How To Light Pit Barrel Cooker (3 Simple Steps)

Want to know how to light your Pit Barrel Cooker?

Lighting and maintaining hot coals are key for any BBQ.

This help to keep a consistent temperature and ensure your food turns out perfectly cooked.

It can be tricky to light your PBC but if you follow my steps below you’ll have it mastered in no time.

Don’t Forget! The Lighting Method Depends On Your Cooking Method

Before we start you need to ask yourself this…

What am I cooking and the type of heat it needs for a successful cook?

Indirect Heat For Low & Slow Hanging 

Planned on a slow-roasting of pork shoulder or hanging up racks of ribs?

Indirect heat is the way to go for any food you want to smoke over a cooking time.

Typically for tougher proteins in larger cuts of meat. It also allows for meat juices to baste and any inter-muscular fat to render.

Your food will be adjacent to the hotter temperatures emitted from the coal basket. This reduces the chance of the outside burning and an underdone inside.

Which could risk food poisoning or a spoiled meal. 

Direct Heat For High-Temperature Sizzling

In need of a faster barbecue?

A medium-rare steak or brined pork loins infused by a meat injector?

Direct grilling on high heat is the way to go. This style of cooking allows for a high and consistent temp to seal your meat.

Allowing for a juicy flavor and shorter cook time.

How To Light A Pit Barrel Cooker

Get plenty of coals ready and your cooking grate removed. There is nothing like the natural flavor of smooth-burning charcoal.

What Do I Need?

  • The choice of charcoal depends on your cook.
  • Lighter fluid or starter cube.
  • A long-nosed BBQ lighter.
  • Aluminum foil.
  • Fireproof gloves or oven mitts.
  • Newspaper 

What Do We Recommend?

Charcoal Chimney

A charcoal starter or chimney starter is the perfect lighting accessory. It is safe and easy to use as you don’t have to reach down into the barrel smoker.

Follow the below instructions but ignite a portion of the charcoal in your chimney. Wait for it to catch and then carefully place it on the unlit coals to start.

Ash Pan

It is cheap and very easy to install. 

It acts as a heat deflector to also helps insulate the Pit Barrel. As well as a guard against hot coals that might have fallen out of the coal basket.

Hinged Grate

Your longer cooks may need additional charcoal.

A hinged grill grate allows you to access the coal basket at the bottom. Without having to remove the grates and your food.

How Long Does The Lighting Process Take?

Lighting and waiting for your coals to be ready will roughly take 15-20 minutes. Add an extra 10 minutes if you are using briquettes as this removes any additives.

How To Light A Pit Barrel For Direct Grilling

  • Remove the grill grates to access the coal basket.
  • Place the foil on the bottom of the coal basket or ash pan if you have one installed.
  • Fill the coal basket with lump charcoal but leave a gap in the center.
  • Drizzle some lighter fluid over the charcoal.
  • Place a starter cube in the center with newspaper.
  • Light the cube and newspaper. 
  • Place additional charcoal over the fire in the center.
  • Wait for the fire to catch and then a further 15 minutes with the PBC lid removed.
  • Replace the grill grates and place the lid on your PBC.
  • Wait a further 5 minutes. 
  • Start cooking immediately. 

How To Light A Pit Barrel For Indirect Smoking

  • Remove the grill grates to access the coal basket.
  • Place the foil on the bottom of the coal basket or ash pan if you have one installed.
  • Fill the coal basket half with briquettes and then a single layer of lump charcoal.
  • Leave a gap in the center.
  • Drizzle some lighter fluid over your stacked briquettes and lump charcoal.
  • Place a starter cube in the center with newspaper.
  • Light the cube and newspaper. 
  • Wait for the fire to catch and then a further 15 minutes with the PBC lid removed.
  • Replace the grill grates and place the lid on your PBC.
  • Wait a further 10 minutes. 
  • Start cooking immediately. 

Why Is Charcoal Great For Cooking?

Cooking is just heat and time!

Charcoal gives you both. It burns up to 500˚F for 3 hours in its raw form. This brings us to the main point!

There are different types of charcoal produced that enhance these qualities. Made specifically to use in your Pit Barrel Cooker.

What Are The Different Types Of Charcoal?

Charcoal is a fuel type that comes from wood. 

Moisture is removed at a constant temperature.

