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Do I really need a chimney starter?

I just bought a Weber outdoor charcoal kettle grill thinking I would try my hand at grilling on very rare occasions. It's a very basic and small sized model with just the bowl and dome. Question is, do I really need a chimney starter, or can I manage fine by lighting the coals in the bowl of the grill with lighter fluid and newspaper underneath? My tendency is to think I can do the latter, and a chimney starter is not really necessary...what do you think?

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  1. Unless you want your occasional forays into grilling to end up tasting like petroleum byproducts, I'd suggest skipping the lighter fluid and getting the chimney starter.

    Or, try the Weber FireStarter Cubes (http://www.thekitchenstore.com/077924... ).

    Or, get yourself a propane torch and have some real fun starting the charcoal (http://bernzomatic.com/bernzomatic/co... ). The upside to that expensive option is you can use it to make a crème brûlée, or replace some old copper plumbing around the house!

    1. I have the regular and the small Weber and have never needed the chimney. I do usually only start with a few briquets, use starter fluid, get them going and add more as needed.

        1. You don't need a chimney, but it's really helpful because it gets oxygen flowing over the coals more efficiently than anything else. (Well, almost anything else; if you have access to liquid oxygen you can have the grill ready to go REAL quick. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjPxDO... )

          Lighter fluid also works, but make sure to let it burn off completely before you get food anywhere near the grill. Give it at least 10-15 minutes. Avoid the match-light briquettes; they are permeated with petro-nasties. In fact, avoid briquettes altogether and use lump charcoal.

          1. I have a weber kettle and a WSM and I find the chimney starter to be indispensable. I would never go back to using lighter fluid.

            1 Reply
            1. re: flourgirl

              I agree that you do not need a chimney starter. I went several years without one. I'm not a big gadget person, but realized it makes so much sense. No lighter fluid, and it gets the charcoal burning much faster and completely since there are air holes in the chimney. Simply stuff bottom w/ newspaper, pile on charcoal (I use good quality hardwood; left the briquets long, long ago), light the newspaper and you're good to go. Generally sooner than expected, and I have to dump the charcoal out of the chimney and add more charcoal so it keeps burning until I'm ready to grill.

            2. agreed you do not need one.

              that said lighter fluid fumes are nasty smelling, probably unhealthy, and sometimes make the food taste funny

              a chimney starter is faster, cleaner, and easier

              i grilled 10x more after i got one then i ever did before

              1. I have the Weber Smokey Joe grill, which is smaller. The Weber chimney is great, but a bit big for Joe, so I use an electric starter:

                http://www.amazon.com/Char-Broil-2984...

                It really works well.

                1. We have a big heating element starter (it looks like it came out of an electric oven) instead of a chimney starter. It works well, and I think it was around $10.

                  1. No you do not need a chimney starter if you love the flavor of charcoal lighter fluid. I dont much care for the flavor though

                    1. I find it's indispensable, for doing things like adding charcoal to a fire that's already lit, for easily placing charcoal for indirect cooking, most importantly, not have to worry about about that big billowing fire when you light with fluid. Fresh unlit charcoal puts out quite a bit of soot when you first light it and tends to make food bitter and sooty when you are cooking something like a chicken on the rotisserie, so if you add coals while cooking your food develops an off taste. For the record I have a Weber Performer which doesn't require the use of fluid, it has a built in propane ignition system that works great, but I still use a chimney it lights faster even using propane. If you decide to get the chimney get the Weber it's much better made than the others on the market and will last much longer.

                      1. I have started lots of charcoal. The best device in my opinion is brush burner hooked onto a 5 gallon propane tank. 250,000 btu's of pure heat, will get briquets or lump charcoal going within minutes, then I throw the grill on and use it to cremate all the stuff from last bbq. Hit with a wire brush and I am ready to throw some rib-eyes on. You can get them at Harbor Freight for about $25-30.

                        1. No, of course you don't need one, but unlike lighter fluid you never run out and it isn't toxic and hazardous; unlike an electric starter you don't have to plug it in, which limits the number of places you can use your grill. They're less than $20, so in the long term they cost less than lighter fluid. They actually work better than lighter fluid, in my experience.

