How to Light a Grill Without Fear

Grilling is often thought of as a "guy thing" in North America, but as you travel the world's barbecue trail, you find women grill jockeys in many countries. Thailand's fabulous sates are usually cooked by women working over tiny braziers on pushcarts and market stalls. In Mexico, it's women pit masters serving up delicious carnitas (spiced grilled beef on tortillas). But if you haven't been brought up lighting the grill, the process can seem intimidating.

Here are two methods for lighting a grill that are foolproof -- and more importantly, safe.


Charcoal produces a clean, dry, high heat that's perfect for grilling. It also gives you the thrill of working over a live fire. There's a simple device that will help you light a charcoal grill quickly, simply, and safely. It's available at any hardware store or grill shop and it costs only $10 to $15: a chimney starter.

The chimney starter looks like a giant coffee can with the top and bottom cut out and a wire partition in the center. To use a chimney starter, simply crumple up a couple of sheets of newspaper and place them in the bottom (under the wire partition). Fill the top of the chimney starter with charcoal. Be sure the vents in the bottom of your grill are open. Stand the chimney starter in the center of your grill. (Be sure to remove the grate.) Using a match, lighter, or gas stove lighter, light the newspaper in a few spots and watch it catch fire.

In a few minutes, thick, black smoke will start to emerge from the top of the chimney starter. (This is normal.) After 20 minutes or so, the coals in the top of the chimney will glow red. (The beauty of the chimney starter is that it lights the coals evenly.) Protecting your hand and arm with an oven glove, grab the chimney starter by its wooden or plastic handle and dump the coals into the bottom of the grill.

Using a spatula or garden hoe, rake the coals across the bottom of the grill. I like to use a "three zone" configuration for the coals, piling them in a double layer over half the grill bottom, a single layer over the other half, leaving a small patch completely free of coals. This gives you perfect heat control. For high heat, you place the food over the double layer of coals; for medium heat, over the single layer of coals; if the food starts to burn (or when it's cooked), you move it over the section with no coals.

So how do you know when a fire is high, medium, or low. Use the "Mississippi" test. Hold your hand about six inches over the fire. The intense heat of a hot fire will force you to snatch your hand away after about three seconds. (Count "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi".) With a medium fire, you should be able to hold your hands over the coals for five to six seconds. To control the heat, simply move the food back and forth from hot spots to cool spots. Or if you cover your grill -- you should when cooking thick steaks, quarter chickens, and other thick cuts of meat -- adjust the vents in the top and bottom to obtain a temperature of about 350 degrees. (Open the vents to increase the temperature; close them to decrease the temperature.)


The first step when lighting a gas grill is to make sure that the burner controls are set on the off position and the valve on the gas tank is open. (To open the latter, twist the knob counter clockwise.)

On many gas grills, there's one burner that's used for ignition (it will be marked on the control panel or indicated in the instruction book). Turn this burner to high, simultaneously pushing the ignition button, which should respond with a series of clicks. The gas should light with a gentle whoosh. Hold your hand over the burner to make sure it's lit. You should feel heat.

If the burner fails to light, close the burner control, wait a few minutes for the gas to dissipate, and try again. If you have an old or recalcitrant grill, you may need to use a long match (the kind used for lighting fireplaces). Insert the lit match in the burner hole, then gradually turn on the gas. Again, be sure the burner is lit by holding your hand over it.

Once the master burner is lit, you can turn on the other burners. (Again, make sure they light by holding your hand over them.)

Never light a gas grill with the lid down. Unlit gas can accumulate under the lid and explode. And never leave a gas grill on unless the burners are lit and you can feel the heat.

By the way, there's nothing worse than running out of gas when you're cooking a whole chicken or pork shoulder. Be sure to have enough gas and an extra cylinder on hand before you start.

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