Lighting a barbecue
There are two primary methods for lighting a barbecue; Using a starter chimney or in the grill. My preference is to use a starter chimney as I believe this to be a quicker and more reliable method to get the charcoal to a consistent cooking temperature. With the starter chimney you will also more readily have a measure for the amount of charcoal you are using for a barbecue. In the recipe section of this website I will reference the amount of charcoal against the volume of the starter chimney. However, you may not have a starter chimney but you do have some meat in the fridge, a bag of charcoal and some friends turning up in an hour or so.
Just to point out what some may consider the obivous. You are now lighting a fire. Be careful to do so on a surface that won't catch light, is not close to something that can catch light or indeed under something that can catch light.
Lighting charcoal in a starter chimney
The starter chimney needs to have lumpwood charcoal or charcoal briquettes placed into it. Let's not mess around at this stage. If you fill the starter chimney right up you will have somewhere between 1 hour to 5 hours cooking depending on the type of grill you have and what type of cooking you are going to do. For the point of reference we will, at this stage, assume you are using a kettle grill. The range in cooking time will in that case be determined by whether you are going to cook with the lid on or off. And that is decided by the type of food you are going to cook. For more about this take a look at the recipe section of this website.
To get the charcoal burning in the starter chimney you have two further choices. The first is my preferred method. It works everytime and without fail;
- Fill the starter chimney with the required amount of charcoal
- On a stone/concrete base Take two pieces of firelighter and start them going about 10cm or 4" apart
- Place the starter chimney over the firelighters
- In the next few minutes the fire starts to get going. It maybe smokey at first, as the moisture in the charcoal is driven off
You can use newspaper to light the starter chimney however, in my opinion it is unreliable and creates more mess. Give it a go if you like but the firelighters are a sure thing when it comes to getting your starter chimney underway.
While the charcoal is catching this is a great time to empty your barbecue of any debris from a previous barbecue. Take a look at barbecue care if you haven't already. This gives you a quick guide for what to do. With the barbecue clean you can set up the charcoal retainers if you have them. As an approximate guide place these at some where between a 1/4 and 1/3 from the edge of the barbecue.
Depending on how much charcoal you are using it will be ready in about 20-30 minutes. The smoke will clear after about 10 minutes and the heat will increase, look for the charcoal on the top of the starter chimney to show a grey, ash finish, the charcoal is ready to be transfered to the barbecue.
Carefully tip the contents of the starter chimney into the barbecue. Place the hot coals either between the charcoal retainers or at the outside edge of the barbedue usiung the retainers to stop the charcoal falling back into the middle of the barbecue. Doing this creates cooler areas on the barbecue grill. This will help to slow down a cook if it is starting to go too fast or to keep food warm while you cook more. Place the cooking grill on to the barbecue, you are ready to begin barbecue.
Lighting charcoal in the barbecue
With the barbecue clean you can set up the charcoal retainers if you have them. As an approximate guide place these at some where between a 1/4 and 1/3 from the edge of the barbecue on the charcoal grate. Place two or three firelighters on the grate and begin to place charcoal around them. Make sure there is access to the firelighter so you can light it. If you are going to be grilling in the centre of the barbecue placing firelighters slightly offset from centre makes it a little easier to each the firelighter with an extra long match.
If you are going to cook on one side of the barbecue you can still offset the firelighters so they can easily be lit. The charcoal can and will catch even if it isn't all piled over the top of the firelighters.
The charcoal will begin to catch and it maybe smokey at first. Soon enough the smoke will clear and the charcoal will appear grey with a light ash covering. You will see and feel the heat. You can place the cooking grill on to the barbecue, you are ready to begin barbecue.
Need more charcoal?
Sometimes you will need to add extra charcoal. This could be because you want to cook in two sessions or you don't have enough charcoal to cook all that you want. To add more charcoal is easy and there are two ways to do this. Remove all food, if it is partially cooked put it somewhere safe and observe food hygiene.
With the barbecue clear, carefully remove the cooking grill and place it somewhere safe. Take some additonal charcoal and add it on top of the charcoal that is already burning. Replace the cooking grill and wait for it to reach cooking temperature.
Keep your barbecue going by adding more charcoal if necessary
If you are in a hurry or the barbecue has almost burnt out you can start some more charcoal in a starter chimney. Once this is hot and ready to go just remove the cooking grill, tip the content out and replace the food grill. You can then continue cooking straight away.
Low and Slow lighting
Low and slow requires less heat to cook but heat is necessary to keep the the lower heat for a longer period. This technique is only going apply if you have a kettle barbecue or a smoker. I Low and Slow in a kettle purely because I don't have space for a smoker and kettle barbecue. But, my Low and Slow is, even I do say so, very good. Well, I don't just say it. My guests say it too and it's definetly a favourite of mine. If you are cooking for a large group of people a Low and Slow pork shoulder will be as pleasing (maybe more if your guests are willing to try new things or know how good pulled pork is) as a hot roast loin of pork or a beef rib.
Use the starter chimney method to begin the barbecue. Place some unlit charcoal on the clean grate. Once the starter chimney charcoal is up to cooking temperature tip the hot coals in to the barbecue. The unlit charcoal will catch as the barbecue goes on providing fuel for several hours. This is sometimes refered to as the Minion Method.
The Minion method works well as it doesn't have a large amount of charcoal all burning at the same time. If you do put unlit charcoal on top of the hot charcoal that you tipped into the barbecue with the starter chimney, be prepared to have to work harder with the barbecue vents. To learn more about Low and Slow cooking take a look at the the Low and Slow Techniques page.