A chimney starter is a marvelous invention; it’s a metal cylinder with a handle, then there’s a platform with air holes about ¼ the way from the bottom of the cylinder and more air holes in the bottom ¼ of the starter.
Chimney starters were designed to do exactly what their name implies – quickly and efficiently turn some kindling and wood chunks into small blazing hot coals which could in turn be added to a larger portion of wood in a fire place to start the fire.
Wise grillers of old quickly learned the same tool could be used to start charcoal for grilling quickly and efficiently.
Picking a Chimney Starter:
Chimney starters come in various sizes, I have seen 1-quart and 3-quart starters but I’m willing to wager there are bigger and smaller versions.
So, how can you figure out what size you need? Easy, buy a quart of your favorite beverage in a plastic container. Drink up all of said beverage (not all at once, unless you really want to). Rinse out the container and dry it. Cut a small opening in the top. Fill the container with charcoal, and then pour the charcoal into your grill. Does it fill the bottom? If so then a one quart starter is for you. If it takes two or three goes to fill the grill get a 3-quart and fill it as needed.
Using a Chimney Starter:
- Pick a safe zone to leave your chimney starter while the fuel starts burning.
- Put a little kindling or starting material in the bottom of the starter, and then put your fuel on top of the kindling. Leave about ½ to 1 inch from the top of the starter empty to make transporting it easier later.
- Hold your mighty chimney starter aloft and light the kindling through the air holes in the bottom, wait about 5 to 15 minutes. You should see tiny light blue and red flames dancing on top with white ash appearing around the fuel near the top and a nice red glow coming from lower in the starter. You now have a portable tube of raging inferno!
- Place said inferno onto your charcoal rack or into the designated fuel hold area, use your grilling fork (one of the few good uses for a grill fork) to evenly spread the charcoal if needed, place your cooking racks (carefully, inferno remember?) and wait for it to come to temperature, about another 5 to 10 minutes…
- You’re ready for cooking!
Other Helpful Chimney Starter Hints:
Make sure you pick an appropriate safe zone for your chimney starter or back-up fuel. There’s going to be about a 2 to 6” bubble of heat surrounding your starter as it gets going, with most of that heat pouring out of the top and bottom. So pick a zone where there’s nothing flammable over, under or around your starter by a good 6 inches.
Do not look directly down into the starter, there’s going to be a lot of heat floating straight up and out of that starter… It’ll melt your eyebrows off and singe your hair – yes, I said melt, not burn… Don’t ask how I know, just trust that I know this can happen… And it stings…
Be careful when you carry the starter, I usually give mine a very gentle shake about ½ an inch over my safe zone (nothing flammable around) to get out any tiny coals that might drop as I carry the starter. This will deposit any tiny coals that can fit out of your air holes on your safe zone and not on your feet, patio, deck or other places that fire doesn’t belong. I have a scorch on my sneaker from a little jumper…
Let any nearby barbecue goers know you’re moving from your safe zone to the grill. Bumping someone or something with a heated up starter could be VERY unpleasant. A helper that’s depositing a tray of freshly patted burgers to the grill would not find a hot starter to the arm an appropriate “thanks for pitching in.”
Which leads me to finish with: Always be mindful of your surroundings, you are transporting a tiny inferno after all. As we say at AtG, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of ribs!