Completely Off-Topic: Starting Your Grill

by Darius Kazemi on July 5, 2008

in offtopic

So this is completely off-topic for this blog but after writing this in a fit of frustration I felt like I should post it as a public service announcement.

The Problem

Every time a group of people are gathered together for a cookout or a BBQ (and please don’t confuse your terms), particularly people under 30, a subset of those assembled get all eager about Starting The Fire. That’s great. It’s a nice communal activity. Except for one teeny tiny problem. That phrase, Starting The Fire, is extremely misleading.

Here is something you need to remember:

Fire burns things. Heat cooks things.

That’s really important to remember. You know how sometimes you cook something over a grill and it comes out with those great grill lines and it just enhances the flavor of whatever you were cooking? That’s what heat does. And you know how other times the stuff you’re grilling has char all over it, and it just ends up tasting like coal on the outside? That is what fire does.

This isn’t a campfire you’re trying to start. You are not assembled around a grill for the purpose of making something that will burn all your food to death. You goal is to actually AVOID starting a fire at all costs. But most people don’t know this, which is why they turn to…

Lighter Fluid

Ah, lighter fluid. The bane of my existence. Let’s look at what lighter fluid does to charcoal, when applied to the coal and then lit:

  • Sometimes it just coats the outside of the coals and immediately burns off, leaving you with no fire.
  • When it does result in fire, it’s because it soaked into the coals a bit which gives it more of a time-release, allowing the coals to get hot enough to start a chain reaction.
  • Lighter fluid soaked into coals, because it’s on more of a time-release, will release its fumes into your food unless you wait a long time (15 minutes) for it to burn off without applying more lighter fluid. Trust me, you don’t want this stuff anywhere near your food.

Anyway, the key here is that lighter fluid is the tool of the impatient (or the pyromaniac). Most people use lighter fluid because they Want. Fire. Now. At a 4th of July party yesterday, their fire was coming along quite nicely at one point: the coals were white, there was heat emanating, just 5 more minutes and it would have been ready to go. But some dude looked over, did not see any flames, thought they were struggling to keep the fire going, and just sprayed a shitload of lighter fluid straight into the coals. WHOOSH. Fire. He said something like, “There you go. Now we can cook.” Actually, dude, now we have to wait another 5 minutes for the fluid to burn off anyway.

As a side note, never use easy-light charcoal. It’s just charcoal pre-soaked in lighter fluid. And if you do find yourself forced to use easy-light because it was the only thing at the store… don’t add lighter fluid to it. That’s just idiotic, all you have to do is throw a match on there and the nasty petroleum byproducts will take care of everything else.

Your Eyeballs Suck

That guy thought he was doing us a favor because he couldn’t see any fire. But actually, not seeing fire is what you want! Brief physics lesson: heat lives in the infrared range. We cannot see heat. But, you say, I can see fire, and that gives off heat! Yes and no. The flame part, the part you can see, is giving off heat, but also light. Light is a waste of energy as far as cooking is concerned. As far as the cook is concerned, light is a filthy byproduct of pure and good heat. Seeing anything means that some of your energy is being converted into light and not heat, and light doesn’t cook things.

So, ideally, you see nothing. You have a bed of coals with a nice white ash on them, and that’s all you can see. Maybe a little red glow from under them, but that’s not even necessary. The only true test to see if your fire is doing well is to hold your hand near the coals. Is it hot? Then you have heat.

How To Start a Fire Without Fire

Electric starters, while I don’t recommend them for grilling, are an excellent tool for convincing people that fire is not the key to starting a fire. What an electric starter consists of is a metal heating element with a handle that you plug into a voltage source (i.e., wall socket). Just position the starter under a pile of coals, plug it in, and wait about ten minutes. The metal will heat up, the coals next to it will heat up, and soon you’ll have a fire. Unplug the starter, remove it from the coals, and put it somewhere safe like a concrete surface to cool. Wait another ten minutes for the fire to die down and most of the coals to become white, and then spread the coals. You’re ready to grill.

They’re very instructive because they can efficiently start a fire by simply applying heat to coals. No matches necessary. However, I don’t recommend them for use because often you will find yourself needing to string an extension cord from inside your house to power them. Not worth it, especially when you can use a chimney starter.

Chimney Starters

A chimney starter is a beautiful thing. I love chimney starters so much, I drew a diagram in MS Paint to help explain how they work (click it to embiggen).

A chimney starter is a metal cylinder with two chambers: a big one on top and a small one on the bottom. There are holes in the metal that separates the two chambers. Here’s how it works (follow along with the diagram).

  1. You put your coals in the big chamber.
  2. You put crumpled up newspaper in the small chamber. (Note: use real newsprint, the glossy stuff that most magazines and advertising supplements are printed on doesn’t burn hot enough.)
  3. You light the newspaper on fire. This is very easy to do, as it’s newspaper. This fire heats up the bottom of the bottommost coals, thanks to the holes in the barrier.
  4. From here on you’re just waiting. The bottom coals become fully hot.
  5. They pass the heat on (through jets of air as well as direct contact) to the coals above them.
  6. After about 10 minutes everything gets hot. VERY hot.

Then you just dump out the chimney’s contents into your grill. Done. Ready to cook.

So that’s really easy. A chimney starter costs like $10 at a hardware store. Do yourself, and your food, a favor and buy one.


Michael July 7, 2008 at 1:51 pm

In fairness, I just brought the meat, didn’t claim to know how to start a fire and therefore didn’t try.

The mark of a truly competent person, I am told, is the ability to admit when they are totally out of their depth and back off.


adam July 7, 2008 at 7:09 pm

Of course, you need to also be aware of what to do if the grill gets wet inside (thanks, Google)

dsilvers July 7, 2008 at 9:27 pm

We use coal chimneys and firestarters at my house. Actually I don’t even know if we use the firestarters anymore, but definitely the chimney. The best part about the chimney is that nobody can judge it based on the amount of fire coming out of it.

And you forgot to mention that the meat drippings will create all the fire necessary for proper entertainment.

Amanda Cosmos July 8, 2008 at 1:38 am

This was very informative! I will keep all of this in mind when at the BBQ I’m going to this coming weekend.

Darren Torpey July 25, 2008 at 2:38 am

Ironically, the author of the don’t-mix-your-terms post triggered a pet peeve shared my many, many people, of whom I am one. I quote:

“BBQ also implies their is sauce or rub applied.”

“their” instead of “there”

I love irony. =)

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