If you are new to home grilling, a common frustration is mastering the art of getting your charcoal to light evenly and quickly. Before you give up in despair and phone take-out let us introduce you to the BBQ master’s secret weapon. The Chimney Starter.
Yes, you can! A chimney starter is a cylindrical metal tube with vents and a grate that can be filled with lump charcoal. The grate and vents ensure the flow of oxygen to help with getting your lump charcoal burning. This is then emptied into your grill pan alongside additional charcoal to start cooking.
What is Lump Charcoal – how does it burn, and what is it used for?
Lump charcoal is a form of fuel that is created by heating natural hardwood material, logs, branches, or twigs, in a specific low oxygen, high heat setting.
Superheating the hardwood in a low-oxygen oven results in other materials such as water, tar, or organic compounds being removed and leaves behind dense lumps of carbon which makes for a great fuel that has minimal smoke.
Whereas traditional charcoal briquettes often have additives or chemicals inserted to aid burning, lump charcoal lights easier and does not require this. This has led to the popularity of lump charcoal for grilling as the burn is clean and does not interfere with food flavor.
If you want to understand more about the differences between lump and briquette charcoal you can check out our other article “Can you mix Lump Charcoal with Briquettes?”
What is a Chimney Starter?
A chimney starter is a low-fi means of maximizing how quickly you can get your fuel source to light for your grill. There are different makes and manufacturers but essentially a chimney starter is a fairly simple creation consisting of a cylindrical piece of metal that has a grate at the bottom. Most also have variations of air vents in the main cylinder itself and a handle to help with maneuverability.
The idea is that by placing your lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes within the chimney starter, the design helps air be sucked in through the vents and bottom grate while allowing the fuel to be densely packed and confined enough to hit a high temperature much more quickly. As the fuel is together in the cylinder it helps avoid cold spots or uneven burning.
How to use a Charcoal Chimney Starter
Using your charcoal chimney starter is a fairly straightforward process. However, as with any sort of grilling, care and safety precautions must be taken. The metal cylinder will get seriously hot and even though some have heat-resistant handles it is always recommended to wear heatproof gloves when handling your lit starter.
In preparing your chimney starter, it is wise to put an appropriate lighting material at the bottom of the starter before depositing your charcoal on top. Dry newspaper makes an ideal light and quickly flammable fire starter. A tip is to roll it into tubes and place it in a circle around the base of the cylinder, this allows it to light but a space in the middle will help air enter and be sucked upwards as the flame lights. This ensures the charcoals above will catch.
You will then need to fill the chimney with the required amount of briquettes or lump charcoal that you will need. This is a personal choice but will be determined by what type of grilling you intend to do. If you are just lightly grilling some thin meats you may not require much. However, if you intend to cook a side of meat low and slow for a prolonged time you may want to fill your chimney starter right up.
Once you have your charcoals in, you can light the newspaper or other fire starter material you have placed in the base. You can use long matches or a butane lighter to light the paper in several spots through the grate in the bottom.
Check through the vents to ensure the charcoal has caught all the way up. You can tell as the coals should glow and then turn ashy in appearance. It is normal to see flames protrude from the top of the starter while it is burning. Once the flames have gone out, this normally takes 10 to 15 minutes, you can then carefully lift the starter over to your grill. You can either use the coals alone from the starter if you have a shorter cooking session planned or you can introduce the hot coals to a bed of unlit coals.
The hot coals can be spread evenly across a layer of unlit coals at the base of the grill. The heat from the coals that have come out of the chimney starter will be hot enough to start cooking while they in turn light the coals below to prolong cooking time and ensure an easier controlled heat.
How do you light Lump Charcoal in a Chimney Starter?
The process of lighting lump charcoal and traditional charcoal briquettes is largely the same. The only tip we can offer in particular regarding lighting lump charcoal in a chimney starter is that rather than filling the starter fully at the start you may choose to use less lump charcoal given its hotter burn
Lump charcoal burns out faster than briquettes but also reaches its maximum heat faster. It may be more beneficial to have less lump charcoal in your chimney starter but then deposit it onto a denser layer of unlit coals in the grill. The hot coals from the starter will light the layer below it and so forth for a more predictable burn. A Chimney Starter can also be used to start off lump charcoal in a snake method. Read more about that approach in our other article, “Can you use the Snake Method with Lump Charcoal”.
Is there any fuel you shouldn’t use in a Chimney Starter?
Chimney starters work best with lump charcoal or briquettes as they are designed to light and then give off heat slowly and steadily. A chimney start is not recommended for wood fuel as it would generally be too big for a chimney starter and also lights fairly well without the need for a starter.