Are Charcoal Chimney Starters Worth It?

I remember the first time I saw someone use a charcoal chimney starter. I watched with an equal dose of interest and fear as one of my friends donned some heavy-duty heat-proof gloves and lifted a glowing steel tube of lit charcoal before up-ending it into the base of their grill.

As quick as a flash, we had an evenly burning bed of charcoal onto which we could start cooking straight away. The heat was consistent, and all the coals were fully lit. What was this witchcraft that he made look so easy?

 This was worlds away from other memories of frustratingly and pretty riskily squirting lighter fluid from a distance onto coals that stubbornly refused to light using my prior more basic approach to grilling.

If you have ever struggled with timing it right to get cooking on your grill or been let down but stubborn cold spots or uneven cooking heat the charcoal chimney starter may just be the answer to your barbeque dreams.

In this article, we will look at what a charcoal chimney starter is, why you should consider it, and also, we give you some of our tip-top recommendations if you find yourself looking to purchase your own. We also give you the low down on just how much time it takes to get your chimney starter going and what other options are out there should you not have a chimney starter to hand.

Charcoal Chimney Starters are absolutely worth it. Not only do they help get your BBQ to optimum cooking temperatures sooner but they are economical to boot. They also offer an extra safety element due to not needing to use lighter fluid and they are an efficient contributor to smoke management.

What is a Charcoal Chimney Starter?

Sometimes referred to as simply a chimney starter, a charcoal chimney starter is an upright cylindrical-shaped device designed to help get your grill lit. The device itself is normally made of a lightweight metal or aluminum and comprises of a tube with a basket at the bottom to load charcoal. Kindling, such as newspaper, dried sticks, or lint can be placed in with the charcoal itself or some designs have a specific chamber allowing the flame to light from below and thus ignite the charcoal by funneling up the tube.

The main body of the chimney starter will have air vents to help pull oxygen in to ventilate the flame allowing for all the charcoals packed within to light evenly and quickly.  It’s not unusual to see flames licking out of a packed chimney starter. However, these dissipate as the coals smolder.

What is the advantage of a Charcoal Chimney Starter?

There are quite a few advantages to using a chimney starter. We have set out the main reasons that people invest in one and what it does to enhance their home grilling experience.

  • Speed of lighting your grill

As the coals are all contained in one smaller area, they light quicker and ultimately reach their optimum heat quicker. They can then be poured out to give a base for your grill that is free from cold spots or different temperatures. This can aid with cooking food evenly and avoiding any food poisoning.  

  • Economical

Using a chimney starter ensures all your coals are lit around the same time, this means you get maximum heat output and a longer cooking window with the same amount of coals. In traditional lighting methods, some coals may light and ultimately burn out prior to others. This can make temperature harder to regulate.

  • Safety

Home grilling is a significant contributor to emergency room visits every year. When a grill is not lighting there can be a temptation to introduce accelerants like lighter fluid which can be unpredictable. A chimney starter will light effectively with some basic kindling. The cylinder keeps the coal safely contained. Most have a heat-resistant handle however a pair of heat-resistant gloves is always recommended when handling a chimney starter.

  • Managing smoke

Some cheaper charcoal briquettes include additives to help them light. When these are lit they can exude more smoke and potentially impact the flavoring of any foods being cooked. By lighting fuel, initially in a chimney starter, the smoke will largely burn off before you introduce the coals to the grill.

How long do you keep Coals in a Chimney Starter?

There is no precise answer to how long to keep your coal within your chimney starter before decanting it into your grill as this will be impacted by a number of factors. This includes the overall size of the chimney starter, how much charcoal you have inserted, and what type of charcoal you have chosen.

As an indicator of when coal is ready to be used for cooking there should be no visible flame and coals will have taken on a slight gray and ashy appearance. For an average-size starter and traditional charcoal briquettes, this can reasonably take somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes approximately.

Best Starter Chimneys

If you are sold on the benefits of the chimney starter, never fear, we have trawled and researched to give you some recommendations of the most popular and practical ones out there. Below is our top pick in terms of budget, durability, and extra features:

The most affordable option on our list, the Kingsford Heavy Duty Deluxe, comes fully assembled and has generation proportions of 10.74” x 6.8” x 11.25”. This ensures that you can comfortably accommodate enough charcoal to light even the larger style grills.

With over 14,000 reviews and an average rating of 4.8/5, you would be hard-pressed to find a more reliable budget buy.

While many cheaper aluminum variations are available, they can require replacing more often. The Rosle model however is made of stainless steel and includes a well-designed handle with a heat shield. The spark guard improves safety when handling.

Reviewers praise the durability, design, and ease of use suggesting investing a bit more cash initially can lead to longer-term gains when it comes to chimney starters.

The Campmaid chimney starter offers the benefit of being able to be dismantled and stored flat. This makes it popular with travelers and outdoor enthusiasts who do some outdoor grilling.

Reviewers note that despite being collapsible the Campmaid feels robust and copes well with a good amount of charcoal. It comes with a handy storage bag and can easily be stowed away after use.

Is one Chimney of Charcoal enough?

There are varying sizes of chimney starters however, they tend to be designed to be able to hold around 60 pieces of traditional charcoal briquettes while the larger models will hold as many as 100 briquettes.  Even 60 pieces that are evenly heated as a result of the chimney starter will allow for some reasonable cook times.

If you are looking to fill a particularly large grill you may wish to opt for two chimney starters. However, in reality, another option is to place a layer of charcoal on the grill. Dumping the light charcoal on top ensures cooking while the layer below is gradually lit to prolong the cooking.

What can I use instead of a Chimney Starter?

Man has been making fire for a long time before the invention of the chimney starter so never fear if you find yourself without one. There are some tips to create a similar effect.

  • Stacking

You can place your kindling in the base of the grill and pile charcoal above it in a pyramid fashion. The added benefit of this is that it mirrors the chimney starter model of kindling flames moving from below and gaps between the charcoal allowing ventilation. Once all of the coals are lit and ashy the tower can be knocked flat to give a wider cooking area.

  • Lighter fluid/firelighters

There are a number of options to accelerate the lighting of flames from firelighter cubes to lighter fluid. Lighter fluid is perhaps the most volatile though and care must be taken to stand well clear and avoid inhaling any of the unpleasant fumes as it burns. There are an ever-increasing variety of both chemically treated and natural firelighter cubes which can be a bit more predictable.

  • Electronic grill lighters

There are a number of electronic grill lighters which comprise of a tube of stainless steel that reaches extreme heat as a result of an electrical element. This can then be placed within coals to light them. The benefit is this requires no lighter fluid or secondary kindling. Care must be taken though to avoid tripping over the electrical cord and this may not be applicable for all settings if there is no outdoor power source.

  • Gas grills

It’s not charcoal but if you want quick and easy access to flame grilling some people will choose to forego the charcoal lighting process altogether and invest in a gas grill. Yes, it’s convenient and it avoids the need to stock charcoal but is it really the same? We’re not sure.