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A chimney starter is a metal cylinder with a charcoal grate mounted inside. Unlit charcoal is placed into the top of the cylinder and newspaper is placed into the bottom, under the grate. When the newspaper is lit, it burns and lights the charcoal above. The "chimney effect" causes the charcoal to light from the bottom all the way up to the top.
In my opinion, the best chimney on the market is the Weber Chimney Starter. It holds more charcoal than most—approximately 100 briquettes or 6 pounds worth of Kingsford Charcoal Briquets. It's well-built, rust-resistant, and has two sturdy handles for safe handling of hot charcoal.
The remainder of this article explains how to use a Weber Chimney Starter. The process is the same regardless of how much charcoal you're lighting or whether you're using briquettes or lump charcoal.
Remember...click on any of the pictures to view a larger image.
Photos 1-2 from Greg Caesar of Houston, TX, show the damage caused by a chimney starter on his concrete driveway.
Safe locations to light a chimney include:
Using a double-wide sheet of newspaper, roll loosely on the diagonal from one corner to the other. Bring the ends together to form a donut that fits inside the chimney starter (Photo 5).
Repeat with a second sheet of newspaper.
Stick the two newspaper donuts in the bottom of the chimney (Photo 6). Note that this leaves a hole in the center for air to flow up through the newspaper for faster lighting.
Turn the chimney right-side up, place it on a fire-safe surface, and fill it with the amount of charcoal you want to light.
Light the newspaper in several locations. You'll begin to see smoke coming out the top of the chimney starter (Photo 7).
After the newspaper has burned completely, wait 1-2 minutes, then hold your hand over the chimney...you should feel the heat of the coals starting to light.
It will take 10-20 minutes for the coals to light, depending on wind conditions, how much charcoal is in the chimney, and the type of charcoal being used.
The charcoal is ready when you see orange color deep inside the chimney starter, flames licking at the charcoal at the top of the chimney, and gray ash just starting to form on some of the charcoal at the top (Photo 8).
If you wait for all of the charcoal at the top of the chimney to be fully ashed-over, much of the charcoal in the bottom of the chimney will be spent, so go ahead and dump the charcoal into your cooker when it looks like Photo 8.
Sometimes you need to light just a few briquettes. Here are three ways to light small amounts of charcoal more effectively:
Use any of these methods and light as usual from below.
Here's a neat trick that makes newspaper burn longer in a chimney starter.
After putting the newspaper inside the chimney, give it a light spray of non-stick cooking spray. This makes the newspaper last longer because it won't burn until all of the oil burns away first.
One complaint about using newspaper in a chimney starter is that the leftover ashes can blow around in windy conditions. If this bothers you, there are several alternatives to consider.
Paraffin cubes (Photo 13) like Weber Lighter Cubes burn at 1300°F for 10-12 minutes. Light 2 cubes under the chimney (Photo 14) and you're good to go.
Alcohol-based liquid gel starters (Photo 15) are squirted onto the charcoal and lit. Gel starters should not be confused with charcoal lighter fluids, as they contain no foul-smelling petroleum products. Brands include Stove Bright Fire Starter and Duraflame Fresh Light.
Sawdust starters (Photo 16) are made of recycled sawdust and paraffin wax. Cut or break into chunks, place several pieces under the chimney, and light. Popular brands include Rutland SafeLite Fire Starters, Duraflame Quickstart, and Duraflame Firestart.
Diamond Strike-A-Fire (Photo 17) is "The 12-Minute Match/Fire Starter In One." It consists of a thin sawdust/paraffin strip with a match head coating on one end. Strike against the lighting strip on the box and place under the chimney.
Wick chafing fuel (Photo 18) such as Sterno Wick, is designed to heat food in a chafing dish, but some folks swear by them for lighting a chimney. Light the wick and place under the chimney for 10 minutes. These disposable units burn 2-6 hours and can be purchased wherever catering supplies are sold.
A few sheets of paper towel sprayed with non-stick cooking spray will get your charcoal started, and since it burns more completely than newspaper, it makes less of a mess.
Some folks light chimneys over the gas side burner on a gas grill or over a turkey deep-fryer burner. Be careful when using a gas side burner...if you leave the chimney on too long your side burner may experience a meltdown!
Finally, there's always a weed burner.
Photos of exploding concrete driveway: 2007 by Greg Caesar
© 1997-2015 Chris A. Allingham LLC
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