                          1. I love those easy to use chimney starters. However, if you don't like that method, there is another alternative to that and to the option of using lighter fluid/paper as a starter in your outdoor cooking.

                            When I was a Girl Scout leader, I learned this method which recycles a number of environmentally friendly items and taught it to the girls in our troop. Take a cardboard egg carton and fill each "egg space" with either dryer lint and/or sawdust. Combining the two ingredients or using either ingredient works very well. Take remnant wax from used candles or other wax you might have and melt and pour. Whenever you want to start a charcoal fire or a fire in your fireplace, you have a free, environmentally friendly firestarter as each of these items would be going in the trash....works like a charm. Just break off the desired amount and light. You are on you way to dinner or a nice cozy fire. It's free and you are doing a little bit to help the environment. What a good use for dryer lint or sawdust and combined with the cardboard egg cartons and left-over wax, it's just magic!

                            Even the Boy Scouts started using them and they even worked when it was raining.

                            10 Replies
                            1. re: Laura Morrow

                              Thanks to all the responses. After reading them all, it sounded like the issue most people had is with the lighter fluid and how that can impart a bad taste. OK, so how about I try lighting the charcoal in the bowl of the grill with newspaper, and without lighter fluid? I mean, how hard can that be? My main thought was that it just seemed to me like the chimney starter was just a vessel to hold the charcoal, and that the actual lighting and heating of the coals could be done almost as easily by just doing it in the grill. Or is the chimney starter really SO much of a better and easier way that it justifies needing one?

                              1. re: stratford

                                why it works better is in the name - chimney - there is a huge flow of air channeling upwards through it once you light the bottom. this brings heat and air to the charcoal above very quickly and efficiently - that will not happen in the bowl w/out it. the chimney is like a little jet engine (alton brown used it for searing tuna on one show)

                                1. re: stratford

                                  You can do that. But it is sometimes difficult to get the charcoal going, and it always takes quite a while before the coals are ready. The main problem is insufficient airflow--you've either got to draw air through the four little holes in the bottom of the bowl or get it to flow down from above--against the current of heat that's rising out of the grill.

                                  Blowing on the coals helps, but sticking your head into a bowl of sparks and combustion byproducts has its downsides. Rigging a bellows (or a blow-drier) to inject air into the bottom of the grill will get things cooking pretty quickly, but requires extra tools and modifications.

                                  Or you could just use a chimney. The entire bottom is open, so combustion will create a draft that sucks cold air into the chimney, where it flows over the burning newspaper (and later the hot coals) at the bottom, igniting the coals higher up, and creating an even stronger draft, which lights more coals, etc., etc.

                                  Seriously, you don't need one. There are plenty of other ways to get charcoal lit. They just don't work as well.

                                  1. re: stratford

                                    Not to mention that it can annoy your neighbors. I keep thinking I'm going to figure out which of mine always lights up with the fluid and go buy them a chimney.

                                    It's the only way of lighting that actually gets turbocharged if there's a breeze.

                                    In summary, not just "yes" but "hell, yes."

                                    1. re: ted

                                      i almost did the same... i actually got the people below me to start using one, and was going to throw one into the balcony next door, but they moved

                                      1. re: thew

                                        I did the same. The people next door were using so much lighter fluid that we could smell it in our house. I went over and gave them my old chimney starter and a foot-high stack of newspapers, and never smelled lighter fluid again.

                                    2. re: stratford

                                      I have four weber kettles and two chimneys, and have been doing this for 40 years. I quit the chimneys and now go with a good squirt of fluid. First, be aware that the chimney with a piece of newspaper under it will give off a load of foul smoke as it gets going, so the initial nastiness is not so different. Usually the chimney lights... but sometimes it doesn't. When you use the fluid, make a little mountain out of the coals. They must be piled up to light well. Squirt, then wait a minute, then light it. No newspaper. Yes, it will give off fumes at first, so walk away. Make sure the bottom vents are open, and keep the lid off. In 15 minutes the coals will be white and ready to cook. If they are not yet white, then you could still get fumes from them, so you just have to wait til they are fully lit. you will not pick up fluid fumes on the food.

