How to light a BBQ: step-by-step advice for charcoal and gas designs

Learn how to light a BBQ with these tips and get your alfresco meals off to a flying start

how to light a bbq: party with friends in garden
(Image credit: Strauss/Curtis/Getty Images)

Knowing how to light a BBQ properly and safely is a crucial skill if you want to make the most of the warmer weather. Nothing beats a meal of burgers, veggie kebabs or steaks cooked out in the open air – especially when you've invited family and friends round to share it with.

But, there's no use investing in one of the best BBQs if you're not sure how to fire it up in the first place. After a few failed attempts it's easy to feel disheartened and give up altogether, leaving you and your guests feeling peckish and your BBQ bash a wash-out. But we're here to help – whether you've opted for a gas or charcoal model, we've got the tips on how to get it going quickly and easily. 

Once you've learnt how to light a BBQ, you'll be cooking up a storm in no time. And, we've got plenty of extra tips and tricks below too, to ensure your alfresco cooking is at the top of its game.

How to light a BBQ: the different types available

man cooking on bbq

Need to know how to light a BBQ? Different types require different methods

(Image credit: Weber)

Different types of outdoor grill ideas have different processes when it comes to lighting them. As the experts at Weber say, a charcoal barbecue is the most manual, but once you've got the know-how it's really not too tricky. Plus, there are various lighting aids which make it even more straightforward.

If your garden features a gas or electric grill instead, then these are usually even easier to get going – generally with a flick of a switch or push of a button. However, there's an art to getting them to the right temperature, as Weber adds.

Which type of charcoal should you use for your BBQ?

close-up image of lit charcoal on bbq

Use lumpwood or briquette charcoal for your BBQ

(Image credit: Bar-Be-Quick)

So you're wondering how to light a BBQ of the charcoal variety. First things first, you'll need to decide whether you want to use lumpwood charcoal or briquettes. 

Lumpwood charcoal is made from uncompressed material – usually cherry, coconut shells, mesquite and tamarind – as explains the team at Char-Broil. It burns hotter and faster, and makes less ash. It's also a good choice for low and slow cooking methods, as it's more difficult to distribute evenly, explains the team.

However, whilst lumpwood charcoal heats up faster, briquettes stay hotter for longer, explains Weber. As Char-Broil says, they tend to be made primarily from sawdust, and are a uniform shape, making the heat easier to regulate. They're a good choice for quick-cooking food such as steak or fish.

Both types of charcoal need slightly different approaches for lighting, with briquettes often taking longer to reach a point where they're ready to cook on, as explains Bar-Be-Quick. Either way, as long as you light them at least 30 minutes before you plan to start cooking, you should be fine, they add.

How to light a charcoal BBQ with a chimney starter

chimney charcoal starter on bbq

A chimney starter is an easy solution if you're looking for tips on how to light a BBQ

(Image credit: NAPA/Alamy Stock Photo)

Going for briquette charcoal for your BBQ? One quick and easy way to get them alight is to use a chimney starter. Weber shares their tips:

  1. First, take out the cooking grate.
  2. Measure out the appropriate amount of charcoal using the briquette scoop (often included with charcoal barbecues) and pour into the chimney starter.
  3. Light three lighter cubes on the coal grate.
  4. Then, position your chimney starter over the top of the cubes.
  5. Wait until flames appear at the top of the chimney starter. This means that the charcoal beneath is glowing. It should take around 10–15 minutes. By this time, the top pieces will have started to turn slightly grey with ash.
  6. When it's ready, carefully pour the glowing charcoal into the grill basket.
  7. Arrange the pieces into position with tongs (our best BBQ tools buying guide has some great picks if you're after an update). Then, replace the cooking grate and you're good to go.

