Do you own a charcoal smoker or grill and battle with lighting the charcoal? This happens more than you would like to believe and it helps to know why your charcoal won’t light.
You may have grown up lighting fires for barbecues using wood and never had a problem. But with charcoal it can get tricky.
There are 6 main reasons when charcoal won’t light:
- You mixed different types of charcoal
- The charcoal is wet
- You may be laying the charcoal flat on the bottom of the grill or of the smoker
- The air vents are closed
- The charcoal is smothered
- The grill or the smoker are not clean
Let’s talk about some facts about charcoal and why it can be difficult getting your charcoal to light.
Table of Contents
- 1 6 Facts You Need to Know About Lighting Charcoal
- 2 Final Thoughts
6 Facts You Need to Know About Lighting Charcoal
Charcoal smokers and grills are popular and charcoal itself imparts a distinct smoky flavor to your meats. Once you’ve got the charcoal burning, you’re sorted but if your charcoal won’t light you can get frustrated. And you may even decide to give up ever using charcoal! But if you know the facts about charcoal and how to use it, then you’ll be lighting up like a pro pitmaster – every time!
1. The Different Types of Charcoal
There’re three different types of charcoal – lump, extruded, and briquette. Each one is made up of different components.
- Lump charcoal: This is the most popular charcoal used by grillers and smokers alike. It’s made with hardwood and it’s slowly burnt in a sealed area until all the sap, moisture and natural chemicals have been removed. Lumps of charcoal are left behind. This type of charcoal burns at very hot temperatures and reacts well with oxygen. We recommend the Black Diamond CharWood. It has the plus to be reusable and comes in a box which makes it easier to store. You can find it on Amazon by clicking this link.
- Extruded charcoal: Sawdust is compressed into a log shape using an extruder machine. This compressed sawdust undergoes extreme heat and pressure to bind it. When the logs have been formed, they’re carbonized in a kiln designed specifically for this process.
- Briquettes: Natural briquettes contain only charcoal and starch while others can include starch, mineral carbon, limestone, sodium nitrate and borax. All of these components play different roles from binding the charcoal to igniting it. Other briquettes will contain lighter fluid such as paraffin.
Both the lump charcoal and briquettes are the most popular types to use with lump charcoal being favored for its natural hardwood. While charcoal briquettes will burn longer, with a consistent heat, they’re more difficult to light. Lump charcoal will burn out faster but you can add them to the burning pile without worrying about killing the lit charcoal. A high-quality lump charcoal produces a clean heat with little ash.
2. Are You Using Wet Charcoal?
Storage of charcoal is important and if you’re keeping your charcoal out on the patio or in a basement that’s damp, you’re likely to end up with wet charcoal. And, like damp wood, you’ll battle to light your charcoal if it contains any moisture.
Charcoal is porous and will absorb any moisture. This applies to an area prone to humidity. If you’re living in a humid environment, you’ll need to take extra care when storing your charcoal. Keep the charcoal in containers that are well-sealed. A dehumidifier will go a long way to keeping the moisture at bay especially if your weather is always humid.
3. Lighting With a Chimney Stack
If you’re new to using charcoal you may be laying the charcoal flat on the bottom of your grill or smoker. No matter how much you try to light charcoal this way, you’re going to battle to get it started. Or you get it lit but it burns out quickly.
Heat rises and the best way for charcoal to catch light and to stay lit is to stack it vertically. You can go the old-school way and use newspaper to form a funnel around which the charcoal is stacked. You can even add dry pieces of kindling to the pile of newspaper to help with the fire catching.
Or, invest in a chimney designed for this purpose. It’s basically a hollow, metal pipe funnel in which you stack the charcoal. You light the charcoal from the bottom and as the heat rises, the charcoal will burn through to the top. At this point you can transfer carefully to the bottom of your grill or smoker.
Don’t be tempted to light your charcoal with petroleum. Not only is this method dangerous but you’ll have food tasting like lighter fluid! And, the aroma will line the cooking chamber of your smoker or grill.
