How to light a BBQ

Follow our simple steps to get the best out of your charcoal barbecue. Learn how to light the BBQ safely, ways to arrange your coals and when to start cooking.

Barbecue coals on fire

When the summer months start to roll in, there’s no better way to celebrate than by gathering your family and friends for a barbecue. If you’re unsure about how to light the charcoals or worried about burning your kebabs to a crisp, then read our tips on starting a barbecue and how to tell when the coals are ready for cooking.

We've got all the advice you need to get your barbecue off to a sizzling start...

Tips to help you barbecue safely

1. Set up in an open space

You are making a contained fire, so set up your barbecue in an open space away from fences or trees. Have a fire extinguisher or a bucket of water nearby, and keep kids and pets well away. Use long-handled tongs and proper barbecue equipment with insulated handles, or you may burn yourself.


2. Buy good-quality charcoal 

Try and buy good-quality sustainably produced charcoal – look for charcoal made from coppiced wood or Forestry Commission-approved wood. This lights easily, burns better and won’t taint the flavour of the food, unlike charcoals containing accelerants. 


3. Use a chimney starter

Metal barbecue chimney starter

Using one of these tubular starters means you can light charcoal easily with a few sheets of newspaper – the coals will catch and start glowing quickly and easily. A chimney also protects the coals (and you) on a windy day. Once the coals are ready, you can safely and easily tip them into the barbecue. 


4. If you don’t have a chimney, arrange your charcoal in a stack

Push balls of newspaper or natural firelighters (such as wood shavings or wool) between the charcoals. Light the paper and firelighters, and allow the flames to catch and get going in their own time. Then let them die down again – all you’re going to achieve with flames is burnt food. You need ashen coals to cook on.

When a few coals have been lit, the rest will catch on their own, so don’t hurry them along by adding more firelighters. If the heat is starting to die down as you barbecue, add coals to the outside of the barbecue and leave them to flame up and die down before cooking over them.  


5. Know whether you need direct or indirect heat before you start to cook

How you arrange your coals will give you different heat zones and more control over your barbecue. 

Direct heat 

Barbecue cartoon showing directly heated up coals

If you think of a barbecue as a stovetop, lighting an even layer of coal is the equivalent of cooking everything on the highest heat in the hottest pan. Although this direct method might be fine for thin cuts of meat that cook quickly (like burgers and thin-cut steaks), it will cremate anything that needs more time to cook through.

Indirect heat 

Barbecue cartoon showing half heated up coals

Push the coals to one side of the barbecue and keep the other side free to get a range of temperatures – use the coal-free side to cook by indirect heat. Hot coals on just one side also enable you to cook on one half and keep food warm on the other. If you have a kettle BBQ, this is one set-up for indirect low-and-slow cooking of large pieces of meat.

Barbecue with coals arranged with circular gap in the middle

The second way is to sit an old roasting tray in the middle of the barbecue and stack the coals around it, then cook the food on the grill over the tray, again covered by the lid. The heat circulates around the barbecue giving you a hot smoker/spit-roast effect.

Indirect cooking is perfect for larger joints and meat on the bone, such as chickens and lamb. It’s also great for more delicate items, such as fish fillets. Plus it gives some direct heat where the coals are stacked should you want to brown other items quickly. Cooking indirectly means food won’t burn or scorch. 

A little of each

Barbecue cartoon showing partially heated coals in a sloped shape

By sloping the coals you get a gradient of heat from searing hot to sizzling gently. This is useful when barbecuing for a crowd – you can keep things ticking over at one end while cooking at full pelt at the other.

Read more about how to use barbecue coals


6. Learn to recognise when your coals are ready


Barbecue coals lit up

If you try to cook something when the coals aren’t ready, it may overcook or burn – it’s not a risk worth taking. Use our colour code guide to help decide when to start cooking your food:

Black or grey with flames: Not ready yet. Step away, have a beer and relax.

Glowing white hot with red centres (blow very gently to check): Ready for direct heat.

Ashy white but still very
 hot: Ready for indirect
 heat or cooking in the coals.


7. Use a thermometer

Testing the temperature of your food helps to prevent disasters. We like Thermapens, which have a temperature probe that folds away for safe storage in your cutlery drawer.

Meat and halloumi kebab skewers on the barbecue

Find more barbecuing tips and recipes...

Top tips for a successful barbecue
How to barbecue safely
Top 5 family barbecue recipes
Barbecue recipe collection
Barbecue hub page

Do you have any other tips for lighting a barbecue? Leave a comment below...
 

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