I’m at our place in northern Michigan working on the roof, and half-listening to the next-door neighbors. They are entertaining and the host is trying to start a fire in his charcoal grill. He pours the charcoal in, slathers it with lighter fluid, and lights it right away. The flames leap up and a minute later they’re burnt out. He adds some more fluid and lights it up with the same result. Finally, he quits trying to light the charcoal and instead stirs it around every five minutes.

I’m thinking, he’s not going to have a very satisfying fire, and more than likely, the food he plans to cook is going to reflect that.

Lighting a charcoal fire is easy. Here’s how you do it:

Make a pyramid with your charcoal
Pour  some charcoal on one side of the cooker. (I use Kingsford because of its uniform shape, but any charcoal will do.) Make a row of five charcoals opposite the pile close to the edge of the grill. Repeat four more times until you have five rows of five. You should now have a grid of 25 charcoals. Now, add a second layer of  rows with four in each row adding up to 16 charcoals. Add a third layer with rows of three, and a fourth with two rows of two. And, of course a single charcoal on the top.

Use lighter fluid sparingly
You don’t want a fiery conflagration to get your fire started; you just want to get the charcoal lit. Squeeze a modest amount of fluid on each side of the pyramid. Let it sit for a minute or two before trying to light it. Use this time to put your charcoal and lighter fluid away. When you return, use a fireplace match or grill lighter to start the charcoal. Light the pyramid on all four sides at the base. You should see a small flame spread upwards and around the pyramid. Let it burn until it goes out. You should see a rime of white at the edge of some of your charcoal. This means your charcoal is lit.

Leave it alone
The hardest part of cooking with charcoal is letting it alone. The idea is to have all of the charcoal turn to gray. This means it’s ready to cook. It does take some time, however, from a half-hour to forty-five minutes. The pyramid you made with the charcoal will help the process along since it creates a “chimney effect”