The 10 Best Chimney Starters
This wiki has been updated 23 times since it was first published in April of 2016. Don't undo everything charcoal does for the flavor of your food by dousing the briquettes in lighter fluid before you cook. Instead, kick off your grilling and smoking quickly and easily with one of these quality chimney starters. Each is designed to be ignited with only a few wads of newspaper and a match, and to reliably deliver red-hot coals in a matter of minutes. When users buy our independently chosen editorial selections, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
July 01, 2020:
Removed the Cuisinart CCC-100 because of availability issues. Added the Outset Q110.
While there are plenty of ways to start charcoal without using lighter fluid, charcoal chimneys provide an enclosed space that exposes charcoals to the intense heat of your fuel source while providing plenty of oxygen during the lighting process. If you're smoking meat or veggies in a smoker, I highly recommend using a chimney. Besides making it easy to start the coals, the point of using a chimney is to get the coals to the point to where they are no longer producing smoke. This is important because when you smoke food, you really only want your food to be exposed to the smoke produced by the wood you use over the coals. Therefore, you'll want to keep starting your charcoal in the chimney every time you need to add more coals, even though you can just keep adding more coals to the existing firebox. What I like to do is to take a few lit coals from the firebox, place them in the chimney, and then add more charcoal over them. In a few minutes, the new coals catch and are ready to be added without worrying about charcoal smoke.
The Lodge Charcoal Prepper and the Outset Q110 are both nicely made chimneys with solid grates and wooden handles. I prefer the wooden handle because plastic has the tendency of melting or burning at much lower temperatures than wood, and I find that I have to use gloves to hold onto plastic handles where that is not the case with wooden handles. I should quickly note that the Outset claims that their handle is made of rosewood but since there is no discernible grain and no visible pores on the endgrain, (along with trade restrictions involving genuine rosewoods) it is probably not a rosewood handle. Either way, it is a wooden handle and it stays cool enough to touch without gloves.
The Unwelcome Guest
The reasons that lighter fluid is less than stellar are numerous, and it’s tough to say which one of its detrimental side effects would be the worst.
We know that all you cookout chefs can become just a touch heated when someone tries to tell you how to throw a barbecue, which is fine. Everyone has their own rituals and choices, from special tongs to precise steak-flipping timing, and we would never talk smack about the size of any man’s grill. But there is one thing you can do that may just earn you a disapproving shake of the head from other grill masters: douse your charcoal in lighter fluid.
The reasons that lighter fluid is less than stellar are numerous, and it’s tough to say which one of its detrimental side effects would be the worst. The havoc it can wreak on your health, though, is probably near the top of the list. Inhaling the fumes given off by lighter fluid can cause burning in the ears, nose, and throat; nausea; headaches; weakness; and more. It can create a toxic residue in the food you consume, and you can probably imagine how terrible it would be if you actually drank it. Not that you would, of course, but if you have kids around, lighter fluid must always be locked out of reach.
The environmental impact isn’t much better. Lighter fluid creates volatile organic compounds as it burns, which contribute to smog. Back in the 1990s, the South Coast Air Quality Management District voted a lighter fluid ban into effect for Los Angeles and the surrounding areas to curb pollution caused by the American love affair with backyard grilling. Since that time, manufacturers have begun offering more environmentally friendly versions, but the key word here is “more” — many common variations are still not all that great for the planet.
There are also several material considerations. Too much fluid, and you could suddenly have an aggressive fire to deal with; not only that, but even a normal amount can lead to burns if you aren’t careful and get it on your hands or clothes. Chemical flavoring from lighter fluid is known to transfer to your delicious foods, and no matter how “eco-friendly” it is, you risk running out of it. Hungry guests probably won’t be thrilled to wait while you run to the store to buy some more.
In short, lighter fluid is not your friend.
Getting Started With Chimney Starters
Fortunately, there is a simple, convenient, and budget-friendly way to get either lump charcoal or briquettes fired up: the chimney starter. These easy-to-use devices resemble a small chimney that you light atop your grill; when the coals are heated thoroughly, you pour them into the grill and begin cooking. Best of all, since you don’t need any lighter fluid, your food will come out clean, with no lingering and unpleasant tastes. To get you started, we’ve got a few tips for using one of these handy devices.
Under no circumstances should you let the chimney starter heat up while sitting on top of concrete, such as your driveway or sidewalk, or around dry grass or wood.
To operate your chimney starter, you’ll place some dry, flammable newspaper in the bottom, while your charcoal goes in the top. A grate with holes holds the charcoal over the paper-burning area, while holes in the side of the device ensure proper air flow. You’ll need to put the whole thing on top of your grill during heating. Under no circumstances should you let the chimney starter heat up while sitting on top of concrete, such as your driveway or sidewalk, or around dry grass or wood.
With most average-sized chimney starters, it should take between 15 and 25 minutes for your charcoal to become ready for use. You’ll see the flame coming up through the middle as well as the familiar gray coloring that signals charcoal that’s ready for cooking. Don’t wait too long, however. You don’t want the briquettes or lumps to be uniformly gray; instead, catch it when this gray ash is just starting to form.
And although it probably doesn’t need to be said, we’ll say it anyway. A chimney starter in use will become exceedingly hot. Even though many models today have heat shields and insulated handles and excellent features to help keep you safe, you should still wear protection on your hands and be careful while moving one.
Cooking Out The Healthy Way
Grilling food outside is nothing new, and it’s a popular obsession across the world for good reason: the fresh air, the delectable smells permeating your senses, the anticipation of biting into a juicy burger and washing it down with a cold brew…plus, a cookout is the perfect excuse for spending time with your loved ones. The only drawback is that grilling is not exactly the healthiest way to prepare food, even if you forgo chemical-laden lighter fluid for a handy chimney starter. But don’t worry; we’ve got a few ideas for making your next cookout more wholesome.
Keep raw meat away from other foods and wash all utensils used with raw meat thoroughly in hot, soapy water.
First, start strong by marinating your meat in a marinade with a lemon or vinegar base. Not only will this add extra flavor, but it has been shown to impede the carcinogens that could form during grilling. Keep your grill free from fatty drippings that will cause excess smoke, and consider wrapping your food in foil instead of placing it directly on the grill.
Then, focus on food safety during prep. Keep raw meat away from other foods and wash all utensils used with raw meat thoroughly in hot, soapy water. You don’t want to be known as the host(ess) who gave everyone salmonella that one time.
Also, once you’ve perfected your meat grilling techniques, you might try letting veggies take center stage. This means more than just ho-hum ears of corn; try hearty slices of eggplant, cauliflower, zucchini, or portobello mushroom. And when considering your meal overall, including appetizers, sides, and desserts, opt for more fresh vegetables and fruits and fewer mayonnaise-coated “salads” or sugary snacks.
Finally, choose whole grain buns and breads for your hamburgers and tofu dogs. Whole grains will give you more nutrients and fiber than their processed cousins; research has even indicated that dietary fiber from whole grain foods can lower blood cholesterol levels.