There are few things worse than being excited about a barbecue only for the charcoal to not light.
We’ve all been there and felt hopeless at that moment, but don’t worry. If you struggle with charcoal that just won’t light up, keep reading – you can do something about it.
There Are Three Different Charcoal Types
You can find briquette, extruded and lump charcoal in stores. You may think that they’re all the same, but there are big differences between them, and this could be the reason why your charcoal won’t light.
Briquettes alone can vary from brand to brand. Natural briquettes are only made of starch and charcoal, but other kinds can include limestone, borax, sodium nitrate and mineral carbon.
Because of these different ingredients, some briquettes are far harder to light than others. Some briquettes even contain paraffin, a type of lighter fluid.
Extruded charcoal is made up of compressed sawdust that’s put under high levels of pressure and heat in an extruder machine, in order to bind it. After logs have been formed in the machine, they are put in a kiln and carbonized.
Lastly, there’s lump charcoal. Lump charcoal is by far the most popular charcoal when it comes to smoking and grilling food. This type of charcoal is made using hardwoods.
The wood is carefully burnt in a sealed space until the natural chemicals, moisture and sap are gone, leaving only the charcoal.
What problem could you be facing with these three different charcoals, and what is the solution?
You may be experiencing difficultly lighting your charcoal, especially briquettes, if there isn’t enough heat. Instead of using briquettes, try out lump charcoal.
If you use lump charcoal, you can easily add more to the fire without the concern of killings what’s already burning.
Wet Charcoal Probably Won’t Light
Like wood or anything else you would typically burn, wet charcoal is not going to light up easily, if at all.
Moisture and fire don’t mix, so if charcoal, which is highly porous, absorbs water or any other kind of moisture from the air, starting a barbecue will be very difficult.
Moisture concerns and solutions
If moist or wet charcoal if your issue, then there are a few things you can do. Charcoal that is already wet needs to be dried out – this can be done by taking it out of its bag and laying it in the sun or a dehumidified hot room.
When one side of the charcoal is dry, turn it over like you would that steak you wanted to barbecue.
When storing charcoal, keep it in a dry place rather than outside. If you do have a dehumidifier, then it’s a great option for keeping it dry all year round.
Smothered Charcoal Will Die Out
Charcoal, like anything else you want to burn, needs air to do so. This is a common problem with people who aren’t very familiar with barbecues or how to use them in the best way.
If you give your charcoal the chance to really get going and get plenty of air, they won’t disappoint you. Charcoal should be gray or white and smoldering before you add wood, pellets or chips to the pile.
How To Avoid Smothering Your Charcoal
Give the charcoal time to burn. When it changes from black to white or gray, then you should start thinking about placing wood or your preferred combustible on top.
If you put your wood on too soon, it will cut off the oxygen flow and result in a dead barbecue.
Remember, though – like charcoal, only place dry wood, pellets or chips should be placed on top or else your fire will die.
Stack the Charcoal
You may be unfamiliar with the best methods for using charcoal, and that’s fine – it’s a learning curve for everyone.
A common problem when it comes to charcoal is how it is placed in the barbecue. Laying the charcoal flat on the bottom will only mean it will die out soon, because hot air rises.
Rather than the charcoal lying flat on the bottom of the smoker or grill, place them on top of each other.
Doing this will ensure that the heat of the lit charcoal at the bottom does not go to waste because it will feed the charcoal on top of it, letting it burn strongly.
Methods of Stacking Charcoal
Other than stacking charcoal manually in a pile, you can also do a few other things. You can make a funnel using a newspaper and add bits of kindling to aid the process.
Alternatively, you can buy a chimney that is designed with this issue in mind. Using this, you can stack the charcoal inside and when you light the charcoal at the bottom, the heat will rise and slowly burn through to the top.
When the charcoal burns all the way to the top, you can transfer it to your barbecue or grill.
Using the stacking method ensures that the charcoal will stay lit for a long time as it gets air and is not smothered by charcoal all around it.
While the newspaper method is, of course, cheaper, investing in a chimney will serve you well for years to come.
What to Use to Light the Charcoal
This might seem obvious initially, but there are definite dos and don’ts when it comes to lighting your charcoal. To avoid a lingering bad aroma in your barbecue as well as decrease rink, do not use petroleum.
Instead, try using an electric lighter or fire starters. Electric lighters or propane torches are great for lighting fires both safely and quickly.