How to light a charcoal BBQ with wood wool

how to remove rust from grills and barbecues: portable grill from Gardenesque

Wood wool is another useful way to get charcoal briquettes alight. BBQ by Gardenesque

(Image credit: Gardenesque)

You can also use wood wool starters with charcoal briquettes. Bar-Be-Quick explains how to light a BBQ in this way:

  1. Start by placing your briquettes evenly across the bottom of your barbecue (with the cooking grill removed).
  2. Place three or four pieces of wood wool in the center.
  3. Next, place the briquettes on top and around the wood wool, creating a small mound in the center of your barbecue.
  4. Light the wood wool and wait for the briquettes to start turning white – around 20 minutes.
  5. When they're almost entirely white, spread them out evenly using tongs and place the cooking grill back on, ready to use.

How to light a charcoal BBQ using lighting gel

coals on grate on BBQ

If you need to know how to light a BBQ, then lighting gel can be a useful addition

(Image credit: Bar-Be-Quick)

If you're using charcoal briquettes, you can also learn how to light a BBQ using lighting gel. This method takes around 30 minutes. Bar-Be-Quick explains how it's done:

  1. Create a small circle of briquettes in the center of your barbecue (with the cooking grill removed).
  2. Squirt on the lighting gel to cover the central area of the circle.
  3. Place a few more briquettes onto the area you've covered in lighting gel to create a small mound.
  4. Add a little more lighting gel on top of the mound, and then place the remaining briquettes around the edges.
  5. Light the gel using a long match or long-reach lighter and wait for the briquettes to start to turn white.
  6. Once they're almost white, spread the briquettes out evenly with tongs, and pop the grill back on. Time to get cooking!

How to light instant lumpwood charcoal for your BBQ

how to light a BBQ using lumpwood charcoal in a bag

Instant lumpwood charcoal is simple to light

(Image credit: Bar-Be-Quick)

You may prefer to use lumpwood charcoal for cooking up a storm in your outdoor kitchen ideas. Many kinds come pre-wrapped in a paper bag, and all you need to do is set the bag alight. Bar-Be-Quick explains how to do so: 

  1. Remove the inner bag of charcoal (some packs have more than one bag depending on their size).
  2. Shake the bag to separate and even out the contents, and then lay it flat in the bottom of your barbecue.
  3. Using a match or long-reach lighter, ignite the corners of the bag.
  4. After a while, the flames will stop and the charcoal will begin to turn white – around 15-20 minutes. When this happens, place the cooking grill back on, ready for action.

How to light a charcoal BBQ using newspaper

If you want to know how to light a BBQ and are using charcoal (either lumpwood or briquettes), you can also use recycled newspaper to get it going. It's an ideal choice if you're after cheap garden ideas. Char-Broil explains how to do it:

  1. Insert rolled-up newspaper beneath closely-packed charcoal in several different spots.
  2. Light the newspaper with a long match or long-reach lighter.
  3. Keep adding newspaper to the fire, in small amounts at a time, until the charcoal is well-lit.
  4. Leave the flames to die down and the charcoal to begin to turn white. Then, level it out into an even layer with tongs, and replace the cooking grate.

With this technique, be careful not to add too much newspaper at a time. And, as with all fires, keep a close eye on it at all times to prevent hazards.

Do you close the lid when starting a charcoal BBQ?

big green egg bbq on outdoor table

Big Green Egg BBQs are a great choice for outdoor chefs

(Image credit: Big Green Egg)

When lighting and arranging your charcoal, keep your barbecue's lid open, as suggests Char-Broil. The fire needs oxygen from airflow to survive. Likewise, keep the vents open until it's time to cook – you can then adjust them to control the temperature.

Once the coals are well-lit and ready to cook on, you can close the lid if you wish. This is good to do if you're using thick cuts of meat, to ensure they cook all the way through.

How much charcoal will you need for your barbecue?

how to light a bbq for a party with friends

Everyone loves a spot of alfresco dining – just make sure you know how to light a BBQ before inviting your guests round

(Image credit: Strauss/Curtis/Getty Images)

'How much charcoal will I need is one of the most common questions we get asked,' says the team at Bar-Be-Quick. 'However, what you really need to think about first is what you're intending to cook, how long it's going to cook, and for how many people.'

