The Best Way to Start a Charcoal Grill

It was always frustrating for me trying to start a pile of charcoal with lighter fluid. No matter how much charcoal I had, or how saturated it was with lighter fluid, it would often flare up, only to burn out long before the coals had enough heat to keep them smoldering on their own. Not to mention the safety nozzle that was nearly impossible to open – after all, the nozzle says right on its red plastic “Pry Open” with an arrow! My husband enlightened me to the use of a chimney starter (may also be known as a chimney lighter), and it is also the preferred method for the famous cooks of America’s Test Kitchen and their corresponding magazines, Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country.

You can find chimney starters for around $10 at most discount department stores and of course, online. There is no need to ever buy lighter fluid again, which is a nice elimination of the dangerous petroleum distillates that also give off harmful fumes. A chimney starter works by having a flammable material such as newspaper lighting the briquettes at the bottom, and with its cylindrical shape and chimney design, keeps the heat spreading through the briquettes more efficiently and more quickly than an open pile.

To use a chimney starter, simply do the following:

Remove the upper grate of your grill that food is placed on, leaving the bottom grate in place where charcoal is normally piled.

Form balls of newspaper and fit them in rather snugly into the bottom of the chimney starter. The bottom end of the chimney starter is the one with a grate inside the chimney starter closer to that end – the grate separates the newspaper from the charcoal and the rest of the chimney starter is filled above this inner grate with charcoal. Alternatively, one can form rings of newspaper and place them in the bottom of the chimney starter.

Set the chimney starter on the bottom grate of your grill and fill with the desired amount of charcoal. This will depend somewhat on what you are grilling and the size of your chimney starter, but unless it is a very small food item or just a serving or two, we fill ours about an inch short of the top.

Light the newspaper through the vents of the chimney starter in several places (can be circles, slats, etc. depending on your model) with matches, trigger lighter – or whatever your favorite source of flame is.

Dump the charcoal out of the chimney starter (using the cool touch handle most models come with, or be sure to have heavy duty oven mitts because the metal will be hot) onto your grill in the necessary design – one larger pile for straight-forward foods such as hamburgers, or a taller and smaller pile tapering down to a shallow layer if needing a two-level fire that is best for foods needing a high temperature searing followed by a lower temperature cooking. Replace food grill and start grilling!

Voila! You have successfully, safely, and quickly started your grill using a chimney starter and without using petroleum lighter fluid! Your house can now have one less potentially dangerous substance sitting around.

Please keep in mind a couple other points of safety – never light a grill, or chimney starter, indoors. This is an obvious fire hazard and carbon monoxide danger.

I recently learned online that you should never set a lit chimney starter flat on concrete – it can explode the concrete, posing a danger to people and permanent damage to the concrete.

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