Getting better at lighting charcoal is a matter of having the right tools and using them properly. One great tool for lighting charcoal is a chimney starter. A chimney starter looks like an empty coffee can with a handle on the side and ventilation holes on the bottom. You place your charcoal inside the chimney and a highly flammable material (usually newspaper) underneath the chimney. You light the flammable material and the natural draft of the chimney draws the intense flames through the charcoal. Chimneys work extremely well and can be found quite easily in stores or online.
Although the chimneys are great at lighting charcoal there are helpful tips on their use that are not widely known. Some of these tips make using the chimney easier while others are very important for your safety.
- Do not use your chimney on your driveway. It is very common for people to light their chimneys on their driveway. This is a bad idea for three reasons. The least important is that the heat and ash can leave a circular stain on the driveway that must be pressure washed to be removed. The second least important reason is that after you dump the coals the area where the chimney was sitting is extremely hot and is a burn hazard to any pets or barefoot kids that might walk by. The most important reason why you should never light your chimney while it is sitting on your driveway is that sometimes the intense heat of the chimney will cause pockets of water inside the concrete to rapidly vaporize and expand. When this happens a small portion of your driveway literally explodes and sends little bits of concrete flying through the air.
- Don’t light your chimney on the top grate of your grill. This is an extremely common rookie mistake with chimneys. If you use your top grill grate to light your charcoal by the time the coals are fully lit the top grate is often glowing hot. Not only will this warp and deform your cooking surface but now you have to find some heavily insulated gloves just so you can lift the top grate to pour your coals underneath. A better solution is to remember to light the chimney on the charcoal grate which sits below the top grate.
- Don’t use newspaper. The majority of people who utilize charcoal chimneys light them with newspaper as it is almost always on hand. The downside to using newspaper is that it does not completely combust. If you use newspaper there will always be a pile of black ash and paper flecks left behind that is more than happy to fly through the air and get all over your food. A better solution is to use a starter cube. Weber makes and sells packs of white starter cubes that are made of very clean burning paraffin. You get all the flammability of newspaper with none of the ash residue. Unlike lighter fluid, the starter cubes leave no smell behind.
- Use your side burner: Many grilling fanatics will often have both a charcoal and a gas grill. Most of the gas grills manufactured today also come with a side burner that in reality rarely gets used. A great way to get some use out of the side burner is to use it to light the charcoal in your chimney. If possible, remove the small cooking grate above the burner to let the flames get closer to the coals. Place the charcoal loaded chimney directly over the side burner, light the burner and set it to “High”. This works just as well as newspaper or starter cubes and lets you finally find a use for that side burner you paid an extra $50 for.
- Wear gloves: Even though chimneys come with a heat resistant handle it is important to always wear a glove (cotton or leather, not nitrile or latex) when handling a hot chimney. The reason is that chimneys have a finite life. Chimneys typically only last one to two grilling seasons before the effects of the extreme heat they are exposed to finally break them down. It is not always obvious when the handle on the chimney will break. Even if it is obvious that the handle integrity has been compromised some people will still use it because they need it right now and figure they will replace it tomorrow. If you are not wearing a glove when the handle fails on a hot chimney you will suffer a severe burn. Get in the habit of wearing a glove, even if you think you don’t need it.
- Watch your toes. This is a really important tip that I am still learning. When we grill it is pretty common to be wearing shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops. I always light my chimney on a junky old grill and carry the hot coals to my good grill. If you are carrying a hot chimney remember that hot embers often fall out the bottom. If these embers land on your unprotected toes they will burn your foot. Trust me, it hurts.
- Remember it’s hot: It is important to remember that after you dump the hot coals from the chimney into your grill that your chimney is still very hot and will remain so for at least 15 minutes. Do not place this hot chimney in the grass, on a plastic table or any other flammable surface. Always assume the chimney is hot and only grab it by the handle.
- You don’t have to fill: It is not always appropriate to completely fill your chimney with charcoal. If you are going to be cooking burgers and hotdogs on a 14 inch Weber Smokey Joe you might only need a quarter of a chimney of coals. If you are going to be cooking a “beer can chicken” on a 22 inch Weber Performer then you probably need a full chimney. It will take you a few tries to judge how much charcoal you really need but if you can figure this out you will end up using your charcoal much more efficiently.
- Use it as a grill: Although chimneys are not designed for this they can easily be utilized as a grill themselves. If you purchase a small cooking grate (A 14 inch replacement grate for a Smokey Joe would work great and is readily available) you can center this on top of a chimney full of hot coals. The area directly over the coals is going to be incredibly hot, much hotter than a normal grill will ever get. This is a great way to flash sear something like a piece of fresh tuna that you want grilled on the outside but still raw on the inside. This setup also works get for charring the flesh from bell peppers. Please exercise great care if you utilize this technique as this is not a manufacturer intended use of a charcoal chimney.
- Replace it: Chimneys are great but please remember that they are a consumable item. Just as you need to replace your grill brushes when they get too gunky you need to replace your chimney when it gets too rusty. A three year old rust bucket of a chimney is a hazard that could get you or someone near you hurt very badly. A new chimney is cheap; it should cost less than $20. Please don’t hesitate to get a new one when your current one starts to show signs of deterioration.
The last tip I will throw in for free because it is so important. When using a charcoal chimney always have a fire extinguisher nearby in case something does go wrong. I hope you find these hints useful and keep that you stay safe during your grilling adventures!