The dried wood is then heated in an environment without oxygen. The result is then carbonized wood known as charcoal!

Charcoal Briquettes

Charcoal briquettes are inexpensive but can contain additives. They are perfect for extended periods of cooking due to a long burning time.

Resulting in a constant temp for hours.

Briquettes are made to the same shape specification. The perfect size for smoking and emitting consistent conventional heat.

Leave to burn for at least 10-15 minutes over our recommended times. This will make sure you get a nice smoke without any additives.

Lump Charcoal / Hardwood Charcoal 

This is the original charcoal for any style of convection cooking. 

The consistent smoke burns hot and slow for the perfect ambient temperature. 

A little more expensive than briquettes and with uneven sizes. It responds well to the airflow from the Pit Barrel intake vent. 

Creating a responsive barrel temp in your charcoal smoker. For whatever you may be cooking.

Lump charcoal also contains no additives.

Can I Use Wood Chips?

Wood chips are great to use as well as charcoal.

But we don’t recommend only using wood as a fuel source. This is because it burns quicker and at a higher temperature. 

Making it harder to predict or maintain average temperature ranges.

Use damp wood chips to blast your food with a smoke fog at the end of your cooking process.  Or if you want to raise the temperature quickly.

Use store-bought wood for cooking. Do not use wood you have found yourself. 

What Can Happen If My Coals Are Not Correctly Lit?

Incorrectly lit coals can cause a variety of problems:

  • Not the right or a constant internal temp for your food.
  • Fluctuations in temperature. 
  • A shorter burning half-life.
  • Fire hazard.
  • Too much smoke.

Can Environmental Factors Influence The Lighting Process?


We don’t recommend trying to light a PBC if it is below zero degrees. 

Be conscious of windy and wet days. Use a wind guard or cover if necessary. 

The Pit Barrel Cooker & How It Disperses Heat

It is essential to understand how a pit barrel disperses heat.

When you consider the lighting process. This simple but effective design doesn’t come with electronic parts. 

This style of smoker uses airflow and insulation to adjust or maintain heat.

A gallon steel drum sits level on a 3-point stand. With a removable charcoal basket at the bottom and a standard grill grate on top.

You can add moderations like a stainless steel hook or chimney inside the barrel.

There is an adjustable air vent on the lower side with a sealable lid for the top.

The fuel is then lit and the heat travels up to your food.

Have You Adjusted The Vent Settings On Your Pit Barrel Cooker?

All Pit Barrel Cookers come with an adjustable air vent at the bottom of the gallon drum.

This only needs to be done once on set up. As it controls airflow and achieves a consistent temperature.

It is simple to do and is based on your elevation level.

0-2000ft Above Sea Level

Adjust the vent to 1/4 open if you are below 2000ft.

2000-5000ft Above Sea Level

Adjust the vent to 1/2 open if you are between 2000-5000ft.

5000-8000ft Above Sea Level

Adjust the vent to 3/4 open if you are between 5000-8000ft.

Sea Level Above 8000ft 

Have the vent open if you are above 8000ft.

How Do I Monitor The Internal Temperature Of My Pit Barrel?

Always use temperature probes to accurately monitor the internal temperature. There are magnetic ones available.

Place on the side middle section of your drum.

Safety Notes For Lighting A Pit Barrel Cooker 

  • Light your PBC outside in a ventilated area. 
  • Keep a bucket of sand or water close in case of a fire.
  • Use oven mitts when removing anything from your PBC.
  • Do not place your PBC close to anything flammable. 
  • Call emergency services if there is an active fire you can’t control. 

Smoke On!


Hi, I’m Charlie, I have been meat-smoking and grilling for the past 15 years. I have an array of different smokers, thermometers, and have a love for finding the right wood and charcoal combo My favourite recipes are my EXTRA CRISPY smoked pork belly, juicy pulled pork, smoked brisket, duck poppers, and ANY SEAFOOD I grill).

I loves sharing his tips with beginners, helping them navigate the world of smoking. I find it’s not just about cooking; it’s a quest for that perfect smoky flavor.

You will usually find me playing with the kids, perfecting my brisket bark, or sipping beers with boys around the fire. Can’t wait to share all my delicious smoking and grilling recipes with you!

You can read more about me on our About Us page.

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