If you grill with charcoal, you need a chimney starter. Does it matter which one you buy?
Last Updated Jan. 12, 2022. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: Back to Grilling Basics
We still love our longtime favorite chimney starter, the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter. But we now also recommend its smaller sibling, the Weber Rapidfire Compact Chimney Starter. Its more compact profile makes it ideal for cooks who go camping often, grill exclusively on a portable charcoal grill, or use charcoal smokers.
Lighter fluid is petroleum- or alcohol-based, so it can impart unpleasant flavors to grilled food. This is why we always use a chimney starter instead to light charcoal. These simple devices, shaped like giant metal mugs, generally consist of a cylindrical body with a handle and two stacked chambers: the top one for charcoal and the bottom one for the fuel used to light that charcoal, typically newspaper or a charcoal starter (we prefer two gently crumpled sheets of newspaper).
We've used the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter for years, but it's been slightly updated with a more ergonomic handle since we last tested, and there are new options on the market that promise to make the whole process faster and easier. So is our old winner still the best? To find out, we rounded up several widely available chimney starters, including the updated version of our former favorite.
We put the chimney starters to work, using them to light various amounts of charcoal and pour the briquettes out in different formations to represent the many ways we cook on a grill, from quick, high-heat recipes such as traditional burgers to low-and-slow projects such as pulled pork. For full-size models, we started with the most basic coal formation, 6 quarts of charcoal in a single-level fire. Then we tried a smaller amount, 3 quarts (often referred to as a “half chimney”), in a two-level fire, in which the coals are banked on one side of the grill to create a hotter zone and a cooler zone. Lastly, we tested with another two-level charcoal formation, using the maximum amount of charcoal we typically call for, 7 quarts. We timed how long it took to light the coals, rating each starter on how much charcoal it could hold and how easy it was to use. For smaller models, we filled them to their maximum capacities and used them to light charcoal in charcoal smokers, timing how long it took and rating them on how easy they were to use.
It can take a while for a chimney to bring its charcoal from cold to evenly dusted with ash (the visual cue we use to determine the charcoal's readiness)—between 20 and 40 minutes, depending on the amount of charcoal. We studied the design of the chambers, but none of the starters' ventilation features consistently tracked with faster, easier-to-light fires. One thing that did make a difference: the size of the starter's fuel chamber, the space on the bottom where the newspaper goes. One of the models had an exceptionally small fuel chamber thanks to a large pipe that was ostensibly designed to pull in more oxygen to fuel the fire but took away some of the usable space. In this instance, the two sheets of newspaper th...
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