This ingeniously simple device reliably and consistently sets you up for a brilliant barbecue.
Trying to get a charcoal barbecue going is rather a drawn-out affair and a little too often it becomes an exercise in frustration and even embarrassment. That is, unless you have a Chimney Starter. Exit embarrassment, enter compliments!
Chimney Starters are simple but ingenious devices that allow you to get your barbecue going quickly, efficiently, and reliably without having to use lighter fluid with its attendant risks, the smell, and its impact on the taste of your beef and poultry. A chimney starter is a thickish steel cylinder with a built-in grate at the base and air-intake holes around the bottom. It has an insulated handle with a heat-shield between it and the canister, and another narrow, folding handle that is used when tipping out the glowing charcoal.
And tip out glowing charcoal you will, if you use one of these must-haves. In fact, they are so efficient that they can even be used on camping trips as temporary burners simply by putting another grate on top. Furthermore, alternatives like lighting fluid, airlighters, firestarters, and self-lighting bags have their own drawbacks but with chimney starters it’s all upside, no downside. A simple little procedure, fifteen to twenty minutes, and voila! —there’s a smooth bed of evenly-glowing charcoal!
In sum, a chimney starter releases you from the fussiness and technicalities of getting a charcoal barbecue all even and glowing hot, and lets you focus on something more important – barbecuing!
Do not mislead yourself by trying to figure out whether a chimney starter will or will not work with this or that shape of barbecue – that’s the wrong question. All you need do is to make sure that your chimney is not too small (or pointlessly large) for your barbecue grill.
In our evaluations below, we take size into account. However, more important considerations are price and features, such as the arrangement of intake vents, heat-shield, and auxiliary handle. The most important criteria are the overall build quality and the performance, that is, how cleanly, quickly, and consistently the kit gets you going on your barbecue.
Last update on 2020-12-01 / Affiliate links / Images / Pricing from Amazon Product Advertising API
It is said that a chimney starter is a charcoal barbecue-lover’s best friend. But be warned, if you buy one you may very well suffer a pang of regret— “Why, oh why, didn’t I get one ages ago?!”
For those who want only the best, Weber’s top-performing chimney is one of those ‘Buy Once’ products that, though costly, excel on all criteria.
Weber’s ‘RapidFire’ chimney starter is made of aluminium and steel. At 32 centimetres high and 20 centimetres in diameter it is a size ‘Large.’ It can fire up enough charcoal for a 57-centimetre kettle grill.
This kit’s first-rate design proves itself in how easily and reliably it fires up and by the fact that it brings its contents to a red-hot glow quicker than other chimneys. Fifteen minutes, and you’re ready to rumble. Perhaps it hits 100 mph because of the ring of intake vents at the bottom.
But that’s far from all. The handle is not only insulated, it is positioned quite some distance from the canister. It also has a well-designed and substantial heat-shield. Net result: the handle doesn’t get so hot. It also has an auxiliary folding handle which too is well-machined and smoothly hinged.
If a chimney starter could have excellent ‘build quality,’ this one does. It feels robust in hand. Yet, oddly enough, it weighs only 0.79 kilogrammes.
Weber’s Chimney Starter Set really is a ‘set;’ it comes with two kilogrammes of very good-quality charcoal briquettes and six lighting cubes.
Drawbacks? Hmm, let us think . . . oh, yes, it is certainly costlier than other chimneys. But for good reasons.
So though by chimney starter prices Weber’s set is costly, it should be borne in mind that it is a size ‘Large,’ and that a goodly quantity of briquettes and a starter set of lighting cubes are included. But the main thing is that this kit tops the table in performance. As such, it’s even quite a decent value. It wins our Best Pick spot, and wins it running away.
- Robust build quality yet lightweight, and of the finest design.
- Be it the speed in firing up or the insulated handle, it is the best in performance.
- A size ‘Large’ chimney, a bundle of briquettes, and even a few lighting cubes, all in one package.