                                      1. re: woodburner

                                        I'd take paper smoke over unknown hydrocarbons any day. My simple solution when I want to speed up the chimney is to stuff a second sheet of paper under there 5-10 min after the first.

                                        1. re: ted

                                          right... the second sheet makes an occasional appearance. Both types of initial smoke are too nasty to sit in front of... and you need to walk away for a few minutes, so its really just a preference it seems to me. I maintain that after the initial burn to white ash, the charcoal has burned off the fluid and does not impart any negative taste. So you can go either way and be safe and happy.

                                          1. re: ted

                                            if you splash a little cooking oil on the paper it slows and lengthens the burn. works like a charm (thank you alton brown)

                                    3. I just did a quick google search to see the price of a chimney starter and saw that Sears has one on sales for $7.99. Seriously, for less than $10 you can get an implement that will last your for years. What's the debate?

                                      http://www.sears.com/shc/s/p_10153_12...

                                      6 Replies
                                      1. re: KTinNYC

                                        Sears may look good but its not a Weber, wont work as well, or last as well.
                                        http://www.amazon.com/Weber-87886-Chi...

                                        1. re: jayt90

                                          Man, you guys have convinced me that I need a chimney, and I don't even have a grill! I live in an apartment w/o a balcony, so I have been considering buying one of those small little grills, that I could take outside and grill on the sidewalk. I also have the option of grilling on a community type grill that's right outside of our apartment. I guess a chimney would come in handy for either one. I had never even seen a chimney, until I saw Alton Brown use one. When it came to a non gas grill, I've only seen lighter fluid being used, and yes, there was a funny taste. I never thought that it was b/c of the lighter fluid.

                                          1. re: amselby81

                                            You can also make a steel wok super hot with a chimney for searing.

                                        2. re: KTinNYC

                                          I purchased a chimney at Home Depot that I believe is the same brand and model as the one at Sears. It didn't last very long, the one I had was made of painted steel which began to rust wherever the paint got scratched. I got about a season and a half before having to throw it out and buy a weber.

                                          1. re: LabRat

                                            I wasn't endorsing the product I was just pointing out that they are as cheap as chips.

                                            1. re: KTinNYC

                                              I didn't mean to imply that you had, just wanted to relate my experience with that particular chimney (or one just like it, it's been awhile since I replaced it)

                                        3. You can use two large cans with the bottoms cut out and church key air holes punched into the side near the bottom of one can. Stuff newspaper in the bottom and stack the second on top, and use like a chimney starter. Honestly, though this arrangement can be difficult to light and a pain with the two cans needed to get enough charcoal lit. Chimney starters are so cheap, and on discount this time of year, so unless you're on a really tight budget, go ahead and buy one.

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: amyzan

                                            I did the same...
                                            Made my own chimney starter.
                                            People used to make their own then some genius came along and cranked them out in heavy gauge steel and made a mint. He's a retired zillionaire now and the Chinese are making them now

                                            1. re: gafferx

                                              my pop made his own chimney out of folger's cans and bragged about saving the $9 or whatever when he could make it for free. . .

                                              then i heard something about him burning himself, or the deck, or both, trying to hold the contraption with tongs and pour hot coals, and the next time i visited, he had a weber chimney!!! :-P

                                              1. re: soupkitten

                                                I've never had a problem. But you inspired me to put a handle on my homemade tin can BBQ chimney. I won't be buying one anytime soon--- I mean this is a simple boy scout project that I did at age ten. Nope- I won't be caving in anytime soon but I will be improving my construction

                                          2. I suppose you could do without but in my humble opinion there is no better way to cook a steak than over a grill placed over a cherry red hot bed of charcoal in a chimny starter.

                                            I've never found a better way to get a crusty exterior and a rare interior.

                                            1. They're cheap,easy, get hot fast. Wait, what are we talking about again?
                                              Oh yeah.
                                              There isn't a better way. Seriously, if the chimney is too much trouble, I'd look at a gas grill.

