You were at a friend or neighbor’s cookout, and you noticed that they were using an interesting device to light the coals. After some research, you found out that it is a chimney starter.
But, even though it looks good, is it really worth the money? Or should you stick to igniting your coals with lighter fluid?
Chimney starters, also called charcoal chimneys, supply you with a large quantity of lit charcoal for grilling in a short amount of time. These devices are handy when you do not want to bite into a piece of BBQ that tastes more like lighter fluid than it does like meat.
We consider them a worthy addition to any serious griller’s arsenal. If you have been toying with the idea of buying one, read on.
How Chimney Starters Work
A chimney starter is a cylindrical-shaped container or tin with two internal chambers. These chambers are separated by a grate welded over the bottom on the inside. At the bottom, holes under the grates promote airflow.
You use a chimney starter by filling it with charcoal, then placing a sheet or two of crumpled newspaper on the bottom of your grate and lighting it to ignite the coals or lumps on the grate above.
Since hot air has a natural tendency to rise upward, this cylindrical design allows air to enter the chimney from the bottom up, lighting your charcoal faster, more efficiently, and—most importantly—without needing to use lighter fluid.
Normally, it takes 20-30 minutes before the charcoal is nice and hot, and ready to transfer over to your grill. Most chimney starters also come with handles that make it safe to grip them on either side (remember to use gloves).
What To Look For in a Chimney Starter
Chimney starters are practical and simple contraptions that can save you a lot of time on lighting and maintaining hot coals. It is always important to be safe when using one, and to use the right amount of coals for the type of cooking that you plan to do.
When shopping for a chimney starter, the first thing you need to look for are models with ventilation holes located on the side. Starters without holes don’t have enough airflow to light your coal effectively. Buy one, and you will end up with a chimney starter that doesn’t start the coals or function like a chimney… so much for utility!
You also want to make sure that the handle feels sturdy enough to transport your coals safely, and durable enough to last you a long time. You’re handling hot coal here, and a broken handle at the wrong time could be disastrous. When it comes to the quality of the build, do not hesitate to pay up.
Another significant factor is capacity. We recommend a large capacity chimney starter to heat up a grill at least 22 inches wide. That being said, you need to match the capacity of your chimney starter to that of your grill.
More on that below.
Will Any Chimney Starter Work on Any Grill?
Technically, all chimney starters should work on all grill models. They are, after all, separate vessels that hold the amount of coals you need and enable the airflow you need to light them. However, when buying one, you should take note of the size of your grill.
If you have a large grill—and you buy a small chimney starter—you may not be able to heat all the charcoal you require all at once. Making sure you have the right size for your grill also aids in heat distribution.
The opposite is also true; if you buy a bigger chimney starter than you require, getting the right amount of coals will be tricky, and using your chimney starter will be more of an inconvenience than a boon.
Lighting Your Chimney Starter
To light a chimney starter, you need 1) the starter, 2) a bag of coals, and 3) a double sheet of newspaper.
Using a large double sheet of newspaper, roll it loosely from one corner to another, then bring both ends together to form a “donut” that can fit inside the bottom chamber of your chimney starter. Repeat the same step with the second piece of newspaper.
With your newspaper donuts secured on the bottom, make sure you have space in the center for airflow. This will ensure your newspaper ignites faster. Now, you can flip your chimney over and fill it with the amount of charcoal you wish to heat. Just lift the edge and light your newspaper in different places using a long butane lighter. And soon, you will see smoke emanating from the top of your chimney.
After the newspaper burns out completely, wait about one to two minutes before holding your hand over your chimney. By this point, you should begin to feel the heat from the charcoal that started to light.
It is going to take between 10 and 20 minutes for all your charcoal to light. This, of course, depends on the weather conditions, such as the wind and the outside temperature, not to mention the amount of coal you have in your chimney and the type of coal being used.
When your charcoal is ready for transfer, you will see an orange light deep in the middle of your chimney starter, with flames beginning to lick at the top coals. Also, you see gray ash beginning to form around some of the charcoal at the top.
This is where you don’t wait too long, and where it can take a few tries to learn the ropes. If all the charcoal at the top becomes ashed over, that means too much of the charcoal at the bottom was spent. Once you notice the orange and see a bit of ash at the top, go ahead and dump your coals.
If you find your newspaper is burning out too fast, a simple trick to get it to burn longer is giving the paper donuts a light spray of non-stick cooking oil. This will help the paper last longer because it won’t burn out until the oil first burns away.
Chimney Starter Safety
When using a chimney starter, you want to light the unit on your grill or on a fire-proof surface. Some folks, unfortunately, end up damaging their property or starting a fire by lighting chimney starters on locations such as driveways, decks, and even on their lawn.
Also, when handling a chimney starter, always use heat-resistant BBQ gloves. Don’t just trust the claim that the handles are “insulated.” Even if they are, that only means they will be slower to heat up than the metal; they will still heat up.
Simply put, it never hurts to wear gloves when handling a chimney starter.
After using your starter, it’s imperative to have a fire-proof place to store it while it cools down. Far too often, novice grillers forget about this little detail. Something such as a metal fire pit or even a large cast-iron pan usually does the job.
Arranging Your Coals For Slow Cooking
If you’re planning a slow cook, you might want to consider using lighting fewer charcoal pieces in your chimney starter and using the “Minion Method” once you’re ready to transfer them to your grill.
This method uses unlit charcoal in your grill that slowly ignites through the cook to extend the cooking time. Now, there are lots of variations to the minion method. Here are the two the members of our editorial team tend to use.
The Top-Down Approach
In the top-down technique, you just layer unlit briquettes at the bottom of your grill and place the lit pieces on top.
The most significant advantage of this method is that it allows you to grill or smoke for hours without having to add more charcoal while you’re cooking. This method is fantastic when cooking larger pieces of meat like briskets, ribs, and pork shoulders.
We also like to add some soaked wood chunks using this method to create flavored smoke. As you will see us mentioning time and time again, no other fuel—and we do mean no other fuel—imparts aroma and flavor to your meat as smoldering wood does.
The Donut Approach
The alternative donut method requires you to put your hot charcoal in the center of a ring of unlit briquettes. The hot coals will then begin heating up your ring or “donut” of the unlit charcoal.
Now, this technique burns charcoal at a slower rate, allowing a lingering burn. That’s because the briquettes are heating up fewer unlit briquettes at one time compared to the “top-down” technique.
When using a chimney starter for small amounts of charcoal, we recommend either banking all your briquettes over to one side of the chimney or placing them in a coffee can in the middle.
Is It Worth It, Then?
If you are serious about grilling with charcoal, we think that a chimney starter is a must. With this handy and uncomplicated device, you can light your coals and get them nice and hot without having to use lighter fluid.
It’s especially useful—dare we say indispensable—if you are cooking for a crowd and need multiple batches of hot coals to prepare food for everyone. Know, you know what to look for when buying one and how to use it for the first time.
What to read next: Don’t forget to check out our roundup of the best chimney starters on the market, now!