How To Use A Charcoal Chimney Starter

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Charcoal ChimneyPhoto Credit: Weber

When it comes to charcoal smokers, grills and BBQs, most people only know one way to light the charcoal. Dousting the charcoal in lighter fluid, reaching in with a lighter& hoping for the best. This way has worked (sort of) for years for most of us, But when we use this method we are gambling with the safety of our food and with the safety of our faces & arms. 

In the past, I have always felt a little bit guilty when the kids are around lighting up with this method. It is not a good example to be setting, in essence, we are literally telling our kids its ok to ‘play with fire’.

Thankfully, as time has progressed we became a lot safer and there have been great advancements in the industry. There is now a safer and quite cheap alternative to using lighter fluid: A charcoal chimney starter. Best of all the charcoal chimney starter will work with even the best charcoal smokers out there.

How To Use A Charcoal Chimney

So by now, you are probably wondering what is a charcoal chimney starter and what makes it so good. A chimney starter is a basically a metal cylinder, with two separate chambers and air vents and a set of handles that make it really easy to manipulate. You essentially 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.

Chimney starters come in a variety of sizes and with variations on designs. They are all in a cylinder shape, and they all have holes or vents through them, just to get the air flowing.  The most important thing to 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 start 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. The best thing about Chimney Starters? they are reusable and incredibly affordable.

Lighting Up The Charcoal

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

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

It will take around five minutes for the paper to start burning the charcoal, the air flow 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.

Using A Chimney Starter To Cook Low And Slow

There are several methods to cook your meat,  but if you are using  Minion Method where you set up the hot coal on top of a full chamber of unlit briquettes or The Donut, 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, you need to flip your chimney starter so the air vents are on top.

The great thing about these methods is that they only need a small number of coals to be lit, so you don’t need to use a full chimney to get your fire going. Just set the chimney on top of an igniter like wood pellets or an old newspaper and your fire will be started.

Using A Chimney Starter To Cook On A Grill

If you are cooking on a stainless grill, just fill your chimney starter to the top with charcoal light up the igniter like paper or wood pellets 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. 

Chimney Starter Tips

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

– Don’t use petroleum-based fire igniters. They are are not only unnecessary but when used they will burn your coal too fast.

– Use gloves when handling your chimney, as pouring over the coal can result in burns

– 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.

– 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.

– 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.

Final Thoughts

Just like tenderizing steak, 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. 

Once you have tried a chimney starter you will never feel the need to use any other method again, as they are quick, incredibly cheap and will last you many many years. So get out there and get one, then cook yourself an eye of round steak, I know you will thank me afterwards!

Happy smoking,


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