You'll also need to factor in the size of your grill and the method that you're using, as this will also affect the quantity of charcoal needed.

Bar-Be-Quick have packaged their charcoal specifically to help with this, they explain. For instance, one inner pack of their 2-Pack or 4-Pack Instant Light bags is right for a family meal of sausages, chicken, and burgers on a small portable barbecue.

'If you have a larger family-sized kettle or barrel BBQ, you’ll need to use the full 2-Pack,' they add. 'On average, one inner pack will easily cook for up to 90 minutes without any top-ups.' If you're not sure, check your chosen product's packet for instructions.

'The basic rule is the more coal you use, the hotter your fire,' adds the experts at Char-Broil. For food like burgers and hot dogs, you'll need less heat (and therefore less charcoal) than if you're cooking steak – a single layer across the bottom will work just fine. For steak, at least double the amount of charcoal.

If you're going for briquettes, Char-Broil suggests using around 30 for smaller grills, and 50–75 for larger barrel barbecues. If it's windy or rainy, you may need more.

How to light a gas BBQ

gas weber bbq

Gas BBQs are super easy to start up

(Image credit: Weber)

Not everyone owns a charcoal-fuelled barbecue. Some opt for one of the best gas BBQs instead. As the experts at Weber say, these don't require any additional lighting materials except for their gas fuel. However, there's still some useful tips you should know to get the temperatures optimum for cooking:

  1. Open the lid, then the gas cylinder valve.
  2. Turn the first controller to 'high'. Then, wait two to three seconds for the gas to accumulate in the ignition chamber.
  3. Push the igniter button to get the burner going. As soon as the first burner heats up, turn the other burners to 'high', too.
  4. Close the lid and preheat the grill to the temperature you need.
  5. When it's at optimum temperature, place your food onto the cooking grate. Adjust the gas supply to the burners where needed whilst it cooks.

How to light an electric BBQ

electric bbq at summer picnic

An electric BBQ is ideal if you're after a low-maintenance solution

(Image credit: Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo)

If you're after low maintenance garden ideas, then an electric barbecue is a fabulous addition. There's no coal or ash to deal with, and you don't need to bother with gas, either. Weber explains how to light a BBQ if you're opting for this type of design:

  1. Plug the barbecue into a socket.
  2. Turn the controller to 'high'.
  3. Let it heat up for 25 minutes or so with the lid on, until it reaches the desired temperature for cooking.

More top tips for lighting and using BBQs

family cooking around a bbq

A properly lit grill will reward you with deliciously-cooked goodies, so it's well worth learning how to light a BBQ

(Image credit: Weber)

Looking for more advice to make your barbecue the star of the show for your garden party ideas? Try these expert tips:

  • If you want to get a little more creative with your cooking, try adding wood chips to the fire. It's an easy way to give your recipes a boost and infuse them with wood smoke flavors, as says Char-Broil.
  • Weber suggests to always use a barbecue thermometer to check the temperature of your food before serving, to ensure it's done to your liking.
  • Bar-Be-Quick suggests to vary the temperatures on a barbecue by moving the charcoal. Try simply sloping the coals over to one side rather than just spreading them across the whole grill grate. A lid will also help with indirect cooking by maintaining a steady temperature.
  • Remember to keep your barbecue clean and rust-free for the best results – our guides on how to clean a BBQ and how to remove rust from grills and barbecues are full of tips.
  • As tempting as it might be, avoid using lighter fluid due to the fumes and fire hazards, as explains Char-Broil. Lighter fluid is generally made of petroleum or alcohol, and can affect the taste and smell of your food as well as being bad for the environment when burnt. However, now that you've learnt how to light a BBQ, you'll know that there are lots of alternative solutions for a safe and delicious alfresco experience.