How long before cooking should you light a charcoal BBQ?

I was using my charcoal BBQ this evening and wondered if the way I BBQ is the correct way. So I decided to do some research on how long before cooking, a charcoal BBQ should be lit.

After looking across multiple blogs, youtube, forums and speaking to other bbq enthusiasts, this is what I found. A charcoal BBQ should be lit roughly 15-20 minutes before you want to use it, charcoal is ready to grill over when the flames have died down and you are left with glowing red coals that have a gray ash coating. While researching this I came across a few other interesting finds that should help you out.

How long before cooking should you light a charcoal BBQ?

What if I want to start my charcoal BBQ faster than this?

We all know the feeling, you've got hungry family members urging you to get the burgers on the grill. However before you start putting lighter fluid all over your coals please listen to this advice. Using lighter fluid to increase the speed that your coals light is a bad idea, not only is it fairly toxic, the main downside is it will make your food taste like lighter fluid. No one wants that.

The only circumstance in which you can get away with putting your meat on the grill before the coals are completely ready is if the meat is fairly greasy. This grease will drip down onto the coals and cause them to flare up.

This has worked for me in the past while cooking certain steaks, but I’d only do it if you’re really strapped for time. The danger in starting your barbecue without an optimal set of coals is that the heat may not be evenly distributed. If you have flames peering through the top of the grill your food will burn fairly quickly on the outside, but could still be dangerously undercooked on the inside. So overall I try to stick to the 15 to 20 minute rule, or at least until  you have red coals with an ashy exterior.

Should I wait longer for the coals to heat if I’m using a large bbq?

Most of the time if you're cooking for a small family or a small group of friends the best way to light coals is using a chimney starter. However, if you're cooking for a large group of people and have a lot of coals to light, the chimney starter may not have the capacity to hold all the charcoal you need.

That's why if you are cooking on a large barbecue you may need to do a few rounds of charcoal heating before you have enough coals to cover the entire base of the bbq. In this circumstance the total heating time may double or even triple to around 45 minutes.

How long before cooking should you light a charcoal BBQ?

Is there a benefit in waiting longer than 20 minutes for the coals to heat?

The short answer is no, you only need to wait as long as it takes to get an optimal set of coals. However in most cases waiting longer than 20 minutes will do more good than harm, this is because it will usually result in a more even burn across all the coals on the barbecue. This leads to an even heat distribution which allows you to use your grill more effectively. As a rule of thumb though, I would focus less on the time and more on whether the coals are glowing red and have an ashy exterior. Check out this article to learn more about the correct way to heat your coals.


After doing this research I realized that I was starting my barbecues a little too quickly, patience is beneficial in most parts of life and barbecuing is no different. Since I changed this habit my steaks have been coming out much more consistent, and over or under cooking less. I hope this article has helped you out and if you're in the market for a barbecue or just passionate about barbecuing in general please check out the rest of the website and our shop. Thanks for reading.