Monday, June 11, 2012

How to Make a BBQ- No Coals, No Lighter Fluid, No Cost

I like playing with fire. Always have, probably always will. And fortunately, I'm good at it. A few months ago, our family had a BBQ with some friends. I left my husband with the grill and the charcoal to start the fire, then went to socialize. About half an hour later, I came back to see what was doing with the fire, and lo and behold, there was no fire... My husband wasn't having much success lighting it.
We ended up borrowing a few "self lighting" coals from someone else, and he still wasn't having much luck.
Eventually, I asked him if I could take over, and after a bit of futzing around, I got the fire lit. But it wasn't so easy, because coals don't catch on fire easily, even the "self lighting" coals that we borrowed weren't catching on fire easily. 

Yesterday, spur of the moment, we decided to have a barbecue with some friends. After my last experience using coals, I didn't particularly want to use coals- they make the barbecue more expensive, they are harder to use, in my opinion, and they're missing all the fun of a true barbecue... On top of that, coals soaked with lighter fluid have chemicals in them that I'd rather not go into my food.
I'd rather make my BBQ with wood I gather myself than with store bought charcoal.

I made my barbecue yesterday using only found wood, and while set up took a bit longer than setting up a charcoal grill, once I struck the flame, the whole thing was in flames within a few seconds, much, much, much faster and easier than trying to get a stubborn charcoal barbecue lit...

My husband, having gone camping plenty of times before, and having made lots of bonfires in his life... looked quite skeptically at me when I told him what I was planning on doing, but after seeing how quickly it lit up, admitted that my method was cool and worked very well...
So I figured, maybe not everyone knows this method of lighting fires without lighter fluid or charcoal, why not share it? You can use it just to make a bonfire, or you can use it to make a cooking fire, as we did yesterday.

Credit goes partially to my mother, for teaching me how to make fires when we used to go on our yearly camping trips.

How to Build a Perfect Fire Without Lighter Fluid

1. Start by gathering your wood. You want your wood to be a range of thicknesses, with a decent amount of thin sticks not much thicker than toothpicks, all the way to bigger logs and boards, making sure to have a decent amount of each size, but the most of the thicker pieces. One thing important to know is that thin sticks light up quicker, but burn out quicker, and thicker pieces burn longer, but take longer to catch on fire. In order to have a successful flame, you first need to light thin sticks on fire, which then burn the thicker sticks, which burn the thicker sticks, etc... which will end up burning a while, long after the thinner sticks burn out.
All the wood you gather needs to be dry, dead wood. If the wood doesn't crack when you break it, it's usually to moist to use.
You can use sticks that fell from nearby trees and you can use wooden boards; if you use boards, make sure that they're not coated with plastic or treated- wooden pallets are usually good for this. We have construction going on near our house with lots of broken pallet pieces in varying sizes lying around. We used that for the majority of our firewood.

2. Sort out the wood in order of thickness. Break branches apart so you have relatively straight pieces instead of a bunch of twigs together on one branch.

3. Dig a trough in the ground, about 4-6 inches wide, approximately a foot long, and a few inches deep. Take the dirt you dug out of the trough and pile it on the sides, to raise them.

4. Lay a few thin, long sticks across the trough as support "beams", balancing on the mounds on the side.

5. Stick tissue or newspaper or paper or any quick burning material like tinder underneath the sticks. Lay thinner sticks on the "support beams".

6. Take slightly larger/thicker pieces of wood than the "support beams" and put them on both sides of the trough.

7. Take more thicker pieces of wood and lay them across the bottom and top of the trough, resting on the other thick pieces of wood, like a log cabin. Continue alternating, placing two pieces of wood in one direction, then two in the other direction, making a frame around the trough. Meanwhile, add thinner pieces of wood into the middle, above the other thin pieces, making sure to leave space and not pack them down.

8. Take even thicker pieces of wood and make a frame around the previous frame of wood. You can lean this on rocks if you want, to raise it a drop.

If desired, you can put a ring of rocks around the wood now, or you can do it later.

9. Make sure there is a space for you to reach the tinder/tissue/newspaper in the middle of the pile. Take a match, light it up, and watch the whole thing go up in flames.
This picture is after 1 or 2 seconds.

This is roughly after 10 seconds.

10. You don't want to cook the fire now, or it'll all end up ash. You want your fire to die down so that you can cook on coals.

11. Once you see coals and not flames- mostly white/black, as well as some red embers, you now can cook your food. Either put rocks around the fire now in an oval shape, or push the circular rock formation into a longer, thinner oval so you can better cook your food. I find a shoe and/or a stick work best to move the rocks, and a stick to move the coals.

12. Place grates above the coals. You can use old refrigerator grates for this. We used 3 to cover the whole entire thing, and make a large enough cooking surface to cook food for 3 families. When putting the grates on, stick them onto the rocks, and make sure they're not wobbly. If they're wobbly, stick in other rocks beneath them so that they're a level surface, equally supported on all sides. You can also stick a rock on the edge of the grates to hold them down.

13. Put your food on, and start cooking! 

What we served at our BBQ- 2 packages of MSG free hot dogs, a package of chicken wings, a few chicken thighs, some roasted carrots, some roasted eggplant slices, lettuce and veggies salad, cabbage salad, beet salad, drinks, potatoes, and watermelon. For 3 families, it was way more than enough, and it was enough meat that everyone felt more than satisfied, but enough other side dishes that people didn't need to fill up mostly on meat, the more expensive part of the meal. Wings are my favorite BBQ meat- they're cheap, and they're delicious on the BBQ, and they cook pretty well on a grill!

Honestly, it was so much fun making a barbecue this way, much more fun than using charcoal, and easier too! And I loved that it was free, that the kids were able to help participate (gathering the wood), and that there was no lighter fluid smoking our food...

Have you ever been camping? Do you know how to light your own fire easily? What method do you use to light a fire?
When you make a barbecue, do you use charcoal? Regular or self lighting? Do you use lighter fluid? Or do you do yours from wood, as I did? Which method do you prefer, and why?

Linking up to Frugal Friday, Fight Back Friday


  1. Love it, I will use your steps tonight for our first campfire!

  2. Visiting this site for the first time, very GOOD. My question is - Have you considered that "old refrigerator grates" may emit toxic gas when put in fire? Caution? I would like to read a reply from the expert.

  3. Just FYI may want to be careful also because the pieces of board (which I am assuming were from Hardware Store) unless otherwise stated are treated with chemicals.
    So your idea was wonderful up until you began using pieces of board, which is really no different that using charcoal and fluid. ;)


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