We've all seen someone make a nice little pile of charcoal and then pour half a gallon of lighter fluid on it. Sure, the ensuing fireball is fun to watch, but it's also dangerous, toxic, and wasteful.
Would you believe that in the U.S., $37 million in property damage every year is the result of improperly lit barbecues? The good news is that there is a better way to light charcoal. It's called a charcoal chimney starter and today we'll tell you everything you need to know about how to use a charcoal chimney like a pro without hurting yourself or lighting your yard on fire.
What is a Charcoal Chimney Starter?
A charcoal chimney starter is one of the most basic and ingenious ideas we've ever seen. While there are tons of different products on the market, they all share a few common features. The chimney is basically a metal cylinder, typically steel, that can withstand high temperatures. The chimney has a base plate that is roughly one-third of the volume above the bottom. Holes in the base plate and the cylinder permit air flow. The chimney starter has a handle that usually has a heat shield to protect your hands and make it easy to handle when it's hot.
Can't I Add Unlit Charcoal to My Barbecue?
When you are adding charcoal to your fire box, you don't want to put unlit material in. That's because the temperature will fluctuate a lot. Before the charcoal lights, the temperature drops. Once the charcoal is burning, the temperature will climb. Trying to use charcoal in your grill or smoker this way means you'll have a lot of work to do to regulate temperatures while the coals catch fire.
Another reason to avoid using unlit charcoal in your smoker is that the charcoal will let off fumes and gases that can give your food off flavors or even deposit toxic chemicals onto your food. Using a charcoal chimney starter to light your charcoal is healthier, safer, and works better than adding unlit charcoal.
How Do You Use a Chimney Starter?
Learning to use a charcoal chimney starter is quite simple. First, simply fill the chimney with charcoal. Then, place a fire starter underneath the chimney in the hollow created by the base plate. Ignite the starter and allow the charcoal to begin burning. When the charcoal is ready to go on your grill, barbecue, or smoker, you'll simply pick up the charcoal chimney and dump the hot coals into the fire box. That's all there is to using a charcoal chimney.
How Much Charcoal Do I Use in My Starter?
The actual amount of charcoal will depend on the size of the charcoal lumps or briquettes (you can find the best brands here). The right way to do it is to simply fill the chimney starter to the top with charcoal. Shake the chimney a little to knock out the dust and small pieces that aren't that useful and top with charcoal until the starter is full.
How Long Do You Leave Charcoal in the Chimney?
Once the charcoal is burning good, you'll want to leave it in the chimney long enough so that all of the coals are ignited and have begun to burn off. You'll see lots of information that says things like "wait until there is an even, gray ashy coating" and things like that. The trouble is that sometimes, by the time the coals on the top are ashy, the coals in the bottom are almost burned out. What we like to do is watch the smoke coming off the coals.
At first, when you light a chimney, it'll billow smoke. After a few minutes, the smoke will taper off and it'll be almost clear. That's a sign the coals are ready to use. With an average chimney and lump charcoal, it'll take between 10 and 15 minutes for the coals to hit the optimal temperature. With large chunks of lump, it may take as long as 20 minutes for the smoke to taper off.
What Do You Light the Charcoal Chimney With?
Basically anything that burns can be used in the bottom of the chimney starter. Many people purchase pre-made starters that are sold as lighter cubes or blocks. Other popular materials are paper, newspaper, or even charcoal briquettes that are ready-to-light. One of our favorite tips for starting a charcoal chimney is to tear off strips of the bag the lump charcoal comes in. This multi-layered paper lights easily and is readily available to you. Regardless of the method you use to light your chimney, don't ever use lighter fluid. It's just bad stuff and it's unnecessary when you use a chimney starter.
It's a great idea to get a long barbecue lighter or a box of long matches for lighting the chimney. A long match is one of the best ways, since you can stick it far enough into the base to light the newspaper, lighter cubes, or charcoal briquettes without having to light several spots as you'll do with a lighter.
Starting your Grill, Barbecue, or Smoker with a Chimney
Over the years, we've learned a few tricks that'll help you get your coals ready to cook quickly and easily. If you are using newspaper or strips of the charcoal bag, twist them into tight spirals, like little ropes. This helps the charcoal to get started quickly and ensures that you aren't wasting coals or time. Avoid using newspaper ads that are printed on glossy paper, though. Those products can contain harmful chemicals. Regular newspaper is printed with soy-based ink that is non-toxic.
When you are lighting the first batch of coals in your smoker or barbecue, fill the chimney starter with coals but don't light them. Instead, pour the unlit coals into the cold fire box. Then, refill the chimney starter and light it. Once the hot coals in the starter are ready, pour them over the top of the unlit coals. This will build a good base of coals. Wait until the smoke is clear before adding your food. You will see little to no flames on the coals when they are ready. Large flames indicate the coals are burning really hot, so you might need to reduce the airflow or wait until they die down a little before putting meat on the grate.
If you need to add coals while cooking, like when you have a long smoke going, start the chimney about 20 minutes before you think you'll need to add coals. That way, they are ready when you are.
Using a Charcoal Chimney Starter Is Easy
Learning how to use one will make your experience cleaner, safer, and less stressful. Once you start using a chimney, you'll never go back to using lighter fluid again and you'll save money and the environment by not burning toxic chemicals in your grill or smoker. A charcoal chimney starter is fast, easy, and makes you look like you know what you're doing, too.
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