How to use a Chimney Starter
If you own a charcoal grill, charcoal smoker or Kamado grill then you may have had trouble getting it started. There are a lot of guides on the internet that not only give out bad advice, but what they recommend can be potentially damaging to your equipment and to you. We’d highly recommend staying away from any guide that tells you to use lighter fluid to start your fires. Not only does this give your food a potential chemical taste, but if you own a ceramic Kamado then it can damage the material and induce potential cracks and a continual chemical taste to your food. So, if you shouldn’t use lighter fluid, then what should you use? Obviously, it’s a chimney starter. We’ll take you through everything you need to know about what chimney starters are and how to use a chimney starter.
- 1 How to use a Chimney Starter
What is a Chimney Starter?
There are many brands of chimney starter (sometimes called a charcoal starter) but they all have very similar structures and work in very similar ways. They consist of open ended metal cylinders that the charcoal is loaded into. Towards the bottom of the cylinder there is a metal grate that holds the charcoal in place. Underneath this grate there is an area for newspaper or other lighting materials to get the coals lit. This is usually vented to help the newspaper light. Lastly there is usually a sturdy, large handle so you can actually pick up and move the charcoal starter.
Why use a Chimney Starter?
A chimney starter is the easiest and cleanest way of lighting your coals. A lot of the time you’ll never use any chemicals that might taint your food. You’ll just be burning newspaper and the coals themselves.
You also get a very even burn. The chimney aspect of a BBQ charcoal starter allows all the coals to burn evenly and quickly.
Chimney starters are generally very safe. Lighter fluid is potentially quite dangerous, both in the fact that it is highly combustible and that the fumes can affect your food and your equipment.
Chimney starters are so useful that they are our most recommended accessory and made it onto our list of the Best BBQ Accessories.
How to light charcoal with a Chimney Starter
Step 1 – Fill the chimney with charcoal
Fill the chimney with as many coals as you need. This will depend on how many coals you have in your grill or smoker and what you plan on doing with it. If you’re doing quick, short cooks you won’t need as many in your grill, but will probably benefit from adding more to your chimney starter to get it all burning quicker.
Step 2 – Add lighting material and light it
Newspaper – Newspaper is the most used lighting material because it is so simple to use and abundant. Other paper works as well, but newspaper will generally light easier as it is so thin and light. Add one or two sheets to the bottom of your chimney starter. You can scrunch it up and it’ll work, but we recommend loosely rolling the newspaper and then bending it into a ring shape. Place this in the bottom of the chimney starter and there’ll be a hole in the middle to let the air and heat flow through much easier.
Light the newspaper with a butane lighter or other lengthy lighter in several spots to ensure that the fire catches. As the paper burns it will start to slowly light the charcoal above. Check through the vents on the chimney to see if the charcoal is starting to burn. There might not be much difference to begin with but the edges of the charcoal will start to go gray as it begins to catch.
If the coals are not lighting then you can try another piece of newspaper that is lightly coated with cooking oil. This will extend the time the newspaper fire burns for and will ensure that the coals light.
Lighter Cubes – If you don’t have any newspaper available or simple want a more reliable way of starting your fire then we recommend Weber’s Lighter Cubes. These are an easy and quite clean way of starting your fire. They are made from wax and coated in paraffin that light even when wet and produce no smoke or odor.
When using lighter cubes, place two of them on the grate of your grill or smoker and light them up. Then place you chimney starter, full of charcoal, on top of them and let them work their magic.
If it’s a bit wet or windy then lighter cubes are a much more reliable way of starting your charcoal. We’d recommend ones that use as few chemicals as possible. If in doubt, stick with the Weber Lighter Cubes.
Step 3 – Pour out the coals
After a while you will start to see the coals glowing through the vents and it’s likely that there will be some flames coming from the top. This will take different amounts of time depending on which charcoal you’re using and how much of it is being used. It will roughly take 10 to 15 minutes for most fires.
When the coals are at this state, pick up the chimney starter and pour the hot coals over the unlit coals in your cooker. Lightly spread them out and you’ll be ready to go. The hot coals will slowly light the other ones over the course of the cook and keep your grill or smoker at a nice temperature for cooking.
Which Chimney Starter to use
Most chimney starters offer very similar features and build quality, so whichever one you buy will make lighting your charcoal much easier. We generally recommend the Weber Rapidfire chimney starter due to the great design, build quality, ease of use and size. Weber also make a smaller chimney starter that is ideal for smaller charcoal grills.
Tip and Tricks
- Generally, it is recommended not to use wood with chimney starters. Us it to light the coals and then place any wood on the hot coals.
- If you’re looking to light just a few pieces of charcoal then you can turn your chimney starter upside down and place the coals in the smaller chamber that is usually used for the newspaper. Then grab some lighter cubes and light them up underneath the coals. A few minutes later and you’ll be ready to go.
- Practice a few times to really get the hang of it. Whilst this is very easy to do you’ll get a better feel of how many coals you need for each specific cook. The number of coals can vary greatly so it’s best for you to make your own judgement.
- Read our post on charcoal to learn the best charcoal for your needs.
- You do not need lighter fluid for a chimney starter, or ever!
When using a chimney starter there are a few safety precautions to be aware of:
- Wear heat resistant gloves and good quality shoes when handling a hot charcoal starter. If a piece of hot charcoal falls out it’s very easy to accidentally stand on it and burn your foot.
- Keep your chimney starter on your grill or on heat proof bricks or a slab. Do not put it on wood (obviously) or concrete. It will likely damage concrete and will definitely burn wooden decks or ruin your grass.
- The chimney starter will remain hot for a while after the coals are poured out of it. Give it a while to cool down and be aware of where it is.
- Use long tongs when handling any lit coals.