                                              1. fer eff's sake get the chimney! if you want your grilled food to taste like girl scout water-- well, no comment from me, but i'd look at you funny if i came to your house for a cookout. your coals also get to ideal temp much faster and you can add hot coals straight from the chimney for longer cooking projects. spring for the chimney and you'll never have to screw around with lighter fluid, gasoline, kerosene, or whatever people who don't think chimneys are necessary use to start their cooking fires. for eff's sake get the chimney!!!!

                                                1. a chimney starter is much better than using lighter fluid.

                                                  1. I use the chimney but with a single starter cube instead of newspapers. The newspapers leave a pile of ash.

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: roadfix

                                                      I've got a Weber Performer; its gas assist method to light coals in a chimney is fantastic but I'm ALWAYS forgetting to buy those little replacement propane tanks (why I don't keep about a dozen on hand I don't know).

                                                      In the meantime, I've been crumpling up a few paper towels and drizzling vegetable oil on them, works great for the chimney, doesn't leave much ash at all. I heard people use old bacon grease instead of oil, sounds good to me.

                                                    2. I started using the chimney starter when I started doing Dutch oven cooking. The chimney is perfect for getting a small batch of coals going in a hurry, and to keep new coals on hand (to replace exhausted coals as cooking progresses). If you are using your Weber for indirect cooking, this works much better than adding unstarted coals, since you skip the big temp drop when the black coals are added and the big temp spike when the new coals are in their "gray ash" phase.

                                                      The chimney starter is a LOT faster than the "pile the briquettes in a pile and soak with lighter fluid method". Once a couple of briquettes light, the chimney starts developing a draft which increases the temperature very quickly and gets all the coals in on the party. Usually with the "pile" method, you end up with a few spots that are ready to go while the rest is just getting going.

                                                      Really don't think the smoke from the newspaper is too bad (only need 1 or 2 pieces). Once the draft gets going, there is very little smoke. A whole lot better than the petroleum fumes.

                                                      No need to spend a lot, no need to buy the Weber model. The heat and smoke will make any starter look pretty nasty so I am afraid that spending more will just make you feel bad when it starts to look bad. I have had a generic starter that I picked up from the local hardware store for 3 years and have had no problems. It spends most of the time between April and November outside in the elements.

                                                      For the truly cheap (or for over-enthused Boy Scouts who used one of these in their youth), you can make a perfectly fine starter out of a large tin can (big juice or coffe can). Use a church key to punch a bunch of holes in the side near the bottom, cut out the top and bottoms. Drill some holes in the sides about a third of the way up and put enough 9 gage steel wire across to keep the briquettes from falling through (bend the ends of the wire to keep the wire from slipping out). Works great, but you will need a pair of welding gloves and a pot gripper to manage things once you have a mess of hot coals.

                                                      1. Lighter fluid is a pollutant and a health danger. I believe Los Angeles banned its use some years ago. And, as other say, the chimney works great. And, if it gets a little rust on it, who cares? We're natural gas now but before that we probably bought only two chimneys in twenty years.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                          I live in LA and I heard something about banning them several years ago but I've always seen starter fluids on store shelves, even now.

                                                        2. I'm all for the chimney for a myriad of reasons (most of which have already been discussed)

                                                          safety and ease of use are my favorite, no nasty lighter fluid taste and the ability to reliably and evenly light large amounts of coal is great too

                                                          I will never go back since purchasing my Weber chimney

                                                          1. I heart my chimney starters. I have a cheapo Aussie charcoal grill that I actually upgraded to (my first was a little thing that I got for $7.99 at Menards). Lighter fluid always put me off grilling, but I "invested" 7 or 8 bucks for a chimney starter at Lowes. Since then I've been grilling a lot more! I now have two, the one from Lowes and a bigger one from Weber. I use the bigger one if I'll be doing more grilling (like for a party) or if I'm grilling something that will take longer. The CS is easy to use and it doesn't leave a nasty taste.

                                                            Had dinner at a friend's last weekend--he has a small Smoky Joe and he used the lighter fluid. It really does impart an off smell and taste.

                                                            1. Just to point out, depending on the type and design of your charcoal grill, loading the grill with chimney full of started coals may be impractical, or even sometimes impossible. But these are rare cases.

