Let me begin by pointing out what any diehard griller will tell you – when it comes to starting a charcoal grill, starter fluid is the least favorable, most dangerous way to go. It can give your food a not so delectable, piquant, petroleum-like after taste… and I wouldn’t be surprised if it tops the list for for grilling related expeditions to the emergency room.
Of course, try as you might, there may be times when starter fluid is your only option – such as the annual family cookout at the lake for which Uncle Joe brings one bag of briqs and four bottles of lighter fluid… or a weekend at the beach where you discover that’s all the local grocer carries.
Fortunately, despite its bad rap, you CAN turn out great tasting food on a grill started with starter fluid.
First, double check your fuel. If it’s lump charcoal odds are there’s nothing else added, so you can follow our instructions. If it’s briqs, they may have lighter fluid added. Many manufacturers have designed easy-traveling varieties of briqs where you just need to put the whole bag in the grill and light the bag and that’s it. So check your briqs instructions before buying fluid. If the briqs are just “easy light”, or you don’t light the bag you can follow our instructions.
Place your fuel into the grill (either on the charcoal rack or designated fuel area) and make sure you arrange it to allow for good air flow. Take your lighter fluid of choice and fairly generously spray down the fuel. Let the fuel SIT UNTOUCHED for 3 to 5 minutes, let the lighter fluid soak in first. This is important, letting the lighter fluid soak in helps the charcoal get a good burn going.
Next, add just a little more lighter fluid after waiting, just enough to moisten most of the fuel. Make sure there is NO lighter fluid on your fingers, and then light the moist fuel in 1 to 3 places (whatever you can do without lighting yourself). Replace your cooking racks, wait 10-15 minutes for the fuel to come to heat. You’ll have a good idea its ready when the fuel is ashy white with nice red glowing centers.
Remember, when you’re cooking with charcoal that you’re cooking with super hot ashy white and glowing red coals. If your charcoal is black and has little flames dancing across it, that’s just the lighter fluid burning…
It other words, you’re not ready to cook yet – the coals aren’t hot enough and won’t burn long enough… And resist the temptation to hurry them along or to play with them! Squirting more lighter fluid onto the fire isn’t going to make it get hotter any faster – it just increases the chances that you’ll scorch a finger or hear the phrase “reconstructive surgery” in the near future. Remember, the key trait for cooking with charcoal cooking is PATIENCE. You want to allow enough time for the fluid to completely burn off. Give it a little time, I promise, the rewards will be well worth it.
In the name of safety and common sense, I also feel obligated to mention some of the various other flammable fluids out there – namely anything that comes out of the gas station pump. DO NOT USE THEM!
If you run out of charcoal starter fluid, don’t turn to that gas can you use for your mower… Go to the local Quickie Mart and buy more lighter fluid! While gasoline and its many “I come from a pump” cousins have plenty of additives to help your car run faster and cleaner, gasoline (etc) will have quite the opposite effect on you and your food. Again, while I have doubts it may out right kill you, I’m sure it will hurt you… Besides, who wants their grill and freshly prepared steaks to smell vaguely of exhaust…