Whether you’re graduating from gas to charcoal or you’re new to grilling altogether, the task of lighting a pile of coals can seem daunting, to say the least. It’s undoubtedly a lot more work that turning a few knobs and pressing the igniter on a gas grill.
But for those who swear by the smell and taste of steaks prepared on a charcoal grill, the time, effort, and extra steps—including cleanup—are totally worth it. If, like me, you grew up watching your pop and uncle light the coals, you saw them squirting obscene amounts of lighter fluid and throwing in a match to start the fire.
The resulting fireball is impressive, that’s for sure. But this method has one crucial flaw: Drenching your coals in lighter fluid makes your meat and veg stink of jet fuel. (Not to mention the countless horror stories of cookouts gone horribly wrong because someone went crazy on the lighter fluid.)
I don’t know about you all, but I have yet to meet a griller who’d want to explain to strangers why he or she can no longer grow eyebrows. That’s why so many pitmasters and home grillers use alternative tools for lighting coals, be they electric starters or chimney starters.
Both of these tools enable you to start a fire without chemicals, so that you and the family can taste the beef—not the fire starter.
And, today, you and I will spend some time to talk about which is better (and why).
A chimney starter is a metal accessory shaped like a cylinder. It has a large, insulated handle and vents for temperature control. You can use it to light either charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal. Inside is a grate that holds your coals above the heat source.
To use a chimney starter, you fill it with coals, and then you place your kindling underneath. With its tall, compact shape, it retains and intensifies the heat—and gets the coals fired up quickly. The heat works its way up until the coals at the top of the pile are red hot.
Chimney starters are uncomplicated tools, and the companies that make them try to keep them that way; they all work the same. The main differences from one make and model to another are usually in the size and the handle.
Folks with smaller grills need smaller models; those with larger grills need larger models. Using a smaller model on a large grill often means you have to fire up more than one load of coals, which wastes time and makes control over the cooking temperature difficult.
The airflow vents can make or break your chimney starter. You want one with good vents that allow you to control airflow. A chimney starter that hinders the flow of air is one that won’t work (alas, there are many of them on the market).
Another important feature is the handle. You want a model with a sturdy, comfortable, well-insulated handle that gives you a good grip and that won’t scorch your palm as you lift the chimney starter and turn it upside down to transfer the coals to the pit.
To say that you need to be able to count on the handle would be a major understatement. You’re lifting burning coals in a metal container. The last thing you want is for the handle to break and the coals to end up all over your pants and boots.
Psst! Don’t forget to check out our roundup of the best chimney starters on the market.
The Pros of Using a Chimney Starter:
- Faster and easier than many other types of charcoal starters;
- Relatively inexpensive, reusable, and lasts a very long time;
- Safer than other starters and does not require electricity, flammable lighter fluid, or similar dangerous chemicals.
The Cons of Using a Chimney Starter:
- Rarely ignites coals on the first try;
- Requires kindling;
- Must store in a safe location after use while it’s still hot.
Electric Charcoal Starters
The other tool that lets you ignite coals without chemicals is an electric charcoal starter. A recent invention, these are becoming increasingly popular among grillers who don’t read newspapers, and therefore don’t have sheets to crunch up and use as kindling for a chimney starter.
Electric charcoal starters look like coils, which they are. They come in different shapes and forms depending on the make and the model. All are attached to a base connected to an insulated power cord that plugs into an electrical outlet.
The way an electric charcoal starter works is relatively simple (although different models may work differently, depending on the bells and whistles they’re equipped with).
You simply insert the burner coil deep into the charcoal pile, then plug in the device. Once your coals begin to burn, unplug and remove your starter and place it in a safe location, like a cast-iron pot, so that it can cool off.
The Pros of Electric Starters:
- Often faster than other forms of starting coals, including chimney starters;
- Safer than other types of starters with no kindling or chemicals;
- Easier than using a chimney starter.
The Cons of Electric Starters:
- Requires electricity;
- Should not use in the rain;
- Devices can malfunction or fail after sustained use;
- Some grillers don’t believe they heat as evenly as chimney starters.
Electric Starter or Chimney Starter: Which Is Better for Lighting Coals?
For a nation bound by unity, this debate has divided Americans writ large.
Personally, I use my chimney starter for my kettle grill and my barrel smoker. With it, I can get a batch of coals lit and ready to throw into the pit whenever I need to get cooking or replenish the fire with ashen coals for a longer cook.
But I can see scenarios for people who live in the city and/or are concerned about the fire hazards of chimney starters, whether it’s kindling flying all over the place or having no safe place to place a metal container full of glowing coals.
Chimney starters also require extra care if you are grilling or smoking meat in an area with lots of dry vegetation. Under those conditions, I would suggest sticking with an electric starter.
Now, if you happen to be in an area without electricity, the chimney starter is going to be the safest and most efficient way to start up your coals, nobody can argue with me on that.
(Besides, with the right safety measures, you can make sure that no firefighters—at least not on duty—get invited to your cookout.)
And if you’re a true grilling soldier who’s willing to grill in the rain, I suppose you probably should stick with just the chimney smoker on that count as well, as water and open electric sources are not things you should ever mix.
But, no rule says you can’t use both. You can put your electric starter in your chimney instead of using kindling. In fact, if I can, I like to use this method to get my coals burning even faster, provided I have access to electricity.
You just want to make sure you’re using a high-quality extension cord; most electric starters have a very short chord that will not reach an outlet and your grill. A high-quality 12-gauge tension chord is what I recommend for these starters.
When it comes to deciding which option is best for starting your coals, electric charcoal starters or chimney starters, the answer mostly depends on your situation.
The safest and fastest method will be electric chimney starters. However, if you don’t have access to electricity, the next best option is a chimney starter.
That said, chimney starters require a bit more care as there’s more to using them than electric starters. Both require a safe place to store them immediately after use, although electric starters are much smaller to store.
But, if you’re comfortable using a chimney starter, I say get yourself an electric starter as well—and use them both when you can.