- Costs somewhat more than other chimneys.
As cheap as it can get, Simpa’s small kit is a real value buy; though it may lack features and robustness, it is functional and fit for purpose.
A functional chimney with a no-frills, simple design is how one may thumbnail Simpa’s Wooden-Handled ‘Circle’ chimney. It is made of galvanised steel and has a wooden handle. The heat-shield is but a small flat plate. The steel sheet of the canister, as well as the heat-shield, are on the thin side but this kit’s wooden handle does somewhat better than the plastic ones on other chimney’s.
This is a size ‘Small’ chimney given its dimensions of 27.5 centimetres high and 17 centimetres wide, and it holds enough charcoal for a small 34- to 36-centimetre kettle grill.
This chimney does not have an auxiliary folding handle. It has just a few large holes ringing the bottom. No vertical intake holes (up the sides) means this one may take a little more time and smoke a bit.
(Simpa makes a more elaborate cuboid chimney starter with plastic handle and second folding handle, and it itself folds down for portability for camping trips. It is costlier than the simple and economical kit reviewed here.)
Though this chimney is assuredly good enough to do the job, the build quality is not as robust or as durable as those of most others.
Anyone who is not sold on the idea of a chimney starter and wants to test the waters with the minimal outlay of cash would be well advised to get Simpa’s economical ‘Circle’ chimney starter. It’s a terrific value for money, works well enough, and will probably impress you so much that you’ll splash out on a deluxe model.
For its rock-bottom price, Simpa’s ‘Circle’ Chimney is a very good little kit and it won the coin toss to break the tie for our Value Pick slot between it and the Woodside kit reviewed below.
- The simple wooden handle does not get quite as hot as some other chimneys’ plastic ones.
- As cheap as a chimney could be, it’s an excellent value for money.
- Allows you to try out a chimney starter for chump change.
- Lacking vertical air intake holes, it may take a little more time and also smoke a bit.
- Holds enough charcoal for only small grills and barbecues.
- Sturdiness and durability are not its strengths.
Small and simple, Woodside’s chimney is inexpensive, and though the plastic handle heats up a lot, it’s very fast at bringing charcoal to a glow.
Woodside’s Chimney Starter is a well-machined, simple kit that sells at a very affordable price. For an economy-class kit it has a very good heat-shield; however, it lacks a second ‘tipping’ handle (which is to be expected at the price point).
Measuring 27.5 centimetres in height and 17 centimetres in diameter, this is a size ‘Small’ starter that holds enough charcoal for a small 34- to 36-centimetre kettle grill..
It manifests excellent design with well-spaced intake and ventilation holes yet somehow it tends to smoke a little more than other chimneys. However, at its price point it is a bit more consistent and even a bit faster than other chimneys – closer to 15 minutes than 20.
The main flaw in this chimney is that the plastic handle is not insulated and heat-resistant; consequently, it gets very hot.
Besides being well-machined, Woodside’s chimney is on the solid and sturdy side, and at the price these qualities are especially impressive. Those who put a premium on build quality will find this kit a terrific value-for-money at its very low price.
Woodside’s chimney starter is not the cheapest one in this set of reviews but it very close, and the overall quality and solidity are such that on the value-for-money question this one ends up neck-and-neck with the Simpa kit. Consider it our ‘alternative’ Value Pick.
- For a budget-priced chimney it fires up impressively fast.
- Simple, but of a solid and sturdy build quality.
- The heat-shield is quite good and well-designed, and is a saving factor on the handle.
- The plastic handle get so very hot that gloves are necessary.
- Holds enough charcoal for only small grills and barbecues.
- As a budget kit, it does not have an auxiliary ‘tipping’ handle.
Of thumping good build quality, GFTIME’s sturdy kit suffers from a plastic handle that heats up a lot but also gets charcoal white-hot very fast.
