So you’ve bought yourself a charcoal smoker, got your food ready to go and the only thing left is to fire up the coals.
Should be pretty straight forward, right?
Yet so many people trip up here before they even get out of the gate. To get the coals lit quickly you’ll often see the mis-informed pit-master dousing their coals in lighter fluid. And it’s not surprising since you see guides like this all over the damn place.
You really don’t want to get that smokey petroleum taste in your food!
Luckily you don’t have to resort to chemical fire starters or lighter fluid thanks to the ingenious yet simple to use charcoal chimney starter. This little thing is so handy we had to place it on our list of essential smoker accessories.
Safe and easy to use, a chimney lighter is the simplest solution for lighting your charcoal. Once you see how easy it is to use, you’ll never use anything else.
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So What Exactly is a Chimney Starter?
A chimney starter is a metal cylinder, usually with a grate near the bottom and a series of air vents all the way up the chimney.
The chimney starter works by drawing air up from the bottom and allowing the briquettes or lump charcoal resting on top of the grate to ignite. You should be ready to cook within 15 minutes.
There is a heat shield on the same side as the handle which helps to protect you (although you should still wear gloves when pouring the coals out or moving the chimney). They come in all different shapes and sizes, and can purchased from most outdoor or general stores. We use this round Weber model that goes for under $15 on Amazon.
Lighting your charcoal
The best way to use your chimney starter will depend on what type of cooking you’re going to be doing. Before you get started, make sure you have:
- Heat resistant gloves and close-toed shoes. Luckily this hasn’t happened to me before, but the guys over at virtuaweberbullet warn that pieces of hot charcoal can “fall out of the bottom of the chimney onto the patio where you can step on them, or on top of your bare or flip-flopped foot.” Ouch.
- Plenty of quality charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal. We prefer to use a quality charcoal like Kingsford blue
- A pair of long barbecue tongs for arranging your coals when you’ve done
Using a chimney starter when cooking low and slow
If you are going to be cooking low and slow using the minion method or one of it’s variations like the Donut or the Fuse then we flip the chimney so that the air vents are at the top. That leaves a perfect amount of space to get your smoker going.
Because these methods only require a small amount of lit coals to be placed on top of a large pile of unlit coals, we don’t need a full chimney to cook with.
You can then sit the whole thing on top of a non petroleum based fire starter (we like the wooden ones) or even some scrunched up paper. To get the most out of your charcoal purchase, you can even rip up some of the bag and scrunch it into a ball.
This is the approach we usually use when cooking on the Weber Smokey Mountain.
Using a chimney starter for grilling or smoking hot
What you’ve probably seen on YouTube is the upright method where you place the chimney right way up. Then you full it nearly the top with coal and then simply place both fire source and chimney starter on the grate of your ordinary charcoal grill.
This allows the movement of air to provide heat to the charcoal, with the flame from the starter cubes or shredded newspaper being drawn up through the “chimney” of the chimney starter to work its way through the coals.
Once you know which way you’re cooking both methods are the same:
- Place the chimney on a safe surface that can withstand heat.
- Pour in the amount of charcoal you’ll need. If you don’t plan on doing a long cook you can just fill it up half way. Experiment here so you don’t end up wasting charcoal.
- Place your fire starter of choice (newspaper, old paper, non patroleum based fire starters or even the gas burner) next to the chimney
- Light it up, and then move the chimney so it’s sitting over the heat.
- This should take anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes, depending on the day’s weather. The coals should be hot enough when the ones at the very top of the starter have begun to turn slightly grey or ashen from the heat below.
- Once the top coals are nicely ashed over, carefully pour the coals into the grill or smoker and arrange for your preference of grilling heat source, whether direct or indirect.
- You want to wear gloves here as this process can let off a lot of sparks.
To see this in action we highly recommend checking out T-ROY COOKS who runs an amazing barbecue YouTube channel.
Follow all necessary safety precautions to ensure that you don’t burn your house to the ground. While most of the heat is safety contained within the chimney, it can let off a lot of smoke and the flames can reach outside, so make sure you have clear space around you.
Obviously you want to make sure the surface is stable, and can’t be easily knocked over. You really don’t want to send an inferno of hot coals pouring on to your patio!
Once you’ve poured the coals out of the chimney starter and arranged them to your liking be sure to deposit the starter somewhere safe and out of the way. It should cool fairly quickly once removed from the source of heat, but can still pose a threat to any guests or unaware friends or family who might bump into it if it’s not properly stowed away.
Chimney starter tips
- No lighter fluid is necessary for the initial lighting of the chimney starter. In fact, it is strongly recommended that no lighter fluid be used, as the chimney design of the starter will quickly amplify the heat of the flame, and could lead to some serious fire damage.
- When using shredded newspaper or some other sort of kindling to light your chimney starter: if, after fifteen minutes, the top coals have not yet started to turn grey, it may be advisable to check and make sure that the fire beneath the starter has not died out. If necessary, light a second fire, and repeat until the top coals are sufficiently grey. This has happened to me a few times when using the low and slow method as there wasn’t enough heat generated to reach up the chimney.
- Make sure to use tongs or a long match when handling the coals, when raking them across your grill, or when lighting the starter cubes or kindling underneath your chimney starter.
- When the top coals have started to turn grey, you may also notice small flames around the top of your chimney starter–this is normal, and another indication that your coals are ready to be used!
Once you’ve used a charcoal chimney starter once you’ll never go back to any other method. Let us know in the comments below if you have any other tips for using a chimney starter.
Feature CC Image courtesy of Eric Kilby on Flickr