issue when lighting your BBQ. Allow the flames to burn and spread in their own time. Patience is a virtue people. Once a few coals have been lit, the rest will follow suit and catch. So hold back on anxiously stuffing an additional load of firelighters into the mix. To get all your charcoal cook-ready we’re talking about a 15-20 minute process, so hold tight. But how do you know when your charcoal is ready? And how can you arrange your charcoal to create different heat types? The answers to these questions, and more, are coming. Not to leave you on tenterhooks but we’re not quite done with the preparation details yet.

How to light a charcoal BBQ with a chimney start

If all this stacking seems like hard when lighting charcoal in your BBQ, using a chimney starter offers a slightly easier and less ‘hands on’ option. This handy tool is basically just a metal cylinder into which you place both your charcoal and paper. Then all you need to do is release the burning pieces and spread in your barbecue as appropriate. Sounds easy enough right? Just follow the instructions below.

  1. First fill the chimney starter with a suitable amount of charcoal.
  2. Then add a few sheets of paper or woodies as per the instructions on the chimney starter.
  3. Next light the paper in several places. As the paper starts to burn in the bottom of the chamber, the flames will begin to light the edges of the charcoal above. You can monitor the progress by looking through the vents of the chimney starter.
  4. Finally, after about ten minutes or so, you should see glowing coals and flames beginning to lick and flicker over the top layer of coals. This means you are good to go. Now simply pour your hot coals out and spread accordingly.


Hot coals glowing and ready to use as the result of lighting a bb

So how can you tell if your glowing pieces are ready? This is crucial stuff, because if you jump the gun, your food could overcook or become a carbonized catastrophe. Your charcoal colour holds the key.

  • Grey or black with flames: Pump the breaks. It’s not quite ready yet. You can still squeeze in a bit more prep.
  • White hot glow with red center: The sweet spot for some direct heat cooking.
  • White ash and extreme heat: The magic moment for perfect indirect heat cooking.

After lighting your BBQ arrange your coals for different heat types

Here comes the final piece of the BBQ lighting puzzle – the arrangement of the hot coals in your barbecue. That’s right, there’s even more you can do to big up your grill game when lighting your BBQ. The relationship is simple. Different charcoal arrangements equal different heat types, and different heat types are best matched to certain foods and cooking needs. Check out the breakdown.

Direct heat 

If you spread out your charcoal in an even layer, you are essentially creating a high temperature ‘stove top’ effect. The heat created is direct, uniform and very hot. It’s like having everything on the highest heat in a very hot skillet. This direct heat is ideal for slim cuts of meat that cook through quickly, such as burgers and thin-cut steaks. However it will obliterate slow cooking food into chargrilled oblivion.

Indirect heat 

For those needing a little more control and multi-tasking capabilities, we recommend pushing the coals to one side of your barbecue.  Now you have two heat areas, direct heat from your charcoal pile and indirect heat from the charcoal-free section. This allows you to cook on one side and keep food warm on the other. Alternatively, you can use the indirect heat for low-and-slow cooking delights such as larger joints, thicker meats on the bone and fish.

A bit of both

Go for a sloping arrangement to create a gradient of heat from blazing to a soft sizzle. We’d say this definitely one for the larger crowds as you can cook up a storm at the top, go slow and steady in the middle of the slope and keep things warm at the bottom. Talk about multi purpose.

Wow that was extensive and exhausting!  Now there’s no need to fire up Google and ask a plethora of questions such as  ‘How to light a charcoal BBQ?’  or ‘’What do you need to light a charcoal BBQ?’ as we’ve given you the low down. You know us, we’re always fired up and willing to go to any lengths to share our wisdom. If you need some more pointers on the BBQ basics, take a look at our BBQ guide.  Or now that you’ve your BBQ lighting technique covered, and you’re looking for different delectable delights to dazzle your nearest and dearest, explore our range of recipes.

Until the next time people.