Charcoal grills have been a mainstay of backyard grilling for generations. While for the most part, charcoal hasn’t changed much, the changes that have occurred are significant, especially given a more health conscious society at large.
In some respects, even how we light a charcoal grill has changed and now consumers have more options concerning the charcoal choices. Thereby creating a situation where you might require more information in order to make a more informed choice. The physical act of lighting charcoal is easy and with a charcoal chimney, even easier but getting the right charcoal and then getting it lit can be a process.
What Exactly Is Charcoal?
Charcoal is essentially a mass of carbon that contains trace elements of other materials and ash. Depending on the charcoal, the individual pieces can contain up to 95 percent carbon. There are a wide array of different types of charcoal but for grilling purposes, the most commonly found are charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal, with variations in both composition and lighting properties. Most charcoal is made by heating wood in the absence of oxygen while some are created using heat and various acids to remove other chemicals. Additionally, some charcoal products have added wood elements for specific flavoring.
Knowing Your Charcoal Type
By far, the most common charcoal on the market is the briquette type. This pillow shaped charcoal is a pressed shape that is made using different fillers, starch, borax, sodium nitrate, limestone and potentially other chemicals as needed to produce specific results. Additionally, often to these are added raw sawdust. What is important is that not all the chemicals in charcoal are consumed during the combustion process and thus these particulates can land on your food. For some, the solution to this is to use lump charcoal that is made from hardwood. While the lump charcoal does not have the fillers that promote quick lighting, it is quick to catch even without the use of a chimney. Of lump charcoal, there are different types such as Japanese charcoal that produce very little ash and others that might suit your specific grilling style.
Using a Chimney
Charcoal chimneys are essentially a cylinder with air inlet holes at sides and open on both the bottom and top. Even with lighting aids or quick start charcoal and fluids, there is a heat curve that comes with all charcoal. This means that after the charcoal is lit, that the flame has to spread in such a way as to begin combustion of all the pieces. As the processes occur, more heat is generated until finally all the charcoal is ready and the heat content being produced will effectively cook the food. To allow this process to occur as fast as possible, a chimney is typically used. Once the charcoal has been readied, all one has to do is lift the cylinder and the charcoal fall out into place and you are ready to grill. Using a chimney is simple, add charcoal and light through one of the air holes on the side. Once the charcoal has reached a near-white condition, lift and begin to grill.
You don’t have to use a chimney and some purists prefer to not as they like to build their charcoal spread to their liking. The process is to lay out the charcoal in either a multiple layer spread or to build a mound from the charcoal. At which point you may use a lighter fluid or you can use the traditional method of using a small stick with a lit end and apply it to the underneath of the mound or spread until the charcoal catches. Using a chimney is faster but for some the ability to specifically construct the charcoal into the desired pattern offsets the need for speed. As both offer advantages and disadvantages, it boils down to personal preference as to which one to use.
About Lighter Fluid
Many people use lighter fluid and some even with a charcoal chimney. However, like with briquettes not all the fluid is consumed in the combustion process leaving a chemical residue that will land on your food. Many people can taste the fluid on their food and for most it isn’t necessarily an overwhelming taste and many have come to expect it from grilled food. Still, these chemicals can be hazardous and if possible use only a sparingly amount or use a chimney where there is no actual requirement to use lighting fluid.
Lighting a charcoal grill is easy, build charcoal mound or spread and apply heat source. You can use a charcoal chimney or use lighting fluid. There is some charcoal that is specifically designed to be fast lighting and use a chemical similar to lighting fluid to facilitate this process.
The main concern is using too much fluid and then causing a flash fire, so the recommended suggestion is to use just a small amount to get the initial charcoal started and then let nature take its course. Grilling is a great way to enjoy time with friends and family but always practice a safety first approach to any grill.