Fire starters are inexpensive cubes made of either cardboard or wood shavings which are coated in paraffin wax. They are great alternatives to newspapers since they are non-toxic and do not leave ash residue behind.
Clean Grills Aid the Burning Process
Another common problem when it comes to getting your barbecue going is a dirty grill. As we’ve covered, charcoal is porous and will absorb moisture. If grease and dirt has built up inside the grill, the air vents will clog.
The grill will be in a constant state of being full of moisture if the proper steps are not taken to clean it thoroughly when it needs it.
Similarly, leaving ash from previous barbecues at the bottom of the grill will not help your charcoal to burn. The ash, like charcoal, absorbs moisture and will become a paste over time, especially if water has gotten inside the grill.
If you were to add charcoal on top of the paste that has formed in the grill, it will absorb the moisture and not light. The moisture isn’t the only problem with this paste, however.
It will also stop the airflow and therefore not allow oxygen to reach the charcoal at the bottom of the grill.
What Should You do About Ash in Your Grill?
After using the grill and allowing it to cool, you should always get rid of the ash.
Be sure to let the grill cool down completely and check for any lumps of charcoal that remain, as they can burn for hours after you are finished using it. Typically, it is best to wait around 48 hours before attempting to remove the ash.
However, if there is a rush you may want to pour water over the coals yourself, stirring the mixture carefully to speed up the cooling process.
When it has cooled down completely, you should place the mixture in aluminum foil and leave it in a non-combustible outdoor trash bin.
Proper Air Vent Use Goes a Long Way
Oxygen and air flow is a crucial part of lighting a fire, that means that trying to get a fire started with the vents or dampers closed will be very difficult. It is always best to open all air vents before attempting to light your charcoal, no matter which type you choose.
Keeping any of your air vents closed will lead to the same problem of smothering. To avoid this, always ensure vents are open and are not clogged by dirt or grease build-up.
It’s fine to partially or fully close vents on the grill once the charcoal is underway and burning well. You might want to adjust the temperature of the fire for specific needs, so altering the air vents is fine in that case.
Remember, though – this should only happen when the charcoal is white or gray and not before, or else closing the vents will have an adverse effect.
Different Charcoal Sizes
As mentioned, you can get briquettes, lump or extruded coal. Briquettes designed perfectly to light quickly, especially if they have paraffin in them.
They will stay lit and burn great because they are all typically the same size. This means that each separate briquette will burn at the same pace as the one next to it, and not create large open spaces that might kill a fire or make it less intense.
Mixing charcoal types is a no-go. If you are struggling to get your charcoal lit and are using a mix of briquettes and lumps, that may well be your problem.
The different burning times of these charcoal types mean that they do not work well together. Similarly, chemicals in charcoals of different brands could be an issue.
What to do if Your Charcoal is not Lighting or Burning Properly
Check to see if you are accidentally mixing two different types of charcoals. If this is the case, pick one you think you would prefer to test them both out separately.
Also, check that you are not mixing brads of charcoal, even if they are the same type. Some charcoals will burn faster due to different chemicals. This could cause issues as the burn will be uneven and may cause the fire to lose strength and die.
Self-Igniting Charcoal Might not Always be a Good Option
Coal lighting difficulties are extremely frustrating, and it’s easy to go with one of the easiest options to overcome it – combustible fluids.
Using a combustible fluid is quick and deemed safe to use, but it had many drawbacks, too. The fluid typically covers the charcoal as a coating, so the moment a flame touches it, it will light up.
The chemicals from the fluid, which are often a mineral spirit, will get into the food you are cooking. Not only that, but using these fluids means that the moment you put a flame to the charcoal, you will breathe in the fumes and chemicals.
Is it Ever a Good Idea to Use Self-Igniting Charcoal?
Self-igniting charcoal does have its place. If you have the patience to wait until the chemicals have burned off the charcoal before cooking, then it is a safe option to use it.
However, you should never use self-igniting charcoal on smokers, as the chemicals will linger in the smoker and line the metal. Using these chemicals inside smokers will have an effect on the flavor of whatever you put inside the smoker chamber.
There are many problems you could be experiencing when your charcoal doesn’t want to light or stay lit.
Going through each of the above points should ensure that the next time you have to start a barbecue, your charcoal will light with ease.
As long as you follow the correct measures depending on your climate and needs, your charcoal-lighting difficulties should be solved.