Charcoal Chimney Starter

by zydecopaws on June 17, 2009

If you read the BBQ Rules post and listened to JB’s rant, you’ll remember that one of his major issues was around the use of lighter fluid or self-starting charcoal.  I happen to agree completely with him; the quickest way to ruin a meal is to have it smelling and/or tasting like petroleum products.  In my opinion, the best way to get your coals hot is with a charcoal chimney starter.  Now I’ve heard a lot of folks out there complain about mixed results with these, so I thought I would take this opportunity to provide a huge public service and post instructions on how to get great results consistently.  Not to mention save a bunch of money (that ought to get your attention) and improve the overall flavor of the food you cook on your grill or smoker.

Your first step is to get your hands on a good chimney starter.  My personal favorite is the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter.  I’ve got a couple of these, and as you can see from the picture below they get a lot of use.  This one is about 4 or 5 years old, and when you consider how much use they get, it was worth forking over an extra $10 for the quality of the product.


You’ll notice that the chimney is sitting on the table of my Weber Performer.  That’s right, the model with gas starter.  The gas starter I still haven’t used; in fact, I don’t even have a gas canister around to test it.  That alone should tell you how I feel about the chimneys.  Anyway, on with the instructions…

The next step is to put charcoal in the starter.  I do this first as I reuse charcoal from previous cooks, and this allows lose ashes and smaller bits to fall through the bottom and not clog up the airflow.  For this example I filled the chimney about half-full of fresh charcoal.  TIP: if you are reusing charcoal from a previous cook, put the fresh stuff in first as it improves airflow.  You’ll also notice I took it off the table of the Performer; no sense in getting it all dirty or being tempted to melt it down by doing something foolish like lighting the chimney on it…


You can see the leftover charcoal in the picture above.  You have two options at this point; put the used charcoal on top of the fresh charcoal in the chimney, or simply use a variation on the Minion Method by firing the chimney and then pouring the lit coals over the old charcoal.  If I was using one of the WSMs, I wouldn’t bother lighting any leftover charcoal in the starter.  It always works better with fresh charcoal by itself.  However, since I was grilling and wanted a hotter fire (not to mention I was hungry and impatient) I went ahead and used option 1.


Now it’s time for the all-important newspaper selection.  I used the funnies for this one, but you can use the section of your choice.  The key is to use two full sheets of newspaper, no more, and no less.  I kid you not.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  More is not better, but what you will use if you don’t follow instructions.  For those that aren’t sure what two full sheets of newspaper looks like (or get papers that resemble the National Enquirer) here’s a picture:


The next step is to LOOSELY roll up the newspaper.  You will be lighting it on fire soon, not whacking the dog with it.  The word is LOOSELY.  No extra points are awarded for style here.  A tight roll will not burn properly.


The next step is to roll the LOOSELY wrapped newspaper into a doughnut shape.  This is not the shape you get into by eating them, but the actual shape of a doughnut.  Leave a small hole in the middle, this is important for airflow.


The next step is to stuff the LOOSELY-wrapped, doughnut-shaped paper into the bottom of the chimney.  IMPORTANT: make sure that the hole in the center of the “doughnut” is facing so that air can get up into the chimney.  This creates a nice place for the heat to rise and get those coals going; if you clog this off you may find yourself getting out more paper and cursing the process, when in fact you should be cursing your inability to follow directions.  Here’s a picture; the hole doesn’t show up very well, but believe me when I say it was there in the center someplace…


Next step is to light the paper on fire.  Hard to fark this part up; get yourself a lighter or a match and fire up some of that LOOSELY-wrapped paper.  You don’t need the towering inferno going, just get a little flame going on the newspaper and set the chimney down to do its thing.  IMPORTANT: Please make sure you set the chimney down on the grill or other non-flammable surface.  I probably don’t need to tell most of you that, but some folks out there just don’t seem to exhibit a lot of common sense…  It’s also a good idea to keep this out of the wind, as that will affect the rising of the heat, not to mention blowing bits of burning newspaper all over the place.


Now it is time to go away for awhile and finish any prep work you have for whatever it is you are cooking.  Depending on the amount of charcoal in the chimney, it can take anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes to get a nice flame going on your coals.  I always like to check it after 5 minutes; mostly this is habit gained from a time before I figured out the LOOSELY-wrapped doughnut-shaped technique.  Prior to this it wasn’t unusual for me to find out that the charcoal hadn’t started because not enough heat was generated by too little oxygen getting through the wads of newspaper stuffed up the arse end of the chimney.  But I digress…  When you have some nice flames going in the chimney and the charcoal is burning to your satisfaction, pour it into the grill/smoker and start cooking.  Here’s an attempt at a picture with the flames coming out; it was a bit too light to see them in the photo; perhaps one of these days I’ll get around to taking a picture after dark and replacing this one.


So there you have it.  If you follow these instructions, you can save money on lighter fluid and expensive soaked charcoal, both of which are guaranteed to impart nasty tastes to your food.  You can also assure yourself of a high percentage of charcoal starts on the first attempt.  I haven’t had a single failure since I started using this method, and I start a lot of coals, so I know it works.  Flame on…

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