Straight to the Point
Forget the lighter fluid—starting a charcoal grill is easy if you have a chimney starter. We like using the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter to get our coals nice and hot and ready for grilling.
When the weather warms up, I inevitably see more people grilling outdoors. While this should be a joyous occasion, there's an evil that goes alongside the times that constantly irks me to no end: lighter fluid. Ever since I bought my first grill, invited some friends over, and started the fire with match light charcoal (coals already coated in lighter fluid), the stuff has been my mortal enemy. On that fateful day, I followed protocol and let the coals burn until covered with gray ash before grilling, but even after that the first few rounds of food that came off the grill all had the horrible hint of chemical cooked in, not to mention the distinct lighter fluid odor that made its home in our clothes and hair for the rest of the day. It doesn't take much to get a fire going without lighter fluid, so hopefully I can help make this stuff a thing of the past with a few helpful hints.
How a Chimney Starter Works
Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter
If you want the quickest and easiest way to light a fire, you have to go out and get yourself a chimney starter. This model from Weber is my favorite for size and usability. The concept of the chimney starter is fairly simple: You load up the space on the bottom with a piece of newspaper or two, pile coals in from the top, then light the newspaper. The fire and heat from the newspaper ignites the bottom coals, then the fire builds up. When the top coals are covered with gray ash, you're ready to go.
Since the coals are concentrated in a relatively small space vertically, a chimney starter is incredibly effective, lighting enough coals for a 22" kettle in about 15 to 20 minutes. I find this method to be faster than using lighter fluid, and there's no lingering chemical smell just waiting to ruin your food.
How to Light Charcoal Without a Chimney Starter
If you find yourself without a chimney starter, you can apply a similar method without the added equipment. Simply bunch up a couple pieces of newspaper and place them in the middle of the charcoal grate. Then build the coals up around the paper in a pyramid fashion, light the newspaper, and let it go. This will take longer to fully light than with a chimney, but the fire should still be ready in less time than it would take to burn off all traces of lighter fluid.
How to Use Lighter Fluid Sparingly
Now that I've shared my most used methods of starting a fire, I'll admit that I've been in situations where I have had no other choice except to give into my arch enemy. In these scenarios I found a way to make use of lighter fluid without the unpleasant effects I experienced in my first use. I'll start the fire by squirting some fluid on a handful of coals placed on the charcoal grate. Once those get going, I'll pile on the rest and let them light. Sure, this way is time consuming, but I'd rather be safe than sorry when it comes time to start grilling.
There are other charcoal starting devices out there, but none that I've found any use for as long as I just have some old newspaper and a lighter on hand. While I know that using lighter fluid is ingrained in our collective psyche, I hope that, armed with these simple and effective alternatives, I'll see fewer and fewer bottles of that chemical nastiness as each spring comes around.
What's the best chimney starter?
While we haven't formally tested them, the Serious Eats team has relied on (and recommended) the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter for years.
Whats the best charcoal grill?
We have several top picks for charcoal grills that you can read about here. One of our longtime favorites is this model from Weber.