Starting a fire. How hard can it be? Our poorly educated cavemen friends managed to do it way back in yesteryear, so apparently not that hard. But you don’t want to be bashing a couple of rocks together hoping for a spark; you get no cool points for that. How about using the friction of wood to get a few hot embers? No, that’s also crazy talk. What you want is a BBQ fire lighter. And thankfully there are several easy and hassle free options.
But firstly I must say a little bit about fire safety. Yes, I’m the buffoon at work that sign-up for the fire marshal course, so I still have a few horror stories imprinted in my brain and know the importance of being safe around barbecues. But no need for me to reinvent the wheel, the UK fire service website has done all the hard work for me on this, so head over to their site for all the best BBQ fire safety tips – They’re professionals so you can trust their advice.
Ok, enough on BBQ safety for now. I could prattle on about having a first aid kit and what to equip it with for when you get a little burn, which will invariably happen if you’re grilling regularly. Or the risks of poisoning yourself lighting the barbecue with Gas or kerosene. But I’m sure most of you haven’t even clicked to see the fire safety tips I gave you. All you want to know is what are the best BBQ lighters. So without further ado, here are your best options for starting a barbecue!
- 1 Charcoal Chimney
- 2 Electric charcoal starter
- 3 Electric blow lighter – Looftlighter
- 4 Propane blow torch
- 5 Firestarter Cubes
- 6 Special mention – Bison Airlighter
- 7 What not to use for starting a BBQ
- 8 Popular Methods for Lighting Charcoal
- 9 Make your own fire lighters
- 10 How to extinguish coals
Using a charcoal chimney is by far the most popular way of lighting a BBQ for anyone that’s mildly serious about barbecuing. It’s reasonably fast and gives the coal an excellent even heat distribution. As you can see from the image, a charcoal chimney is basically just an oversized tin can with a few alterations. It’s this simplicity that makes the chimney starter a great tool and why many people give making their own chimney a try. It’s a metal tube with a charcoal grill at the bottom. Even if you’re all thumbs you could craft a makeshift BBQ lighter, but at the price they sell for why bother.
How does a charcoal chimney work? I’d say beautifully, but I’m sure you’d like a more scientific answer. Thankfully you don’t need to be an MIT graduate to understand the workings of a charcoal chimney. Heat rises, and fire needs oxygen are the only principles you need to know. So pour charcoal into the top of the pimped up tin can and light the bottom. Simple
Now, the heat from the bottom rises up warming the charcoal above. This causes a vacuum and sucks oxygen in through the bottom – feeding the flames. The result is more hot air, rising faster and more oxygen getting sucked into the fire. Before you know it the top of the chimney is chucking out hot air like a blow torch. So don’t put your hand over the top to check if it’s getting hot, just trust the laws of physics (or chemistry or whatever band of science this falls under) is doing its magic.
I’ll now quickly run through a couple of the other benefits of a chimney starter, but the above description should be enough to want one. So get yourself the best selling chimney on the market, the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter. It can be used as a measuring cup for charcoal, you can also put a wok or frying pan on the top of the chimney to cook a stir fry or other food that needs high heat and as well as this you can place a grill over the top to sear steaks. C’mon, these things are so cheap, if you’re still reading this and not off buying one you’ve lost your mind.
For more information on chimney starters read our best charcoal chimney starters guide.
Electric charcoal starter
An electric charcoal starter brings me little to no excitement; to the point I even find it hard to write about them. Lighting a BBQ is meant to bring out that prehistoric barbarian feel in you. Well not with an electric charcoal starter, this is just too civilized. Is it a great BBQ lighter? Yes, as long as you have an electrical outlet available it does the job excellently. It just makes me feel like a spare wheel, and not involved enough. Which I’m sure for plenty of people is actually a good thing.
All you need to do is pour out some charcoal and shove the charcoal starter in amongst it. And wait. And wait a little more. Of course you could be using this time to be getting on with something a little bit more important, but starting a fire has a hypnotic lure for me, and I love to stand there and watch it. Once the charcoal is started you just remove the starter. Now I think it is an unwritten law that I have to say this next bit as everyone that talks about electric charcoal starters says it. After use, make sure you put the starter somewhere safe, out of reach to children and pets, as it’s extremely hot.
If you want the lazy man’s BBQ lighter you have many options, Char-Broil offer an excellent lighter they call the SureFire Electric Charcoal Starter. For those of you that do your cooking with a Kamado grill then you might like the Kamado Joe Electric Starter, as this has an angled coil that works better in dome-shaped gills.
Electric blow lighter – Looftlighter
If your mom’s curling iron and hair dryer had an illegitimate love child, it’d defo look and act exactly like the electric blow lighters currently available. Many people call these firestarters a Looftlighter. This is actually a brand name, you have others like the Joe Blow from Kamado Joe, but most firms have, to an extent, made them look almost exactly like the Looftlighter that the name has become a generic name.
Blow lighters work in a similar manner to the hair dryer I just mentioned, except the heat it blows out is far greater. Hot enough to have sparks flying from coals in mere minutes.
Propane blow torch
Now we’re talking! Bring out the blow torch. I’m pretty sure even if your food was sub standard some guests would say it was great just because they saw you light up the BBQ with a blow torch. The thinking being you must know what you’re doing if you’re pulling out a flame thrower. And they’d be half right. Many competition pitmasters will light their grill using a propane blow torch, so it’s seen as a tool for professionals.
