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Starting a BBQ? Follow this Big K ’how to’ guide

Alt text A man is starting a BBQ using a pile of kindling

Catalysts are often underrated. We are fixated on outcome. End result. What do we obtain? What are the benefits for me? In the grand scheme of things do the masses really care how things come about? We’re not here to answer whether this concept exists within the BBQ world. Some people will be all about the process. Others will be all about the delicious outcome. However the significance of starting a BBQ cannot be ignored. Lighting your charcoal is the catalyst that sets every BBQ dream in motion. There is a method behind the magic. Technique, preparation and a little physics come into play. At Big K we’re passionate about every single detail in the grilling chain of events. So today we’re going to explore many the facets and nuances behind lighting and starting a BBQ.


Starting a BBQ? Safety should be the very first thing on your mind

There’s no such thing as too much safety. We want everybody, from the grizzled grill vets to the fresh BBQ noobs, to enjoy flame and flavour not blazes and blisters. So here’s a quick safety recap to help make lighting a BBQ nice and easy.

  • Place and set up your barbecue on a flat surface. This will help with overall stability and ensure that gravity doesn’t grasp your barbecue for a quick tumble.
  • When starting a BBQ please make sure that you have positioned your barbecue or grill a safe distance from any trees or fences.
  • Keep a trusty bucket of water or a fire extinguisher close by at all times.
  • Make sure that you keep children and pets away from the heat source when lighting a BBQ.
  • You don’t want any BBQ burns, so get your hands on some long-handled tongs and any other proper barbecue kit with insulated handles that you might need.

If you are looking for a more detailed safety breakdown before starting a BBQ, take a look at celebrity Chef Theo Michaels’ safety video and get safety certified. Ok so now we know that safety is paramount when it comes to lighting a BBQ, what’s next?


This stack of charcoal and kindling is the perfect example of starting a BBQ


Starting a BBQ? Always use quality charcoal that you can trust

This may seem like an obvious point, but you’d be surprised at how many people think that any charcoal will do when it comes to starting a BBQ. Yes there is excitement in lighting a BBQ and getting cooking, however to neglect your charcoal choice is to tempt the BBQ fates – often leading to tears and stomach issues.  Your charcoal is absolutely vital to your BBQ success. It impacts everything from texture and taste to the look and aroma of your food. The obvious conclusion is that you need quality charcoal to get quality results. You should always try to purchase high quality and sustainably produced charcoal derived from coppiced wood or forestry commission approved wood sources. Just a side note: charcoal is kind of our thing here at Big K. We’ve spent over 50 years refining our range to deliver the highest quality charcoal possible. Consistent performance, longer cooking times, higher heat outputs and sustainable choices – you’ll find all kinds of amazing charcoal at Big K. Discover our range for yourself


This wood and wax sustainable firelighter is the ideal firelighter to use when starting a BBQ


What do you need to light a BBQ?

Meet the BBQ trifecta: matches or a lighter, natural firelighters and charcoal. Super simple guys. However that’s not to say that you can simply just channel your inner willy nillyness (ok we are stretching the English language with that one), throw a load of incendiaries on the grill and pray to the fire Gods. When starting a BBQ there should be an adherence to process. A following of chronological steps.  Starting a BBQ is an art in itself. Let’s get into the nitty and the gritty.


Start with a stack

What are we lighting here? Charcoal in most cases. Charcoal needs to be loved and treated with care. It’s not quite a foot-rub–after-a-long-day-type love. It’s more about understanding your charcoal and how it works. What do you need to do to get the best out of it? So when you’re lighting a BBQ, you must first ensure that your charcoal is set up correctly. We’re going to share a classic technique with you now – the tried and true stacking methodology. It’s fairly straightforward. Basically take your charcoal pieces and stack them into a pyramid or mound shape. Think a charcoal Jenga of sorts. When making your stack, ensure that you are leaving multiple gaps between the individual charcoal pieces. Why? Combustion thrives on oxygen. So airflow is essential for a cleaner and more efficient burn when starting a BBQ. The pyramid stack also helps with coal-to-coal contact, which helps the fire to catch and spread.


