Publicly, of course, no man needs to be taught how to light a fire. Thousands of years of evolution have hardwired fire-lighting into male brains, but the truth is we could all use a little help from time to time.
With the May bank holidays coming up, no doubt many of us will be retiring to the garden, inviting over the neighbours for the first big barbecue of spring. The last thing any of us wants is to look lost and over-matched when trying to get our barbecue lit. Thankfully, Benjamin Bartlett, author of our popular BBQ: Owner’s Grilling Manual offers a simple refresher course on how to light your barbecue on the first try.
Make sure your wood, charcoal or briquettes are bone dry. If you’re opening a fresh bag of fuel there should be no problem, but if you’re using last season’s coals that have been over-wintering in a damp garage or shed, or logs from a wood pile exposed to the elements, the chances are that the fires of hell won’t get your grill to light. If you do keep charcoal or briquettes for long periods between barbecues store them in an airtight plastic container.
If you can, choose a sheltered spot to set up your grill. Avoid places such as the gap between two houses, which can funnel and magnify the tiniest of drafts into a howling, match-snuffing gale.
Remove all ash, and for a standard-size charcoal barbecue build a pyramid of approximately 30 briquettes in the centre of the fire pan. For larger grills build several pyramids along the length of the trough. This simple step is often ignored because of the mess involved, but a pyramid shape is absolutely crucial to getting your grill going. If you don’t like dirty fingers, keep a gardening glove handy and/or invest in a charcoal starter (see below).
For natural charcoal grills and wood ovens you should build your pyramid around a core of several pages of newspaper scrunched into a ball, and layer the structure with smaller sticks/charcoal pieces closest to the paper and larger logs/charcoal pieces on the outside.
Once you have your fuel properly arranged you can apply the necessary naked flame. Apply it at different points around the pyramid to ensure an even flame; and to avoid burning yourself, start at the point furthest away from you and work backwards.
Finally, it has to be said that however difficult the fuel is to light never douse it in petrol, paraffin, kerosene or any other high octane accelerant. The flash fire from even a small cupful of petrol can reach 50ft into the air and travel much faster than you can duck.