The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

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I was talking to someone about grilling the other day and was surprised to find out that not only did they not use a charcoal chimney, they didn’t even know what it was or did. That conversation was the inspiration for this blog entry. If you use a charcoal grill and don’t use a charcoal chimney, you owe it to yourself to check them out. They make lighting charcoal easy, fast and predictable. The predictable part is nice as you know exactly how much time it takes to get the coals started, similar to firing up a gas grill. You will quickly learn the time to allow to light the chimney based on the brand charcoal and amount of charcoal you use. For me a half chimney with DuraFlame is 12 minutes in warm weather and about 18 in the cold. So I go out to light the chimney 15 minutes ahead of time in the summer and 20 minutes before in the winter.


The Weber chimney is well built, has a contoured plastic handle and a secondary wire handle that assists in pouring.

The charcoal chimney was one of the things that got me to try charcoal grilling again, despite bad childhood memories of what a pain in the neck it could be lighting a charcoal fire. You were dealing with smelly lighter fluid, and often several failed attempts before getting the fire going. Would it actually catch and then when it did, would it stay lit? It also seemed to be an unwritten law: The more people were standing around waiting to eat, the harder the grill was to light. Then there was the whole lighter fluid thing, where people would say they could taste the lighter fluid in the food if you didn’t wait for it to burn off. This was also true of charcoal like Kingsford’s Match Light which was impregnated with lighter fluid. The whole process was just too much of a voodoo art and not enough of a science for me. I like the idea that you go out and light the gas grill and 15 minutes later it is ready, every time. And then there is something like lump charcoal which is even harder to light than regular charcoal. I can’t imaging trying to light lump without a chimney starter.


The coals light from the bottom up (left) and after about 15 minutes the top coals are glowing and ashed over.

When I got my gas grill and started watching Steven Raichlen’s BBQ University show on PBS, I was introduced to the charcoal chimney. I did a little checking around today and found that the chimney starter, as the charcoal chimney is also called, was patented in the 1960’s. Frankly I never remember seeing one then or even into the early 70’s, which was my last time using a charcoal grill. The chimney starter is a metal cylinder about 8” in diameter and 12” to 16” tall. It has an wire grate about 3” from the bottom which holds the charcoal 3” up in the air. Below this grate there are lots of openings to let in combustion air and is also where you insert a match to light the chimney. The upper part of the cylinder often has a few smaller vent holes too. There is a handle on the side used for picking up the chimney and dumping the lit coals into the grill. This describes the basics of a charcoal chimney. The procedure is you wad up some newspapers and put them in the 3” space below the open grate at the bottom of the chimney. You pour in the amount of coals you wish to light, for big grills I have seen people light 3 chimneys at once. Place the chimney on a non-combustible surface and insert a lit match into one of the bottom vent holes and light the newspaper. The newspaper catches and serves as kindling to start lighting the coals. The vents in the bottom allow combustion air to come in and the the draft is contained within the cylinder and the coals at the bottom quickly ignite and then start lighting adjacent coals from the bottom up. The chimney intensifies the draft and accelerates the lighting of the coals. You are ready to go when the coals at the top are glowing and showing some grey. You put on a pair of BBQ gloves and dump the lit coals into your grill. Repeat as necessary if you are doing an extended cook.


Since I can’t put my chimney on the grill grate I elevate it off the ground on a concrete block. As you can see it keeps it away from the leaves and pine needles. Those pine needles blew down on a windy autumn night in the 15 minutes it took the chimney to warm up. The block also helps keep the bottom of the chimney off the wet or snow ground.

