Using a Charcoal Chimney Starter: What, How & Why?
A chimney starter, also called a charcoal chimney, is a device that is used to fire up either lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes. The goal is to quickly start a charcoal fire without using lighter fluid or other petroleum based fuels.
Not only can you avoid adding unpleasant tastes to the food or breaking a local environmental regulation, a chimney starter is used for time and resource efficiency. Additionally, it’s fun and cool! In caveman speaks, this is interpreted as, “Fire Good!”
The chimney starter’s basic device, used for barbecue grills, was invented in the 1960s by Hugh King, Lavaughn Johnson, and Garner Byars of Corinth, Mississippi and marketed under the “Auto Fire” label. Today this brilliant and very affordable (most under $20) invention is sold and marketed under the umbrella terms of Chimney Starter or Charcoal Chimney Starter. In essence, a chimney starter is a steel cylinder about 8″ (20 cm) in diameter and about 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm) tall. A great example is the Weber RapidFire® 7416. Check out our Grilling Product Review of the Rapidfire® 7416.
Chimney starters have a plate or grate with several holes welded horizontally inside the cylinder about 3″ (8 cm) from the bottom. The chimney has large holes drilled around its circumference below the grate. This is to allow air to flow up underneath the charcoal. Most models have insulated handles that not only protect your hands from being burned by hot metal but also serve to get a solid grip on the device and safely pour into your grill.
The chimney starter works by placing a few loosely crumpled pieces of newspaper underneath the grate and lighting them on fire. This fire rises through the holes in the grate and sets the charcoal alight. It is commonly used in situations where the use of charcoal lighter fluid, a toxic petroleum derivative, is inappropriate or banned. In fact, this nasty stuff is not allowed to be used by any GrillJunkie team member under any circumstances whatsoever. In fact, the GrillJunkie employee handbook, section HR: 316, page 7, clearly states that,
“the use of such material will result in immediate termination. Furthermore, such personnel will be banned and shunned for the community indefinitely and must endure a public walk of shame.”
But we digressed into an anti-Charcoal Fluid rant and apologize for selfishly getting off target. Overall, a Chimney Starter is used to start and maintain a fire in an outdoor grill……and is very handy when extra hot charcoals are required when slowly cooking something for many hours.
Why Should I Use a Charcoal Chimney Starter?
Besides our biased anti-lighter fluid opinion on avoiding shame, banishment and a lifetime shunning, the use of a Chimney Starter is:
- Time efficient
- Resource efficient
- Environmentally conscious
- Safer than lighter fluid
- Cool & Inexpensive
- An essential grilling tool
How Do I Use a Charcoal Chimney Starter?
In essence, a Chimney Starter is used by placing unlit charcoal (lump charcoal or briquettes) in the chimney and lighting a fire underneath the coals. Once lit, a “chimney effect” causes the hot charcoal from the bottom to spread all the way up to the top. Once all the charcoal is burning (it will appear glowing orange in the bottom and slightly ashed over on the top), the chimney is picked up by its handle and the hot charcoal carefully dumped into the grill and you are ready to cook.
If you are grilling something that takes a long time to cook, or are using the “low & slow” BBQ method, you will most certainly need more than just the one first batch of hot charcoal on hand. Having hot charcoal always ready to add to your existing fire is important to maintaining the fire and desired temperature over a long period of time.
- Here’s a Tip: Instead of dumping all of the lit charcoals from your first batch into the grill, keep a few of pieces of lit charcoal in the chimney. When filled with unlit charcoal, the hot coals will quickly light the new batch, this time without the aid of newspaper, and without smoke.
Chimney Starter Safety Tips
- Wear heat-resistant gloves whenever handling a hot chimney starter.
- Remember that a chimney will remain hot for a while even after the charcoal has been poured out.
- Never place a chimney starter on concrete, asphalt or near flammable materials like a wooden deck or dry grass.
Some Safe Locations to light a chimney starter include:
- On the grill’s charcoal grate
- On the grate of another grill
- On fire-safe bricks placed on your deck or patio
- On a terra cotta flower pot saucer without a drain hole
Chimney Starter 4 Easy Steps: Load, Light, Watch, Pour
Turn the chimney starter upside down and fill the space under the wire rack with a few sheets of wadded-up newspaper. Then turn the chimney starter right side up and place in a safe place where the underneath supporting material will not be set on fire, damaged or melted. As an example, setting the chimney starter on an asphalt driveway is NOT a good idea, but setting the device on a ground level, large, flat, natural stony area away from any flammable material is good.
NEVER light a chimney starter directly on a concrete surface. Heat from the chimney may cause the concrete to explode, damaging the concrete surface and possibly causing physical injury. The ideal place is to set the charcoal chimney on top of the grill grate so there is no chance of destroying the material underneath and any ash will fall into the grill where you will be pouring the hot coals anyways.
Finally, fill the space above the rack with briquettes or lump wood charcoal.
With a long match or lighter that can fit inside the chimney starter’s lower hole openings, light the newspaper in a few places. Once you light the newspaper, thermodynamics take over and channel the heat evenly up and throughout the briquettes.
Keep a close eye on the chimney starter and watch while each coal is fired up. You will initially notice smoke rising when the coals are first heated, followed by a strong flame funneling from the top once the device reaches full inferno. This process typically takes between 15-20 minutes. It is important to stay close to the chimney and watch its progress so as to be ready for the next step, while also being the “Master of Fire” keeping the area safe from onlookers and curious small hands.
The charcoal is ready when you see orange color deep inside the chimney starter, flames licking at the charcoal at the top of the chimney, and gray ash just starting to form on some of the charcoal at the top. If you wait for all of the charcoal at the top of the chimney to be fully ashed-over, much of the charcoal in the bottom of the chimney will be spent, so go ahead and dump the charcoal into your cooker when you see orange color, flames reaching the top level charcoal and those coals just starting to gray.
One complaint about using newspaper in a chimney starter is that the leftover ashes can blow around in windy conditions. If this bothers you, try a few sheets of paper towel sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. This will get your charcoal started, and since it burns more completely than newspaper, it makes less of a mess.
When the upper briquettes are lightly covered with white ash, you are now ready to transfer the hot coals onto your grill’s lower charcoal holder grate. Protect your hands by putting on two insulated barbecue mitts and grab hold of the two handles on the chimney starter. Many chimney starters have a swinging handle to help you lift the device and safely aim the coals just where you want them.
Place the upper grill grate back on the grill, gather up your tools, fire up your grilling “mojo” and get cooking. Enjoy precious time with family and friends.
What are your thoughts? What Fires You Up? We welcome your comments, healthy debate, and the inevitable disagreement. Leave a reply or comment.
It’s OK. Bring it on!