How to Use a Charcoal Chimney Starter

If you do your grilling over charcoal, whether briquettes or lump charcoal, a chimney starter is a great investment. With one, you’ll never need to resort to lighter fluid again. This is not only safer and healthier, it means your food won’t have that unmistakable hydrocarbon taste. And a chimney starter can produce a perfect charcoal fire even on a windy day.

A chimney starter is inexpensive, generally about $10 to $25 depending on where you shop, and you should be able to find one at your local outdoor or home improvement store. Look for one that’s rustproof and has a solid insulated handle. Chimney starters don’t require much in the way of maintenance. Just don’t leave it out in the rain and you’ll get a lifetime of use out of your starter.

To use your chimney starter, set it up on a level, nonflammable surface. You can put it right on the grate of your grill or on fire-safe bricks. Do not put it on concrete, since the intense heat can cause concrete to crack or even blow up. This may sound like fun in a “Mythbusters” sort of way, but you won’t be laughing when you have to patch the damage.

Once you have the starter safely placed, crumple up a few sheets of newspaper and tuck them into the bottom chamber of the starter, then fill the rest of the starter about three-quarters full of your chosen fuel. Use matches or a lighter to light the newspaper on several sides, and then wait. The chimney starter’s construction will draw heat and air upward, so combustion spreads through the charcoal.

This process can take a while — usually about 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the size and construction of your starter. Don’t leave the starter alone during this period, especially if there are kids or pets in the area, because the metal skin will get very hot. Once you see flames coming out the top or gray ash on the pieces on top, your charcoal is ready. Pick up the starter, dump the coals into your grill, and get cooking. Don’t forget to put the starter somewhere safe while it cools down, though.

There are some other uses to which you can put a chimney starter. If you’re cooking something that takes a long time, you can use a starter as a place to store an extra load of hot coals to add to the fire and keep the heat steady. Alternatively, you can cook directly over the starter itself — it produces a very focused, intense heat that can be useful for searing off fish or other foods that need to cook fast and hot.

A chimney starter should be part of any charcoal griller’s arsenal. Test one out and you’ll be pleased with the results!

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