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June/July 2018

Chimney Starters

If you grill with charcoal, you need a chimney starter. Does it matter which one you buy?

How We Tested

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 ($14.99) 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 six widely available chimney starters, priced from $14.99 to $29.95, 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. 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.

A Faster Fire

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 that we'd typically use were too cramped to allow oxygen to circulate, so we had to light them again and again. And one sheet wasn't quite enough fuel to get the coals really going; they just smoldered until we had to lift the whole shebang to carefully tuck in more newspaper. Starters with medium-size chambers were able to light the coals, but bigger was better: Our top-rated chimney starters had spacious fuel chambers of at least 127 cubic inches, allowing them to reliably ignite coals faster without needing more fuel.

Small Capacity Was a Deal Breaker

Still, capacity of the top chamber, which houses the charcoal, was even more important. Three of the starters had charcoal chambers that were too small; they could fit only 5 quarts of charcoal, or about 80 briquettes, instead of the 6 or 7 quarts called for in many of our grilling recipes. This was a deal breaker. If you don't use enough charcoal, your fire won't get hot enough to properly sear your food and may die out before the food finishes cooking. There's nothing quite as annoying and dicey as having to lift a hot, food-laden grate to dump in more charcoal. The other three models had roomy charcoal chambers of 290 cubic inches or larger; they fit up to 7 quarts of briquettes, enough to cover all our standard grilling recipes so we never have to stop and refuel.

Comfort and Stability Are Key When Handling Hot Coals We need to feel safe and secure when we're wielding pounds of sparking, ashing, orange-hot embers, so ease of use was also hugely important. One model's handle was partially blocked by a metal trigger designed to release its coals; we had to awkwardly maneuver around it every time we needed to grip the handle to move the starter. Two narrow wooden handles felt insubstantial and tended to get hot. A large, accessible plastic handle that stayed cool was key.

Also useful: a helper handle. Two of the starters sported a second thin metal handle that was great for supporting heavy loads and guiding the starter when dispersing the coals.

Chimney shape mattered, too. One model was square, while the other five were cylindrical. The square model was collapsible for easy storage, but testers found it harder to pour from in a controlled manner—the coals flew off the straight edge in all directions. We tried to tilt it to pour from a corner, but because of the handle's location along one of the flat sides, we had to hold it at an awkward angle, which didn't afford us any better control while dispersing the coals. This model's collapsible construction also made it feel a bit rickety; it never threatened to fold up on us mid-use, but testers felt it had too much give to feel perfectly secure.

Overall, testers preferred the classic cylindrical design. The rounded edge helped funnel the coals out of the starter in a more directed manner, and noncollapsible construction felt sturdier—a critical consideration when you're handling red-hot coals.

In the end, the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter was still the best chimney starter on the market. It had roomy chambers: The bottom one was large enough for plenty of fuel, and the top one fit enough charcoal for all our grilling recipes. Its sturdy cylindrical body was easy to pour from in a controlled manner, and its two handles were comfortable and stayed cool for safe and secure handling. The icing on the cake: At $14.99, it was also one of the cheapest models we tested.

Methodology

We tested six chimney starters, priced from $14.99 to $29.95, using each to light 3, 6, and 7 quarts of charcoal, amounts we typically call for in our grilling recipes. We poured the briquettes into single- and double-level formations to evaluate for security and control. First, we used our bare hands when it was safe to do so; we then repeated each test while wearing grill gloves to assess how the starters handled with thick gloves. Three additional testers evaluated the starters on comfort and security. We calculated the capacities of the coal and fuel chambers with assistance from Dr. Robert Heard, teaching professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at Carnegie Mellon University. Products were purchased online and appear below in order of preference.

Capacity: We loaded each starter with the amount of briquettes required for 3-quart (50), 6-quart (100), and 7-quart (115) chimneys, as well as two sheets of newspaper in the bottom chamber. Those that could securely hold up to 7 quarts of charcoal and two sheets of newspaper in the appropriate chambers rated highest.

Ease of Use: We rated the starters on how comfortable, secure, and easy they were to load with charcoal and newspaper, light, lift, and pour from. Sturdy cylindrical models with large fuel chambers; comfortable, stay-cool handles; and secondary helper handles rated highest.

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The Results

Note: Cook's Country continuously updates our equipment reviews and taste tests. The written content below is the most up-to-date information available and may not match what appears in the video segment.

