If you can do this already, I am not trying to tell you how to do it. Stick to your own methods. If, on the other hand, you have trouble with barbecues, Here are some suggestions. They have never failed for me. I hope you find them useful. Naturally, these tips apply to real fires, not the modern gas-powered contraptions.


First, you need somewhere to do the burning. Most people use a metal barbecue, but there are different types. My preference is a large, kettle style device with a close-fitting lid and adjustable airvents at the top and bottom. The lighting technique described here is independent of barbecue type, but the type you choose will have a big effect on the cooking process.

Second you need charcoal. Again,there are different types. I prefer to use lumpwood charcoal from a renewable source, but all types of real charcoal are equally effective. I prefer to use lumps of charcoal which range in size from around 1cm to 10cm (half-inch to three or four inches).

There are things called charcoal briquettes, which I will use, but only as a last resort. These are more difficult to light, but last a bit longer and burn cooler. The technique described below works well with briquettes

The third requirement is a lighting aid. I use firelighter cubes. I never use firelighter fluid. It can be used effectively, but just throwing it on top of coals is the wrong way of doing that. Pieces of firelighter material should be in the range 1cm to 2 cm. Never more than a 2 cm (1-inch) cube, that is too big. And, of course matches. Just one, or perhaps two.

I keep an old pair of BBQ tongs to arrange the pieces of charcoal. If I can’t find these, I use my fingers, but that means a lot more washing. But note, these tongs should not be used to touch food.

The final piece of equipment is optional: A cold beer.


To set up the BBQ, pour a layer of charcoal onto the bottom grid. The amount you use depends on how much food there is to cook, and how long you expect the fire to burn. You do not have to fill the entire area with charcoal. It is often very effective to use a small side area of the BBQ to make the fire, leaving half the cooking grid—or more—away from the direct heat of the fire. If at all possible, try to ensure there is a good air space underneath the fuel, with a path for air to get into the burning coals. In an ideal set-up, the vent is adjustable, and can be closed off completely, to prevent the inflow of oxygen. Make sure any vents are completely open, allowing maximum airflow.

The next step is to make a hole among the coals, and place a small cube of firelighter material at the bottom of the layer of coals. This is important. Heat rises, and if you place your starter flames on top of the coals, the coals underneath will never catch light. In a small BBQ (for four or five people) a single hole is enough. For larger gatherings, you may need two, three, or even more.

Now is a good time to have some of that beer.

Next, light the cube of firelighter. Once lit, the cube will quickly generate large flames. Don’t panic, but reach for your old pair of tongs, and start building a tower of charcoal around the firelighter. This tower is critical to your success. Be careful with it, and spend time doing it. Make it as tall as you can, but try to prevent any coal from directly touching the firelighter, and try to ensure that the flames from the firelighter do not escape from the tower. Wherever the flames emerge, put another piece of charcoal. Do this for each cube of firelighter you have used.

This next step is critical. Go away. Don’t touch. Don’t fiddle. Let the god of fire work her magic. Talk to your friends, open some wine, make a salad. Be cool.

After 15 to 20 minutes (10 if you are a hot-head and 30 if you are ultra-cool, or you are using briquettes), say to your friends, “that’ll be ready to cook on in a couple of minutes.” Return to the BBQ, have a quick look. The towers of charcoal will be glowing red-hot in the middle, and, if you have left it long enough, will be starting to burn around the outside. Again, take your tongs, gently push the towers down. Do not distribute the hot coals around the cold ones, but keep them as close together as possible. Replace the cooking grid, oil it if you like, check the heat coming from the coals with your hand, and then announce it is ready to cook, or allow another five or ten minutes for the coals to get good and hot.

You can at this point, start closing off the air vents to slow the rate of burn down a bit, and make the coals a bit cooler


Your BBQ is lit, you have remained cool, and there have been no panics or singed eyebrows. Reward yourself with more beer.


Thank you cordelia (see below). Those things work brilliantly. They are safe and reliable. They save you messing about with hot coals, trying to build that tower.

I never use them for a single reason. I am a stupid man. I enjoy mucking about with flames, hot coals and that kind of thing. Yep, stupid I know, but there it is. Each to his/her own.

To cordelia. I can't tell whether you are man or woman from your name/homenode, but it's clear you're not stupid, so that's why I don't use those chimneys and you do.... grin

Bon Appetit!

While Kidas demonstrates a method of lighting a charcoal barbecue that demonstrates great skill and dexterity, there is a much easier way to do this.

Go to your favorite kitchen store, or place that sells barbecues, and buy a charcoal chimney*. It's a cylinder, about a quarter meter diameter, and perhaps half a meter high. There is a small grate about a quarter of the way from the bottom. Take two full sheets of newspaper, crumple them into loose balls, and insert them under the grate. Set the chimney onto your grill (make sure you have good airflow), and fill the top of the chimney with briquettes). Light the paper.

Now go have that beer.

The flames will work their way up the charcoal. When the top row of charcoal is white, you're ready to cook.. Carefully pour the charcoal into your barbecue, and go make your favorite food!

*You can make one of these from a coffee can, but it really isn't worth it.

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