How To Use A Charcoal Chimney Starter (Foolproof Guide)

Do you know how to use a charcoal chimney starter? 

Or maybe a better question is, do you know what a charcoal chimney starter is?

When using a charcoal smoker I used to light it the same way most people do.

Dousing the charcoal in lighter fluid, reaching in with a lighter, and hoping for the best!

This way has worked (sort of) for years. However, when using this method, you are gambling with the safety of your face, arms, and most importantly food. 

Thankfully, as time has progressed it has become a lot safer to light your grill/smoker!

The safer and quite cheap alternative to using lighter fluid is a charcoal chimney starter. 

Charcoal Chimney Starter

How to Use A Charcoal Chimney Starter

There are two methods for using a charcoal chimney starter, the minion and the donut.

First, we will discuss how the charcoal chimney works.

Then help you pick the correct method for your cooking unit.

Then finally we will show you how to light it.

The best thing about chimney starters? They are reusable and incredibly affordable.

How Your Charcoal Chimney Works

So by now, you are probably wondering what is a charcoal chimney starter and what makes it so good? 

A chimney starter is basically a metal cylinder, with two separate chambers and air vents and a set of handles that make it really easy to manipulate.

To start you put the charcoal in the top chamber and use a sort of igniter such as an old newspaper on the lower chamber.

The design of the cylinder allows the air to rise from the bottom to the top of the chimney, making your charcoal light up fast and without the need of chemicals.

Note: Keep in mind is the size. If you are using a large grill, you might want to get a bigger starter, because that way you will be able to light all your charcoal at once.

This will not only save you time, but it will also guarantee that your heat is nicely distributed on the grill.

If you are not quite sure if you want to risk using a charcoal chimney a pellet smoker might be a better option for you.

Which Method Should You Use?

Essentially there are two main methods to use when cooking with a chimney starter.

The Minion Method

First, there is the Minion Method, in this method you set up the hot coal on top of a full chamber of unlit briquettes.

The Donut Method

Second is the Donut Method, where you put the hot coal on the center (as if it were a donut hole) and then it will heat up the unlit briquettes around.

The great thing about these methods is that they only need a small number of coals to get going.

Just set the chimney on top of an igniter like wood pellets or an old newspaper and your fire will be started.

Always use your chimney starter on a safe surface, you want something that can stand heat without the risk of catching fire.

Using a chimney starter, your coal shouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes, at around 15 minutes you will see the small flames and ashes on top of your chimney, that means they are ready to be put on your grill.

How To Light A Charcoal Chimney Starter

  1. Fill the top chamber with your charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal and leave about an inch of space at the top.

  2. There are several ways to ignite a fire with a chimney starter, but the easiest one is using an old newspaper. 

  3. Just place the starter on the grate and open the bottom chamber of the starter, roll up two or three pieces of newspaper and make sure that there is still some space left, just so you don’t block the airflow, which is what will help the charcoal burn faster and more evenly. 

  4. Light up the newspaper in different places using the vents until the newspaper burns entirely. You can use a butane torch or just use long fireplace matches.

  5. It will take around five minutes for the paper to start burning the charcoal, the airflow in the cylinder will bring the heat forward and you will start to see a light smoke coming out of the top of the chimney and hear the charcoal crackling.

Note: Keep in mind that lump charcoal burns hotter and faster but can cause more smoke, while the briquettes take longer to burn, but it maintains a steady temperature.

The amount of charcoal you need to use will depend if you are using direct or indirect heat.

Use heat resistant bbq gloves when handling your chimney, as pouring over the coal can result in burns.

Using A Chimney Starter to Cook on Your Grill

If you are cooking on a stainless grill, just fill your chimney starter to the top with charcoal. Then use an igniter-like paper and set the chimney on top.

The fire that comes from the pellets or the paper will start to burn the charcoal from the bottom all the way up.

If after five minutes the coal hasn’t started to burn, add a bit more paper or wood pellet and fire it again. This will also work if the fire has stopped for any reason, before burning up. Using a charcoal chimney will also help keep your charcoal burning for longer.

Don’t use petroleum-based fire igniters. They are are not only unnecessary but when used they will burn your coal too fast. Also for safety use tongs to put down the hot coal on the grill, and long fireplace matches to burn the paper, as you don’t want to burn your hands.

Final Thoughts

Using a chimney starter is a fairly easy task. Not only that but it is a safer, less toxic way to get your barbecue going in almost no time.

This is great when you have a young family and you are trying to keep everything as chemical and nasty-free as possible.

Anymore queries? Feel free to ask away below!

Smoke On!


Author: Charlie Reeves
Hi, I’m Charlie, I am head taste tester at Simply Meat Smoking! I love it grilling, smoking, and getting out in the yard with the kids! The family also love to test all my recipes (especially my EXTRA CRISPY pulled pork, smoky pork loin, and ANY SEAFOOD I grill)

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 adventures with you!

You can read more on our About Us page.

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3 thoughts on “How To Use A Charcoal Chimney Starter (Foolproof Guide)”

  1. When you start the chimney there is a ton of smoke…i would like to know if it is safe to…say…throw a couple hot dogs on top of the chimney to get them real smoky for a few minutes?

    1. Hi Pat,

      thanks for the great question on chimney starters (we fav way to get my charcoal going) That thick white smoke from the start isn’t the ideal smoke for your food, its the thin blue smoke your looking for, but I understand with hot dogs you just want t a quick smoke infusion. Personally I would give it a try. I’m intrigued to see how they come out let me know!!

      1. ohh also forget to mention that sometimes that white smoke can be quite bitter so that may affect give you a bitter smoke flavor, but give it a test

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