How to start your charcoal quickly with a chimney

Grilling can't begin without a heat source, and since the majority of us are using grills that are heated by charcoal, it's nice to know some basics to start your charcoal quickly and efficiently. 

Primary types of fuels for backyard grills

Strong, direct heat must be applied to your charcoal in order for it to begin to smolder. This can be done by squirting a flammable lighter fluid on it, by burying a metal coil electric coal starter underneath the charcoal, or by applying direct flame in a controlled enclosure such as a metal charcoal chimney.

How I don't start my charcoal

Although it can be a fast way to light charcoal, I strongly recommend against using lighter fluid for grilling. First, it is highly combustible and could too easily lead to an uncontrollable fire. Second, the chemical compounds can be harmful or fatal if consumed, and there's a good chance those chemicals could end up in the food you're cooking. Last, I always notice a distinct aftertaste in the food when the coals have been lit with fluid, and it is not a good taste! After just a few uses of lighter fluid, your grill will be tainted permanently, and you will live with a frown for the rest of your grill’s life.

Metal coil-style electric charcoal starters can be very effective, but their primary drawback, in my opinion, is the need for electricity nearby, in order to plug them in. For backyard grilling, you might be able to run an extension cord from your house to your grill area, but that's not practical if you're grilling in a park, while camping, or anywhere else without convenient electricity. Also, more than once I have had an electric starter that stopped working just months after purchasing. That can be pretty disappointing when you're all ready to put some food on the grill!

How I start my charcoal

I personally only use a metal charcoal chimney, and I recommend it as a great way to start your charcoal. There are many styles and brands available, but the one I use is pretty standard. 

Charcoal chimneys can be used with either lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes. The chimney contains the charcoal in a cylindrical stack and creates a space underneath for a starter flame. Once that flame is going, the heat is transferred in a controlled and efficient way up into your charcoal. The metal cylinder also helps protect the coals from wind or other factors that might cool them off.

  1. Rip a paper bag into about three pieces and crumple it into the reservoir at the bottom of your chimney. You can also use a sheet of newspaper.
  2. Place the chimney onto the lower charcoal grill grate in your grill. For now, leave off the upper grate that you cook food on. 
  3. Fill the upper part of the chimney with your charcoal (briquettes or lump charcoal).
  4. Use a match or small propane torch to light the paper in the bottom.
  5. Relax and let the charcoal ignite and burn until the majority of the pieces are ash gray. I find that this typically takes 10-15 minutes.
  6. Once the majority of coals are ash gray, grab a pair of gloves (the chimney will be hot!) and gently pour out the coals onto the charcoal grate.
  7. You are now ready to replace the upper grate and get to cooking!

Next: Now that you know how to start your charcoal, learn how to set up your grill for two-zone heating.