An electric charcoal lighter or propane torch are two useful tools that’ll get your charcoal lighted quickly and safely. Fire starters are also a good way to get your charcoal lit. These are compressed cubes of cardboard or wood shavings coated with paraffin wax. It’s non-toxic and leaves no ash so you can use it instead of newspaper.
4. Using the Air Vents Correctly
Most grills and smokers come with dampers or air vents. They’re perfect for controlling the internal heat of the cooking chamber. But if you try to light charcoal while the air vents or dampers are closed, you’re going to struggle.
Always open ALL the air vents before you start lighting your charcoal. Even if one is closed, you’re not going to get your charcoal lit. Charcoal responds well to oxygen and if there’s a good air flow, you can be sure your charcoal will like it! Insufficient air flow means your charcoal will not light or if it does, it’ll burn out very quickly.
Once your charcoal is burning nicely and develops a white to gray appearance, you can then start adjusting the air vents, closing them if you need to control the temperature. But, don’t shut them until your charcoal is burning well.
5. Are You Smothering Your Charcoal?
Now, you may have managed to get your charcoal lit but it’s quickly burning out. You try and light it again and this time, nothing happens. The problem here could be you’re smothering your charcoal. Charcoal needs air to burn. If you’re cutting out the source of air by adding wood before the charcoal is ready, you’ll end up with your charcoal burning out.
Once again, wait for the charcoal to have a white to gray appearance before adding any wood chips or pellets to the pile. This means your charcoal is well-lit and burning nicely and will not be smothered by the additional wood.
But, don’t go and add wet wood! If your wood is wet or even slightly moist, you’ll have your charcoal fizzling out in no time at all. Which brings us to the correct seasoning and storage of your wood products. Make sure they’re kept in a dry place and in airtight containers.
6. Keeping It Clean
If your grill or smoker is dirty and wet, you can be sure your charcoal won’t light. A buildup of grease will clog the air vents and a moist chamber is bad news for charcoal. Being charcoal porous – you can’t expect charcoal to light if it’s wet or damp. So, make sure your grill or smoker is completely clean dry before adding any charcoal.
Another mistake many grillers and smokers make is leaving a pile of ash at the bottom of the barbecue. Ash gets moist over time and soon it’ll form a dense layer of paste. When you add fresh charcoal on top of this paste it’ll immediately start absorbing the moisture from the paste.
This layer of paste will also stop any flow of air getting to the bottom layer of charcoal. All in all, you’ve a recipe for disaster if you leave old ash to sit in your barbecue. Remove the ash after each time you use your grill or smoker to save you hassles the next time you want to cook.
Is Self-Igniting Charcoal a Good Solution?
I’ve left this option to the end because it’s not my most favorite way of lighting charcoal. And, you’ll understand soon enough why I prefer not to use this method! Self-igniting charcoal is charcoal smothered in a combustible fluid such as mineral spirits. All you have to do is pile up the charcoal, set a light to them directly and before you know it you have burning charcoal.
While this may seem a simple and efficient approach to lighting and burning your charcoal, it does have some drawbacks. While considered safe to use, many cooks are disturbed by the prospect of chemicals getting into the food they’re cooking. It’s recommended to wait for the chemicals to burn off before placing any food on the grill. Another health hazard is inhaling the chemicals while standing over the grill.
It’s best to avoid self-igniting charcoal when using a smoker. The chemicals will line the cooking chamber while burning off, similar to lighter fluids, which will impact the flavor of any foods being cooked in the chamber.
If used correctly, charcoal is an excellent fuel source for any barbecue grill or smoker. Lighting charcoal and keeping it burning can be challenging. But if you take note of the factors which influence why your charcoal won’t light, you’ll discover how to use charcoal to your best advantage. Storing it correctly, getting the right type and using different lighting methods are just some of the ways you can improve the chances of lighting your charcoal.