How to light a BBQ? Next up you will need some firelighters

We didn’t start the fire. Apparently it was always burning since the world was turning. Well if it wasn’t us it must have been someone. All unknown fire starter conspiracy theories aside, you will need to add some firelighters to your stack to get your fire started. Before we get into firelighters, you can light your charcoal stack by using scrunched up newspaper. It’s easy: simply scrunch up some sheets of newspaper into small ball shapes (you can also dip these in cooking oil if you want), then pop the balls into some of the gaps in your charcoal mound and finally light your scrunched up paper balls.


A hand lights some kindling within a charcoal stack to complete the second step in lighting a BBQ.


If you are using firelighters, we suggest ditching fluids and accelerants full of chemicals. It is better to go natural if you can. There are many natural firelighters made out of wood chips, wax or wool – like our Woodies firelighters for example We can’t get into the deep firelighter detail here as we have a lot to get through. However check out this blog for more insights

to school your curious mind. Once you have your chosen natural firelighter, just follow the same process (outlined above) that you would for your scrunched up newspaper balls.


When starting a BBQ have some control and patience

Fire is an active fellow. It does what is does how it does it. In other words, although it might be tempting to grab that bottle of lighter fluid and go to town, please restrain yourself when starting a BBQ. Be patient and let your fire spread organically. Once several coals are lit, the others will follow no issues at all.  Most charcoal is cook-ready within 20-30 minutes depending on the type. So hang in there and let flame do its thing.


How to light a BBQ with a chimney?

If indulging in a little charcoal Tetris and Ray Mears action seems a little much, may we point you in the direction of a chimney starter? This nifty bit of kit is basically just a metallic cylinder into which you place both your charcoal and firelighters. Then simply light the firelighters in the chimney and let everything burn. When the charcoal is ready simply pour it out and spread over your barbecue base. Lighting a BBQ made super easy. Here are a few steps to make things crystal clear.

  1. Trip down obvious street here – fill up your lovely chimney starter with an adequate quantity of charcoal.
  2. Next simply add your natural firelighters or scrunched up paper balls into the chamber following the instructions on the chimney starter.
  3. Now light your firelighters or paper in multiple places. Once the firelighters are lit and burning, the flames will start touching the edges and exposed surfaces of the charcoal. You can see how things are going by fixing a beady eye through the ventilation holes of the chimney start chamber.

Finally, after about 15-20 minutes, you will be able to observe hot and glowing as well as flickering flame. This is the green light that everything is copacetic. Finally pour out your coals and spread them out for either direct cooking (an even spread of charcoal across your whole grill base) or indirect cooking (pushing your coals to one side of the grill base, leaving one half empty).


A man starting a BBQ controls the orange flames rising from his pile of thinly spread charcoal


A quick word on heat types

Yes we have given you all the practical info you need to become a solid pro when starting a BBQ. However we want to give you a little more info beyond this point. Ok so you’re lighting a BBQ. Then what do you do? If you’re instinct is to grab a pen and start probing your fire for some existential musings on the fragility of its existence, then clearly you need some psychiatric help. What we are trying to get at, albeit in a slightly convoluted way, is that you can arrange your cook-ready charcoal in different configurations to create different heat types and cooking outcomes.

Direct heat

If you are looking for a uniform heat output from you charcoal, you are looking to cook with direct heat. So how do you get direct heat from your charcoal? It’s suuuuuper simple: just spread out your charcoal in one flat pile on your grill base.

Indirect heat

After starting a BBQ, there will be some scenarios where direct cooking isn’t as preferable. For example if you are cooking ribs low and slow  or roasting a chicken. This is where indirect heat comes into play. Once your charcoal is ready, you move all of it to one side of your grill base, creating a void on the other side. This simple split gives you a direct cooking zone (your charcoal pile) and in indirect cooking zone (the void). In the indirect cooking zone the temperature is lower, so it is the perfect area for slower cooks or to keep cooked food warm until serving.

To use a phrase in the common parlance of the early nineties – Whoomp there it is! We’ve made starting a BBQ easy to grasp for everyone. This is what we’re all about at the end of the day. We spread the knowledge so people can get out there and get grilling, enriching the BBQ and charcoal community.