Grit Blogs > Arrows and Minnows

Saving Money: Lighting Charcoal Grill Efficiently

By Caleb Regan, Managing Editor

Tags: Outdoor Cooking, Grilling, Outdoor Cooking, Electric Fire Starter,

A portrait of GRIT Assistant Editor Caleb Regan, with a puny catch.I’ve blogged in the past about being a charcoal guy, about my love for cooking outside over Kingsford briquettes – be it smoking a pork butt or grilling chicken. What I didn’t share at the time was a major way I conserve charcoal. 

My brother went gas a year or so back; I think he was at a furniture store and they had a nice gas grill for cheap, so he went with it. And, at first, everything was great and he praised the quick-light feature, ease of the process and affordability of propane. 

However, grease fires started burning some of his meat as the grill aged, sufficiently so that now he’s again talking about going back to charcoal. The only real knock on charcoal in my eyes – coming from a guy who cooks about 50 percent of his meals over charcoal, and not much less than 50 percent during winter – is that the charcoal gets pricey. 

In and of itself, it’s not too bad, but when I’m using original briquettes – I hate the idea of the match-start briquettes being packed with chemicals – the lighting and extinguishing of the fire is where I lose most of my cost. Think about it, how much time is the meat actually above the fire? On burgers, it’s around 8 minutes a side, so that’s 16 minutes total to cook my food for that meal. 

In my younger days, I used some form of charcoal lighter fluid, and I still will if I’m in a pinch. Contrary to some people’s experiences, my food doesn’t ever taste like lighter fluid. However, I always error on the side of burning the Phenol distillates off way to much – it’s my way of being absolutely positive my food won’t taste like chemicals. When you do this, and I’m talking letting the briquettes turn grey, you lose a lot of an expensive cooking resource (the briquettes). 

There’s a couple of alternatives that can and will save you money if you cook a lot of your meals on charcoal: the chimney and the electric starter. Recently, I’ve started using the Looftlighter Fire Lighting Tool, and it’s already saved me on charcoal. Before, when using lighter fluid, I was getting one meal out of one charcoal load. Now I’m getting three uses for regular meals, and two for meals where I’m slow-cooking over indirect heat. 

The Looftlighter in action. It works best if you get under the top layer of briquettes; thinking of aiming it into the gaps and lighting the core. 

So with this tool, I’ve cut my charcoal use to between one-half and one-third, and an 8-pound bag of charcoal has lasted me longer than ever before. It’s a pricey tool, retailing for about $80 on Amazon. But when you consider how much charcoal it saves (and obviously lighter fluid) it pays for itself quickly, especially if you're the type who gets out under the sky and cooks three or four meals a week. 

How it saves so much charcoal might not be evident from the outset, but when you consider that you can light your fire – I’ve found it’s about a minute of lighting time for grilling, minute and a half for smoking – shake the coals and immediately put your meat on the grill, that’s where the big difference is. Whereas before, I’d let the fire burn for a good 10 minutes until my charcoals were grey, I use the Looftlighter, ignite the coals, and get right to the cooking. About 16 minutes later on a burger, I remove my meat and shut the air vents on my little Weber Smokey Joe, a very efficient and airtight grill. 

If you talk to Hank Will, he’s a proponent of the chimney, which is also cool and you can make one yourself for a lot cheaper than the Looftlighter. But the Looftlighter, so far, has saved me significant money and time. 

I even found myself thinking to myself, Now, if only the charcoal didn’t make my hands all black every time I reuse it … but then I realized what I was saying, thought about what my homesteading forefathers would say about me complaining about dirty hands, shook my head and laughed at myself. 

Caleb Regan and his wife, Gwen, live in rural Douglas County, Kansas, where they enjoy hunting, fishing, and raising and growing as much of their own food as they can. Caleb can’t imagine a better scenario than getting to work on a rural lifestyle magazine as a profession, and then living that same lifestyle right in the heartland of America. Connect with him on .