Why you’re probably wrong about lighter fluid

One claim I’ve heard repeatedly about lighter fluid and grilling is that it imparts a flavor to your food. Sorry folks, I’ve got to call Bravo Sierra on this. Let’s hit the science!

Thai chicken grill

Most lighter fluid is an aliphatic petroleum distillate of some kind, similar if not identical to naphtha. While individual manufacturers don’t disclose the exact ingredients of their lighter fluids, it just takes a quick Google for the MSDS (material safety data sheets) for just about any consumer product to at least get an idea of what’s inside, if not exact composition.

So let’s look at some of the properties of this class of chemicals:

  • Most boil in vapor below 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Most ignite below 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Most charcoal grills cook at temperatures from 500 – 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Basic chemistry says that even if you dump an entire bottle of lighter fluid onto your grill, unless the food is on there while you’re pouring on the fluid (which is stupid for different reasons), there will be no trace of it left by the time you’re actually ready to cook. I can’t think of a single part of a charcoal grill interior that would be less than 200 degrees Fahrenheit, which is when these fluids would boil away.

The basic truth is this: lighter fluid, unless you’re pouring it on while the food is on the grill, simply boils up and burns away far too quickly for it to have any impact on the food you’re cooking.

Full disclosure: no one from the lighter fluid industry paid for this post. It’s just me getting cranky at misconceptions fueled [pun] by lack of science knowledge.


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  • http://www.pjmullen.com/ PJ Mullen

    I’ve never bought into this one and I’ve never researched the science. You don’t light coals and immediately start cooking, so it only stands to reason that by the time the coals are ready that any lighter fluid would have been totally consumed. Personally I prefer using a charcoal chimney to start my coals, mostly because I’m either cold smoking sausage or smoking a pork shoulder which requires multiple batches of coals over the eight to 12 hours it takes to do it right.

  • Doug B

    Chris is probably right, although I wish I had this advice years ago. I started with Weber grill and coals/lighter fluid. Then bagged the fluid and went with the chimney- until I burned myself spreading the coals– and it took too long because I had to add more coals. Next was the electric cattle prod which lies under the coals. Yeah right. Again way too much time. So I bought the gas grill. Works well– but feel like I’m still missing out on the REAL bbq event. Oh- and cooking with a gas grill is way too fast….

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    The best firestarter? Gasoline. And at $2.70/gallon vs. $5/quart for lighter fluid, gasoline is far cheaper. Just watch your eyebrows.

  • Anonymous

    I’d like to hear what the different reasons are, actually. I see people squirting lighter fluid on the grill all the time, while the meat is grilling. Is it your contention that the fluid would not even touch the meat while it’s cooking at 500-800 degrees F, as you state?

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    Putting fluid on WHILE the food is there is stupid. The soot from incomplete combustion WILL get all over the food.

  • Anonymous

    And that’s bad, right? :)

  • Justin

    Please nobody listen to this asshole, he’s got nothing to do with BBQ and his “basic science and chemistry” is just plain wrong. nothing more “google facts” here. Everything you burn has an aroma, everything. As a liquid turns to gas, the vapor can be absorbed by anything. This guys is nothin more then a marketer, and like all great marketers he should kill himself. I just read this guys comment on the best firestarter. He stated gasoline, Please please don’t ever use lighter fluid nor gasoline. This guys is a douchebag talking out of his ass. He has no idea what he’s talking about. He BBQ’s at 500 degrees. That alone should be a red flag. BBQing with a fire lit from gasoline can get you very very sick. I have many wins in tx BBQ comps to back up my words, not just google. I Been asked this before and I told my friends to start two different pit fires in different pits, one lit with lighter fluid and one lit naturally. As the coals turn white close pits and let the fire die out, once it does open it up and rub your finger on the top inside of your pits and give a smell or taste if you dare. You will tell the difference.