Key:
Good
Fair
Poor
Winner
Highly Recommended

Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter

$14.99

Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter

Our previous winner is still the best option and, at $14.99, it's also one of the least expensive models we tested. It always felt comfortable and secure thanks to its two handles: a roomy, comfortable primary handle that stayed cool and a slim secondary handle that helped us lift heavy loads and guided our pouring. Its sturdy cylindrical body was easy to load, lift, and pour from in a controlled manner. It also had two generously sized chambers; the top one held sufficient charcoal for all our recipes while the bottom one fit two full sheets of loosely crumpled newspaper and allowed for plenty of air circulation for quick and easy lighting.

More Details
Capacity
Ease of Use
$14.99
Recommended

Outset Collapsible Camping Grill and Chimney Starter

$19.60

Outset Collapsible Camping Grill and Chimney Starter

The largest model we tested, this square starter fit the maximum amount of charcoal we required. It's collapsible for easy storage and was fairly simple to break down and set up, but it felt a little rickety compared with the noncollapsible cylindrical models. Testers also preferred pouring from the round starters because the curve directed the coals downward; when we dumped the coals from this boxy model, they slipped around a bit coming off the straight edge, making it harder for testers to direct them. That said, it was easy to light and had a comfortable handle and secondary helper handle to support its weight and guide pouring. It also came with a second grate that can be placed on top of the starter to turn it into a mini grill; we did not test this feature.

More Details
Capacity
Ease of Use
$19.60
Not Recommended

Char-Griller Charcoal Grill Chimney Starter with Quick Release Trigger, 12-Inch

$24.31

Char-Griller Charcoal Grill Chimney Starter with Quick Release Trigger, 12-Inch

This model fit the largest amount of charcoal, but its trigger, designed so you can dump out the coals from the bottom (through the fuel chamber) instead of tipping them out of the top, was more trouble than it was worth. It was positioned between the handle and the canister, right in the way of our grip, so we had to either carefully maneuver around it (especially awkward with gloves on) or risk accidentally engaging it and dumping the coals prematurely. Also, the trigger allowed for zero control or finesse; when you pull it, the coals immediately dump in a flash of sparks, so you can't disperse them as you dispense. This meant we had to do lots of rearranging with a pair of grill tongs to get our banked or two-level fires. Another downside is that the plate separating the two chambers sits on top of a pin and flaps open (it's fixed on all the other models). This meant that we had to crumple the newspaper into the bottom chamber carefully, without pressing against the plate, or it opened into the top chamber.

More Details
Capacity
Ease of Use
$24.31

GrillPro Chimney Style Charcoal Starter

$14.99

GrillPro Chimney Style Charcoal Starter

This sturdy, cylindrical model made it easy to pour charcoal out in a controlled manner, but it simply didn't hold enough of it. Three quarts, which we typically refer to as a half chimney, was the only standard recipe amount that fit. When full, the starter was about 20 briquettes shy of 6 quarts; a full 7 quarts was not an option. Additionally, its slim wooden handle was a bit insubstantial for some testers and got hot quickly.

More Details
Capacity
Ease of Use
$14.99

Charcoal Companion Stainless Steel Chimney Charcoal Starter

$23.10

Charcoal Companion Stainless Steel Chimney Charcoal Starter

This basic model was sturdy and easy to pour from, but it was too small. It could hold only about 5 quarts of charcoal—far short of the 6 or 7 quarts required for many of our recipes. Plus, its wooden handle was thin and got hot fast.

More Details
Capacity
Ease of Use
$23.10

Barbecue Dragon Chimney of Insanity

$29.95

Barbecue Dragon Chimney of Insanity

This starter could hold only about 5 quarts of charcoal—not enough for the full or mounded chimneys many recipes require. It was also hard to light, thanks to a large pipe in its fuel chamber purportedly designed to allow in more oxygen and speed things up. Because the pipe takes up so much space, two sheets of newspaper were packed too tightly inside to light properly; when we tried one sheet, it wasn't enough to start the briquettes, so they just smoldered. The pipe can also be used to hold an attachable fan (for an additional $50.00) that supposedly blows air over the coals to speed up the process, but considering this starter's limited charcoal capacity, we didn't bother testing the fan.

More Details
Capacity
Ease of Use
$29.95