Made of galvanised sheet steel, GFTIME’s chimney starter is a size ‘Medium,’ being 30.5 centimetres high and 19 centimetres wide. It will produce enough glowing charcoals for a 47-centimetre kettle grill.
Possibly because of the very good design and layout of the intake air vents, this kit gets super-hot and in double-quick time, producing white-hot charcoal inside 20 minutes max and even as little as 15.
GFTIME’s full-featured chimney has a thick and effective heat-shield, a very useful auxiliary ‘tipping’ handle, and a ‘weatherproof plastic handle’. But it is this handle that is the weak point on this kit. It also gets ‘super-hot’ and is clearly not insulated. This is a bad miss in view of this product’s price point. You’ll definitely need heat-resistant gloves when handling this chimney.
The use of sheet steel makes the canister prone to discolouration within a short time, not that it is a defect. It also makes this chimney the heaviest one in our set of reviews as it weighs well over a kilo. Relatedly, this chimney can even be called ‘heavy-duty.’ It is very solidly built and will be long lasting.
This is a costly chimney but, without question, those who are willing to pay a premium for robustness and durability will be delighted with this kit. Not to forget its ‘rapid fire’ capabilities.
- Well-designed and full-featured – very good air-intake holes and auxiliary folding handle.
- Brings charcoal to a red-hot and even white-hot glow very fast – impressive performance.
- A ‘heavyweight’ contender, this chimney is built like a brick and will prove durable.
- The plastic handle is not insulated and gets extremely hot, requiring gloves.
- The metal discolours more and earlier than that of other chimneys.
- Does it really need to be as heavy as it is?
Quick4U’s chimney is a real ‘safe play:’ it is mid-priced and mid-sized; though the handle gets hot, it scores high in robustness and reliability.
Quick4U’s chimney starter is 30.5 centimetres in height and 19 in diameter, which makes it a size ‘Medium.’ This too will hold enough charcoal for a 47-centimetre kettle (or rectangular grill of equivalent surface area).
Neither costly nor economical, this mid-priced offering has unusually good build quality and construction at its price point. Indeed, one could call it robust and rugged.
The intake holes around the base and up the sides are neither very big nor very many but these air-vents must be doing something very right because this very unfussy kit happily starts breathing fire inside 20 minutes.
The one knock on Quick4U’s chimney is its, er, ‘heat-insulated thermoplastic handle.’ Though it does not heat up as much as the handles of one or two other kits, the plastic handle still gets extremely hot. The heat-shield looks well-made but cannot compensate for the handle’s flaw. Thus, gloves will be necessary. At least it has a useful, auxiliary folding handle.
This is one of those products that just work and work again, very consistently and reliably. It is perhaps these attributes that are this chimney’s standout qualities. For those who neither want to scrimp nor splurge and like to split the odds, this one’s a sensible ‘best bet.’
- Reliability and consistency are this chimney’s hallmarks.
- Very impressive build quality at its price point; quite robust and rugged.
- For those who like to hedge their bets and make sensible purchases, this may be the ‘best bet.’
- The plastic handle gets extremely hot and cannot be held without wearing a glove.
- The heat-shield looks good for the job but is not up to the task of covering for the handle.
- Not for those who demand premium quality or who go for economy and value.
How To Use A Chimney Starter
Using a chimney starter is easy – make that EASY. However, on some chimneys the main handle can get very hot, and the folding, ’tipping’ handle – on the kits that have it – can get even hotter. So stay safe and wear heat-resistant gloves. (Mitts that leave your fingers unprotected will not serve the purpose.) You may also have sudden encounters with sparks or a stray broken-off bit of glowing charcoal in which case you’ll be thankful you were wearing gloves.
Put two or three little firelighters underneath the chimney. However, you can make do without them; simply tear up some newspaper, crumple it up, and stuff it up the bottom. You can drop broken-up dry twigs and dry leaves on top of the newspaper for additional kindling.
