Published June 1, 2009. From Cook's Country.
A chimney starter is the safest, most effective way to start a charcoal fire. We rounded up several models to see which ones worked best.
We wouldn’t dream of starting a charcoal fire without a chimney starter, a cylindrical canister that quickly ignite quarts of briquettes without lighter fluid (which can leave residual flavor on grilled food). You place briquettes in the large top chamber of the chimney, which is shaped like a giant metal coffee mug. Then you crumple a sheet of newspaper, place it in the smaller chamber under the coals, and light it. In about 20 minutes, the coals are covered in a fine, gray ash and ready to be poured into the grill.
Our favorite chimney holds 6 quarts, enough for most kettle grills. The handle remains cool, and when it is time to pour out the red-hot coals, a second handle provides leverage to make maneuvering easier, particularly if you are banking the coals for a two-level fire and need precise pouring. Since our last testing, new models have appeared. We chose three top brands to see if they could knock out our chimney champion.
Starters that held fewer than 5 quarts of coals were a deal-breaker. They were inadequate to heat the grill sufficiently even after we poured the coals, closed the lid, and waited 5 minutes. When we timed how long each chimney took to ignite all its coals, we quickly uncovered a major design flaw: Chimneys without holes on the sides of the canister had limited airflow, preventing oxygen from circulating around the coals, which slowed the heating process by a few minutes. While all of the brands had heat-resistant handles, their sturdiness varied. One felt flimsy enough to fall off—not a nice prospect when dealing with red-hot coals. Only our previous favorite had dual handles, which we distinctly preferred. Another’s silvery paint job melted off after one use, dripping down the sides of the can.
In the end, our previous favorite model was still the best performer and had it all: sturdy construction, generous capacity, heat resistance, dual handles, excellent air circulation for rapid heating, and a low price.