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: roadfix

                                                                You don't always have to have the starter chock full -- just figure how much coal you need, fill up your starter (add a little bit more than you think you need) and away you go. Most starters will fit on all but the tiniest hibachis. Most of my charcoal needs are for Dutch Oven cooking so usually only need 24 briquettes, which is less than half of my starters cappacity. Obviously, don't set your starter on your wood balcony if that is what you got.

                                                              2. Another fervent "YES" for the starter.

                                                                1. Don't believe all those tree hugger's and environmental extremists about lighter fluid. I smoke hundreds of pounds of brisket all the time and start the my coals up with lighter fluid before I put on real wood. Just make sure you burn the fluid off before putting the meat on. The only time one can get an acrid taste from the fluid is if the fluid is not all burned off and the meat is too close to fluid before it does burns off. Having said that, I also agree with a previous poster that the Match Light should NOT be used as it constantly burns off chemicals as your cooking. Having said that again, keep in mind ALL charcoal has chemicals in them in some form. That's one of the ways to get to be briquetts.

                                                                  7 Replies
                                                                  1. re: bbqbrisket

                                                                    >>"Having said that again, keep in mind ALL charcoal has chemicals in them in some form."<<

                                                                    Um, no. Hardwood lump charcoal is carbonized wood. Nothing else.

                                                                    As far as "tree hugger's" [sic] and "environmental extremists," most folks who use a chimney do so for one simple reason: it works better than using lighter fluid. But if we're calling names, I can think of one for somebody who insists on a method that costs more, doesn't work as well, stinks up the entire neighborhood, and damages the environment in the process...

                                                                    1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                      Really. The more often you use charcoal, the more cost effective it is to buy a chimney you can use over and over for years than it is to constantly be buying lighter fluid!

                                                                      1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                        carbonized wood isn't made from chemicals? how's that work?

                                                                        but yea - i stopped using lighter fluid because the smell was frakin nauseating.

                                                                        1. re: thew

                                                                          Everything's made from chemicals if you get right down to it. But lump charcoal has nothing added - no petroleum byproducts, no binders, no fillers - it's just wood.

                                                                        2. re: alanbarnes

                                                                          Lighter fluid doesn't do any more "damage" than a few sheets of paper. It's putting out the same byproducts, just that the paper is also leaving pure carbon behind in solid form.

                                                                          That said, a chimney is far superior to lighter fluid. More efficient and faster.

                                                                          1. re: bagofwater

                                                                            You're assuming 100% combustion. Starting a fire with lighter fluid releases plenty of uncombusted VOCs into the atmosphere.

                                                                        3. re: bbqbrisket

                                                                          Lighter fluid will never burn off, once it soaks into the coals. Instead, after flashing through a significant portion as the coals are igniting, the coals will slowly burn through the remaining fluid throughout much of the cooking time.

                                                                          In your particular case, it's quite a bit different. You are using charcoal as your kindling, which means the quantity of coals and fluids you are using are far less than someone who is cooking burgers and dogs all day on the grill (this is, of course, assuming that you're doing your cue in a stickburner).

                                                                          In any event, the filler used in briquettes is a far cry from what is in lighter fluid. Namely, outside of MatchLight(r), there are no petroleum products in the briquettes. Rather, the filler in your standard briq does not burn, which is why it leaves behind so much ash.

                                                                          I can definitely see how your methods work for your application, but I think when using charcoal as the primary cooking fuel lighter fluid is not a good idea. To the original poster, I say "buy the doggone chimney already!" :)

                                                                        4. I recommend you get one. I like not having to smell lighter fluid, and if you get a good one, like the large Weber, it will last a long time, and some people even use it like a heat funnel and cook a steak on a grate on TOP of the chimney.

                                                                          I've found that off-brand chimneys rust and fall apart faster than the Weber brand.

                                                                          6 Replies
                                                                          1. re: Bada Bing

                                                                            Agree, the Weber is bigger, and made of heavier guage material than the off-brands. Sometimes you do get what you pay for, it's worth the little extra.