Put charcoals in the canister but do not fill it up to or close to the brim; leave some space. Place the chimney on your BBQ grill. Light the firelighters or newspapers at the bottom of the chimney. The small blaze will ignite the charcoal in short order.
Wait for 15 to 20 minutes or until the lowest layer of charcoal is white hot and the topmost layer is glowing. Making use of the auxiliary handle – assuming your chimney has one – for additional stability and control, tip the chimney starter over your BBQ, moving it around to spread the charcoal. In any event, the charcoals will be burning evenly, and you’ll be ready to grill.
Do not put the very hot chimney on a flammable surface or on anything that you wouldn’t want to scorch.
Are there any differences between different charcoals and briquettes?
Yes. Lump charcoal is made from hardwood that has been slow-burnt in the absence of oxygen. Foods barbecued using lump charcoal will have a more ‘neutral’ or natural flavour than foods barbecued with charcoal briquettes. Then there are flavoured briquettes made of specific types of hardwood that are expressly meant to impart a particular flavour to barbecued foods.
As a general rule, lump charcoal produces very little ash; much less than flavoured briquettes which produce the most ash. Lump charcoal burns very hot and very fast, and also cooks faster than all types of briquettes but the latter burn longer and offer more controlled temperature, plus zone control.
Different brands of lump charcoal are made from different woods or various combinations of wood so each brand will likely impart just a slightly distinctive flavour to whatever you grill or smoke. Oak may be considered the ‘default’ or predominant type of wood used for good lump charcoal and for neutral briquettes.
Lump charcoal of the same overall quality as charcoal briquettes will cost you less per volume- or weight-units, and certainly much less than premium all-natural briquettes and flavoured briquettes.
Flavoured briquettes should not be seen as an alternative to plain charcoal ones but as a specialised type of charcoal, let’s say ‘gourmet charcoal.’ They are processed and made so as to minimise water and oxygen and maximise the carbon content. The result is minimal smoke and maximal burn time. But they also result in ‘maximal’ flavour. This is because these kinds of briquettes are made of a specifically-chosen type of hardwood, do not ignite, and have spices and other flavourings added to them. Flavored briquettes are ideal for slow barbecuing and smoking. The better ones are quite costly.
Which kind of charcoal and briquettes should I use?
Try to avoid the lowest-cost, store-brand charcoal and briquettes and the brands you see in the discount aisles. These may be made of softwoods which hardly make for good charcoal. They may also contain chemical additives and synthetic binders, both of which will impart a less-than-pleasing aroma and taste to your barbecue – and you’ll get a reputation as someone with weird barbecuing technique! (“Don’t know what silly old Robbie did but the chops he barbecued somehow smelt of nail-polish remover.”)
Steer clear of softwood briquettes, and those that are not all-natural. Sure, get economical plain charcoal and plain briquettes but shoot for all-natural hardwood ones with natural binders.
If you can splurge a little and would like to treat your guests to something a little different, use flavoured briquettes for smoking meats. As you’re splashing out, you may as well buy the best-quality ones. Here is a handy little guide as to how to match foodstuff to briquette.
- Hickory briquettes. Smoking with Hickory charcoal is a barbecuing mainstay in the American Midwest. Hickory imparts that ‘classic,’ deep-smoky flavour that is perfect for cuts of beef and steaks.
- Mesquite briquettes. Mesquite barbecues are a speciality of Texas and the South-West. Mesquite imparts a smoky flavour but with a bit of a spicy bite. It’s excellent for all kinds of ribs and ribeye steaks.
- Applewood briquettes. Applewood barbecue is probably more of a North-East and Atlantic coast ‘thing.’ The rich but less intense and fruity flavour it imparts is just right for ham, pork, and turkey.
- Cherrywood briquettes. Also fruity but imparting their own zestful taste and aroma, Applewood briquettes are the ones of choice for grilling poultry, and also tomatoes, courgettes, and veggies.