But anyone can use a blow torch; it isn’t hard. In fact it’s probably the easiest method. How can you not get a BBQ started using one of these? A popular choice, maybe because the name screams flame thrower, is the Red Dragon Propane Vapor Torch Kit with Squeeze Valve. But for anyone other than competition smokers and grillers this is probably overkill – I’m not saying don’t buy one, I personally love overkill. Just be aware that this is more than you need. A better option for the average enthusiast is the Bernzomatic Trigger Start Torch (you’ll also need some Propane Fuel Cylinder), this is handheld and easy to move around with.
Firestarter cubes are an old school classic. Place a few of these around the grill, light them up and away you go. All you need to do now is wait. The good thing about being a classic is that you’ve stood the test of time. You’re clearly not a fad, and people continue to use you because you do the job you’re there to do. The only complaint with firestarter cubes is you might get an uneven heat distribution. But after using them a couple of times you’ll have that worked out. If I was to recommend a cube I’d say you can’t go wrong with Weber Lighter Cubes.
Special mention – Bison Airlighter
Why has the Bison Airlighter got its own special mention? Well I didn’t know what category to add it to. It’s electrical and portable, a flame thrower and an air blower. But in all honesty, if it fills it’s potential it’ll likely be the number one on any “Best BBQ lighter” list.
Unfortunatly I must confess I have never used a Bison Airlighter, only watched as my friend lit his grill. Everything ran extremely smooth and the coals were done a lot faster than I expected. How this isn’t recommended by everyone is a bit shocking. Reading reviews it seems you either love this fire starter or hate it, no in-between. The reason appears to be a quality control issue. If you buy one and it’s in good working order, then you love it. Regrettably many people are getting quality issues, and therefore not only do they not fall in love with the Airlighter, they hate it. Fingers crossed you get a good one.
What not to use for starting a BBQ
liquid fire starters
Back in the day, everyone used some sort of starter fluid to get their coals lit nice and fast (mineral spirits, kerosene, gasoline, or any hydrocarbons). But thankfully we have become more educated thanks to the boffins that studied food science. We now know the liquids soak into the coals and that nasty smell that’s emitted passes into the food. Yuk. And don’t get me started on the health and safety issue these liquids bring with them.
Easy lighting charcoal
Sounds excellent. What can be wrong with easy lighting charcoal? Normally when something is made easier it comes at a cost. The payoff with easy light charcoal is they are soaked in starter fluid. This is even worse than adding liquid starters yourself. Because now the liquid is soaked through to the core of the coal, giving food and the air that disgusting petroleum aroma till the very end.
Popular Methods for Lighting Charcoal
You might be thinking, what do you mean by popular methods for lighting charcoal, you just ran through all the methods above. Just light the coals until they are good and hot and then do your cooking. That’s all good for short grilling session, but there are many people that want a longer session. And this is where you need some tactics. Thankfully this is possible with the two methods below.
The Minion method has nothing to do with them lovable yellow rogues from the cartoons and facebook memes. A Mr. Jim Minion is credited with inventing this method for grilling, hence the name. If you want to read how he came up with this idea in his own words head over to the Weber bulletin board where he answers user’s question.
It’s simple really, you add unlit charcoal to your grill, then place a few hot coals on top. The result is having new coals light up just as the old ones die. This gives incredibly long burn times – up to 18 hours in a Weber Smokey Mountain (the BBQ this system was originally used for).
Light the fuse and watch the flame trickle along till it reaches the end. Except in this case the fuse is a row of charcoal. Often called the snake method, C method or U method. All the names are essentially visual representations of how this method looks to the user. In a circular grill, you’ll spread the coals out in the shape of a C along the outer edge of the grill. Then light one end and the coals next to it will then slowly light until you get to the other end of the C giving you plenty more grilling time.
Make your own fire lighters
This isn’t something I have a lot of experience in. As a boy scout I did this, but as a grown man I’ve never seen the need to make a firestarter. One reason being firestarters are cheap, probably cheaper than making your own once you have purchased all the stuff needed. But mainly because the time and effort it takes. I’m sure I can find something more useful to be getting on with. Of course you might have kids and want to do it as a little project together. If this is the case here a couple of good articles on making your own firestarters. One article from instructables.com and the other from preparednessmama.com
How to extinguish coals
I’ll make a bold prediction here. Every single one of you reading this will know water puts out fires 🙂 Even if you’ve been living under a rock you’ll know this simple fact. But you don’t want to just pour a huge bucketful of water over the coals. For starters, this will likely result in a plume of steam scolding the skin up your arms. Or boiling water gushing out from one of the gaps in the grill, having anyone in sandals that are standing nearby dancing in agony.
One method of using water to extinguish you BBQ is to lightly spray water on the coals. This will still result in stream rising, but far less of it, and with a spray you will be able to keep your hands and arms at a safer distance.
You can also use the more labor intensive method of submerging the charcoal in water. For this you’ll need a metal bucket and some tongs (or a small charcoal shovel). Simply grab a piece of coal with the tongs and dunk it in the bucket filled with water.
The last method (other than just leaving the coals to die out by themselves) is to use the information I gave earlier in this article. Fire needs oxygen to survive. So if you have a BBQ with a lid, just close the lid and all the vents and the coals will suffocate.