How To Start A Charcoal Grill When You Don't Have A Chimney Starter

Since cooking with different fuels (propane, natural gas, wood, charcoal) can affect how you make your favorite recipe, most people have a grill preference and stick with it. For charcoal devotees, starting the grill can be a source of frustration. While lighter fluid works quickly, it has some considerable disadvantages, including a high chemical content, which can affect the flavor of your food. So you're better off using a chimney starter for a charcoal grill. However, if you don't have one, all is not lost because we can share how to craft one in a pinch.

Chimney starters are hollow metal cylinders that quickly and efficiently start charcoal burning. Instead of relying on chemicals, natural incendiary objects like newspaper or kindling ignite the charcoal-filled chimney. Once the coals begin to turn ashy, they are dumped into the grill and used to get the other charcoal burning.

You can create a similar design by just using newspaper and charcoal. Since this DIY chimney is freeform, it must be built on the grates. Rumple up a few sheets of last week's newspaper in the center of the grill and pile coal around it, creating a pointy dome. Ideally, its finished size will mimic a metal chimney starter, which is usually 8 inches wide and 12 inches tall. Use a long match to light the bunched newspaper by reaching under the grates, then wait. This DIY method takes a bit longer, so factor in the additional prep time for your meal so no one gets hangry.

The advantages of cooking on a charcoal grill

Unlike other cooking methods, there's something very primitive and authentic about charcoal grilling. Purists insist that charcoal is a better method of grilling, whether you've dug a hole in the ground for a clambake, have an inexpensive portable grill, or have an impressive barbecue pit in your backyard.

If you're on Team Charcoal, you're in an esteemed company. Ina Garten prefers her 22.5-inch Weber charcoal grill, and Bobby Flay has also spoken out in favor of charcoal. Unlike cooking with gas, charcoal imparts a smokey flavor to food. It can reach a maximum temperature of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, which is much hotter than most gas grills. The high direct heat allows you to sear thick chops quickly, but it's more versatile than that. Rearranging the coals enables you to create zones so food can cook slower over indirect heat. Since coal doesn't combust, it can sustain hot temperatures for a long time once it gets going.

When you're ready to start grilling, try this delicious recipe for grilled skirt steak or a Latin version of a New England clambake with this recipe for grilled clams and chorizo.

The disadvantage of cooking on a charcoal grill

There are a few downsides of charcoal grilling. The cooking process takes longer than gas and can involve a greater learning curve. It takes roughly 15 minutes for charcoal to heat in a chimney starter, then depending on the size of your grill, it may take another 10-15 minutes to preheat to 500 degrees Fahrenheit before you can begin cooking. 

Although grilling with lighter fluid makes for a faster setup, it can taint the food with an unpleasant chemical taste, and the smell can transfer to your clothing. It's also highly flammable, which can be dangerous if not used properly. Some coal briquettes called match light charcoal are sold coated in lighter fluid, so if you want to avoid cooking with those chemicals, make sure you read the packaging. If you do use lighter fluid with charcoal, let the charcoal burn until you don't smell the fumes before adding food to the grill. Burning coal also has a negative environmental impact, releasing small particles that can negatively affect respiratory health.

Another downside is that unlike gas grills, which usually have temperature regulators, it's difficult to tell how hot a charcoal grill is without using a grill thermometer. With experience, you can detect when a grill has reached the desired temperature by placing your hand above the coals, but that's not very precise and won't help you initially.