                                                                            1. re: mikie

                                                                              Resurrecting this thread instead of starting a new one. I've just got back into charcoal, I bought a Weber chimney starter and it's so fast. The coals were ready in about 10-12 mins. My only concern is that the chimney starter is only so big, I need more charcoal (and I'm only using the small 18.5 Weber Kettle).

                                                                              Any tips out there? Barring buying another chimney what do you guys do? Tips/tricks are appreciated.

                                                                              1. re: JerkPork

                                                                                Hi, Jerkpork:

                                                                                I usually just use the lit briquets from the chimney as a starter layer in my pit, i.e., you add more briqs and wait for THOSE to come up.

                                                                                If you're in a hurry to start cooking quick, yeah, a second chimney would help. As does a heat gun or even a hair dryer.

                                                                                A final suggestion is that the electric "loop" type starters also work well. If you (can) go this route, you *already* have all your briqs piled up over the loop, and so you don't need to add any. This method solves the problem of ashes and ink from newsprint, too.

                                                                                Aloha,
                                                                                Kaleo

                                                                                1. re: JerkPork

                                                                                  I'm not being glib here when I say I'd recommend rethinking how much fuel you need. A full chimney is a *lot* of fuel. I never fill mine more than 1/2 or 3/4. If you still feel you need that much, as kaleokahu said, if you really want more, have a layer of unlit charcoal already spread out and dump your lit on top.

                                                                                  1. re: bagofwater

                                                                                    I think the issue Jerk Pork is having isn't with the quantity of charcoal, but with the grill. Weber's are nice enough, but 1) the grate supporting the coals is way smaller than the cooking grate, and way at the bottom of the deep kettle 2) height of the cooking grate is fixed.

                                                                                    For normal use, this is OK...the shape of the grill means you get nice moderate heat over a big area and minimal flare-ups, and really dial it down if you want to go indirect.

                                                                                    It also means you need to overload the grill with fuel if you want very high heat...an alternative would be to jerry-rig a larger grate that would raise the coals a bit higher. In any event, good luck!

                                                                                    1. re: bagofwater

                                                                                      Hey bagofwater, thanks and you are right. I realized this past weekend that a full chimney is quite a lot of fuel (even before I read your post) plus I had some leftover charcoal in there from the previous session. It got way too hot especially for whole fish.

                                                                                      I had the vents closed on the bottom when first posting this last week and that's why my fire wasn't that hot and why I thought I needed more charcoal (didn't know about the affects of the vents at the time). I've learned quite a bit already but still have a lot of practicing to do. I don't know if I'll even be able to get that indirect flow going (for say a whole spatchcock chicken) since I only have the small 18.5 kettle.

                                                                                      What would you recommend for a moderate heat say to do a whole fish? Go indirect? What about only laying a thin layer of charcoal to cover the whole grill, is that a good idea?

                                                                                      Thanks
                                                                                      JP

                                                                              2. absolutely!! Your food will taste like lighter fluid otherwise.

                                                                                1 Reply
                                                                                1. re: FitMom4Life

                                                                                  The fluid doesn't penetrate in the few seconds before I light it. It is drawn immediately into the flame, and gets charcoal started quickly and cleanly in my yard.

                                                                                  If there are only two of us, I always charbroil a thick steak or chop on top of the chimney, for the best seared crust. Heston Blumenthal recommends turning every 30 seconds, and that works very well.

                                                                                2. I didn't read all of the replies to this...but yes, I use a chimney starter...only hardwood charcoal. I have a gas grill, but it doesn't get hot enough to sear a good steak..Good for chicken and longer cooking meats....for a good steak, only charcoal will do...so, I spray a piece of newspaper with a Pam type oil spray...put in the bottom of a chimney starter with hardwood charcoal on top....light, and you're off in no time....fluid does affect the taste.

                                                                                  1. Use a chimney starter.
                                                                                    2 sheets of newsprint a bit of vegetable oil
                                                                                    twist into a snake
                                                                                    make a circle
                                                                                    put in base
                                                                                    light
                                                                                    Courtesy of Alton Brown

                                                                                    1. You can make a cheap approximation with a coffee can. Just go around the bottom with a can opener, punching triangular holes. That is what we did forty years ago. If you like the results, you will go get a Weber.