My Charcoal Won't Stay Lit When Grilling Or Smoking

Grilling and smoking food is really fun, but when I first got my charcoal smoker, I always struggled to light the charcoal because it just wouldn’t stay lit. It was super annoying. I felt like giving up, but I didn’t. Instead, I started talking to people who know a lot about BBQ, like pitmasters and others in the BBQ community. They were super helpful, sharing tips and tricks that they’ve picked up over the years. They shared a bunch of tips with me, and after trying different things for about 1 week, I finally figured out how to keep my charcoal burning well.

Now, I want to share what I learned with you. If you’re struggling to keep your charcoal lit, don’t worry. I’ve been there, and I’ve got some insights that might just make your grilling experience a lot smoother. Stick with me, and let’s get that charcoal burning just right!

Common Reasons Charcoal Won’t Stay Lit (Troubleshooting )

Insufficient Airflow

When you’re ready to start grilling with charcoal, the first step is to ensure all the dampers on your grill or smoker are fully open. Think of dampers as the gatekeepers of air for your grill.

air follow of smoker

Before striking a match or using a firelighter, double-check that these gates are wide open to invite a steady flow of oxygen. Oxygen is like the lifeblood for your charcoal; without enough of it, your charcoal simply won’t stay lit.

As your charcoal begins to glow and turn white-hot, that’s your cue to adjust the dampers slightly. This doesn’t mean closing them all the way but just enough to control the heat. This control is crucial for cooking your food evenly, giving you that perfect grill every time.

Moisture in Charcoal

Moisture in charcoal can mess up your grilling plans. It makes the charcoal hard to light and keep burning.

If you are going to use charcoal which is damp or wet, it won’t light properly. Always use dry charcoal in your grill or smoker. Charcoal’s nature is similar to a sponge; it can soak up moisture from the air around it. This can happen even if you keep your charcoal in a place like a patio, shed, garage, or basement to keep it from getting rained on. When charcoal gets moist, it burns slower and might not stay lit. as well when it’s wet, it’s much harder to light. Even if you do get it lit, it won’t burn as hot or as long as it should.

particle of water on coal

To keep your charcoal dry, store it in a container that’s airtight and put it somewhere dry. Charcoal is porous and can easily pick up moisture from damp places. Before you start your grill, check the charcoal to make sure it’s not damp. If it feels wet, it’s best not to use it.

To avoid this, I’ve found a way to dry out damp charcoal that works well. If it’s a sunny day, spread the charcoal out in the sun for a few hours to dry it out. If there’s no sun, you can try heating the charcoal in a metal container or on your grill at a low temperature. This helps get rid of the moisture before you turn up the heat for grilling.

Ash Build-Up

Ash build-up is something you’ll often see when you’re grilling with charcoal, and it can make keeping your charcoal lit a bit of a challenge. The problem with ash is that it can block the flow of air. It can fill up the air vents and the spaces between the pieces of charcoal.

pre built ash pan

Different kinds of charcoal make different amounts of ash. For example, charcoal briquettes usually make more ash than lump charcoal does. If your grill isn’t getting hot enough or seems to be heating unevenly, it might be because ash is getting in the way.

To deal with this, try using charcoal that doesn’t make as much ash, especially if you’re planning to grill for a long time. I always go for hardwood lump charcoal, like oak, hickory, or mesquite. These types don’t leave as much ash behind. There are also other kinds, like bamboo or Japanese Binchotan charcoal, that are good because they produce even less ash than briquettes.

Before you start grilling, check the bottom of your grill. If there’s ash from the last time, clean it out. Otherwise, when you start barbecuing, any water that drips might make the ash wet, and wet ash is harder to clean and can stick to your grill.

Poor Quality Charcoal

One big reason why your charcoal might not stay lit is if you’re using low-quality charcoal or the wrong type of wood charcoal. This affects how well it burns.

For instance, the best charcoal in the world, known as binchotan from Japan, is made from hard oak. It can burn super hot, up to 300 degrees, without making any smoke.

But not all charcoal is the same. There are many types out there. Some are easy to light and keep burning, while others are not.

quality coal

If you’re having trouble with your charcoal going out, it’s important to check what kind you’re using. Charcoal mainly comes in two forms: lump charcoal and briquettes, and the type of wood used makes a difference.

