How to Use a Charcoal Chimney

No need for chemicals such as lighter fluid, start your grill with a charcoal chimney instead. Here's how to use a charcoal starter.

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Are you stuck without lighter fluid but ready to grill with charcoal? It's not an easy proposition, especially if you don't have a lot of time—but there is an effective alternative, and it's called a chimney starter or charcoal chimney. If your lighter fluid gets lost or unexpectedly runs out when you are ready to grill, it's a good idea to know how to use a charcoal chimney: Let's look at what you need to do.

Tools Required

  • Chimney starter

Project step-by-step (5)

Step 1

Acquire a Chimney Starter

chimney starter with hot coalsGabor Tinz/Shutterstock

A charcoal chimney starter is basically a metal tube that you insert briquettes into (we’ll talk more about why this works in a bit). It has a grate toward the bottom that keeps the coals from falling through, and a couple of handles so you can pick the coal starter up when it’s hot. And that’s basically it.

This means that if you have the right tools and know-how, you could probably construct a simple charcoal chimney of your own. It will need to be the right size for the amount of charcoal your grill typically requires, but it is certainly a viable project.

However, the fastest and easiest method is to buy a charcoal chimney starter instead. They are a little more complicated than homemade versions, but safer and simpler to use, and they tend to come in a couple of different sizes based on your grilling needs.

Step 2

Pile Up Coals Carefully

charcoal chimney with black charcoalJack Jelly/Shutterstock

Whether bought or created, you now have your charcoal starter. Learn how to use a charcoal chimney by first piling the top with charcoal briquettes. The grate or mesh in the chimney prevents the charcoal from escaping, and typically has an upward bend to it, which creates a little tent of briquettes when looking up into a full chimney. You don’t always need to fill the chimney to the brim: Remember to use however many briquettes that you normally would for your grill. Double-check the grate to make sure it’s not loose or too weak.

Step 3

Place and Light Your Combustible

charcoal chimney with close-up of lit coalsRyan Haines Photography/Shutterstock

Some people prefer to use lighter cubes or other pre-made combustibles, which you would place on the center of your grill and light (candles just won’t do, you need something a bit stronger). Others prefer to wad up newspaper and stick it in the bottom of the chimney starter, then light the edges of the newspaper, a cheaper technique that requires a bit more practice to get just right without overstuffing and blocking airflow.

Step 4

Allow the Coals to Heat Until They are Ready

lit black charcoalRyan Haines Photography/Shutterstock

Place your chimney starter in the middle of the grill with the combustible lit and growing. Watch carefully for the first few minutes to make sure the combustible doesn’t go out. After that it should be pretty obvious that the charcoal has caught fire and is starting to warm up. Cover the top or find other protection if it is raining, but remember to give the smoke a way to escape as well.

Wait for around 15 minutes at this stage, give or take a few minutes based on the size of your chimney and how much charcoal you are using.

Step 5

Pour the Coals into the Grill

charcoal chimney pouring hot coals in grillGabor Tinz/Shutterstock

Take the chimney up by the handle, open the grate on your grill, and pour the charcoal briquettes very slowly inside (too fast and you create a rush of sparks plus the chance of a spill).

Now close the charcoal grill, put the lid on and wait for another 10 minutes or so. This allows the heat to build up properly, as if the coals were cooking inside the grill this whole time. When they are ready, adjust the grill as you normally would and start cooking! Once you’re done, learn how to put out a charcoal grill safely.