What is the safest way to light a charcoal grill?
There are two aspects of safety I suppose. The first is the lighting itself – will you cause a fire or is there increased risk of an accident from the lighting itself.
The second aspect of safety is whether the technique you use affects the food being cooked. Does it leave a harmful residue on the coals that could case a health concern?
Using a charcoal grill can be very safe if you understand how to properly light and use one.
And some techniques leave no residue to affect your food.
There are a number of ways to light a charcoal grill. Back when I was a kid it was commonly done by squirting some lighter fluid on the coals and throwing a lit match on them. We’d get a nice little fire ball and then wait for the charcoal to be ready.
We never had an incident or accident using this method but it’s no longer deemed acceptable due to health concerns. Many folks believe dousing the charcoal you’re going to cook with leaves chemical residue that gets into your food and present health issues.
Another method that still exists but doesn’t seem very popular is using an electric starter. This is basically a bare oven heating element that you bury in charcoal, plug it into an outlet and let it get the charcoal going.
There’s no residue left, but you are dealing with a red hot heating element that could easily cause serious burns if mishandles – or start a fire if placed in the wrong spot while still hot.
I’ve heard folks suggest taking a propane torch to the charcoal to get it going.
Again, a but risky in terms of fire hazards and a bit of overkill.
I believe these days – and for many years, the most common and recommended way to light charcoal is by using a chimney. You fill it with charcoal – put some paper in the bottom or was cubes on top and light. There are tons of videos on this including the one below.
I’m not a huge fan of Alton Brown’s use of cooking oil to the paper for a couple of reasons. The first being that adding the oil is another step and I’ve rarely had an issue getting the charcoal going with just paper.
Plus, these days I honestly don’t have that much paper laying around the house anymore. I think the digital age has really cut down on the left over newspapers we used to use.
I also prefer the wax cubes because the paper creates some ash that flies around when I dump the hot coals onto the remaining charcoal – they can make a bit of a mess.
So from the “let’s not burn the house down” aspect, use a chimney starter and some paper or was cubes.
And from the let’s not make a mess or leave any residue on the coals that could infiltrate our food – go with a chimney starter and the was cubes – especially if you don;t have piles of newspaper around the house.