Avoid using charcoal made from seasoned cooking wood, as it might have more moisture, which can lower the heat and affect the flavor. Instead, go for dried chunks that catch fire quickly and also add a nice taste to your food.

Sometimes, people go for the cheaper or low-quality charcoal to save money. But, this can actually make grilling harder and might not save money in the long run.

Cheap charcoal, which has less carbon, won’t stay lit easily. That’s why I recommend using charcoal made from fruitwoods, oak, hickory, or mesquite. Good charcoal usually says “100% hardwood” or “natural” on the bag. These hardwoods are better at keeping your charcoal burning.

If you pick the best option you won’t have to worry about the fire going out or bad tastes on your food. Plus, even though high-quality charcoal might cost a bit more, it usually lasts longer.

Improper Lighting Technique

Not lighting your charcoal the right way can cause it to go out too soon. Using the right method makes it more likely for the charcoal to stay lit.

An improper lighting technique can lead to a lot of frustration, with charcoal that burns out too quickly or doesn’t get hot enough.

Placing your charcoal upright, instead of just laying it flat on your grill or smoker, helps it burn better. But if you only put charcoal at the bottom, some pieces might not stay lit long enough to cook your food properly.

I like to use a common grilling accessory called a chimney starter. I fill it with charcoal, set it on my smoker, and light it from the bottom. In about 5 to 15 minutes, the charcoal is ready to cook with.

chimney which i use

If you’re not arranging your charcoal and just lighting it any old way, try stacking it up instead. This method makes it easier and faster to light. If the charcoal scatters, just stack it up again.

Lighting charcoal wrong can waste a lot of time and effort. Not using enough lighter fluid, starter cubes, or newspaper can make the charcoal light up slowly and go out fast.

My go-to method is to use a chimney starter because it lights charcoal really well. If you don’t have a chimney, stacking your charcoal in a pyramid shape helps get the heat going and makes it easier to light. If you’re using lighter fluid, spread it evenly and give it a minute to soak into the charcoal before lighting. But be careful not to use too much lighter fluid, as it can be dangerous. Plus, it can cause the charcoal to burn too fast and unevenly. Alternatively, you can use natural starters like wood shavings or wax fire starters.

Environmental Conditions

Even if you’ve got the best, driest charcoal, you know how to light it properly, and your grill is clean, sometimes the charcoal still won’t stay lit. This could be because of humidity. Humidity in the air can make your coals damp, and damp coals are hard to keep lit.

We can’t change the weather outside, but don’t worry, you don’t need to switch to an electric or gas grill. There are still ways to grill or smoke with charcoal on a humid day.

  • First, use dry lump charcoal and stack it up. This should help it stay lit, even when it’s humid.
  • Next, find a spot to grill that’s protected from the worst of the weather but still has plenty of fresh air.
  • Finally, aim to get your grill hot, between 450° and 550° degree of F. At these temperatures, humidity won’t mess with your grilling too much.

Insufficient Quantity of Charcoal

Sometimes, the reason your charcoal keeps going out could be because you’re not using enough of it. Whether you’re grilling or smoking, you need a good amount of hot coals to cook your food properly. Not using enough charcoal is a simple mistake, but it can really change how well your grilling goes.

So, to keep your charcoal grill lit, you’ll need to adjust the amount of charcoal you use. For grilling, you might need less charcoal because it’s usually quicker. But for smoking, which takes more time and is done at a lower temperature, you’ll need more charcoal to keep the heat going for longer.

Wrap it up

Whether you are grilling or smoking, following these tips can make it easier for everyone to keep the charcoal lit. I have also followed each of these steps perfectly whenever it’s my duty to smoke food.

So the next time you find yourself standing before a grill, charcoal in hand, embrace the challenge. With the insights and tips from this guide, you’re well-equipped to ensure that your charcoal burns bright and steady, paving the way for countless memorable meals and gatherings.

Frequently Asked Questions

What should I do if my charcoal won’t light?

Ensure you’re using a proper lighting technique, such as a chimney starter. Also, check if the charcoal is damp or of poor quality, and make sure there is adequate airflow in the grill. These are the most common factors that can cause charcoal not to light.