One thing I learned is you get what you pay for. Originally I had a chimney which I paid $12.95 for and it wasn’t without some problems. When I had a few sessions where the chimney lit but didn’t stay lit, I did some research. It seems there are differences in the chimneys and how well they light. I switched to the Weber chimney, which is shown in the picture below the first paragraph of this blog. This was based on recommendations on several Grilling and BBQ message boards. What did I get for less than double the price: Reliability was the first thing. In my short time using the first model I had several failures, with the Weber after over 100 uses I’ve had one or two failures but these could be traced to trying to cook when it was 10 degrees (-12 C) outside and extremely windy. The second thing was build quality. The Weber chimney has lasted 4 years and shows no sign of stopping. The first chimney was somewhat flimsy looking and who knows if it would have lasted 4 months. The cheapie had a thin wooden handle, the Weber a contoured plastic handle. Wood grill tools may look nice at first but give me metal or high temperature plastic for my grill tools. There weren’t as many vent holes in the bottom of the first chimney, which is another way of saying I think the Weber unit gives a better draft. The Weber unit had a second metal handle that is used when dumping the coals. You hold the main handle in one hand and the secondary handle in the other hand to give you more precise control during the pour. As I said: The Weber model has been almost 100 percent reliable, is well built and was well worth the $8.00 difference between it and the cheapie.


A refillable butane lighter makes lighting the chimney easier than using matches.

I will finish with some tips and tricks I have learned using my charcoal chimney.

  • Read the directions and use the exact amount of newspapers they recommend. Too few and they may burn off before properly igniting the charcoals. Too many and they will prevent a good draft. Come to think of it one of my failures in the Weber was when I used 1 1/2 and not 2 sheets of newspapers like I was supposed to.
  • Check on the charcoal chimney after about 5 minutes to make sure the burning newspapers were successful in getting the charcoals to light. The newspapers will be pretty much gone but you should see flames coming from the charcoal at the bottom of the pile.
  • Light the chimney on a non combustible surface. Most people simple use the their grill grate. On my smoker the Side Fire Box with its curved cover is too small to hold the chimney and I often use the time the chimney is firing up to put the water pan and sometimes my food in the main chamber. So for me I use a concrete block to get it up in the air. This keeps it off the ground where at certain times of the year there can be snow or leaves or pine needles.
  • Wear BBQ gloves to pick up and dump the coals. I would suggest that you wear gloves that extend up your arms almost to your elbows. The DuraFlame charcoal I prefer makes lots of sparks.
  • Do not wear open shoes when dumping hot coals into the grill. Actually sandals or flip flops are not a good idea any time you are around the hot grill.
  • Have some old BBQ tongs that you no longer use for food around to pick up any hot coals that fall to the ground or that you need to rearrange within the grill.
  • You can vary the amount of coals you light to get a certain temperature fire. Where I use mine for low and slow BBQ at 225 degrees, I don’t often do this. But once in a while if I need to go to 300 degrees I light a full chimney instead of a half chimney. You will often find recommendations in grill cookbooks for how much to put in your chimney for this or that temperature.
  • The warmup time is pretty consistent but may take 5 minutes longer in the real cold weather.
  • You may also want to add some coals to your normal amount in the extreme cold to make up for heat loss due to outside air temps.
  • A little refillable butane lighter is often easier to use than matches to light the chimney, particularly in the wind.
  • On a really windy day allow a little extra time for lighting the chimney as the wind can blow out the match before you get it into the side of the chimney. The wind can also blow out the butane lighters. So it often takes several attempts on a really windy day.
  • Store your charcoal properly. Charcoal chimneys make hard to light charcoal, such as lump, easier to light. However they will not help out if the charcoal is too damp, so make sure to keep it dry. I had this problem with some charcoal stored in an open porch near the ocean. It wouldn’t light period.

So if you are currently using charcoal and aren’t using another device like an electric starter to light it, definitely get yourself a charcoal chimney. The coals will light reliably and without lighter fluid. Or if you are using Match Light or something similar, you’ll be able to go to regular charcoal and save some money. The charcoal chimney is probably the difference that allowed me to consider going back to using charcoal. It really makes that much of a difference and is very short money. Oh and my apologies if the title of this blog has that song from the 70’s running through your head out of control.


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