Summer may be over but the barbecues haven't quite been put away for the year just yet. As hobbyist grilling grows in popularity across the country, sales of propane grills have skyrocketed; it's now common to find a typically American-style unit in your average British garden. And I'm not complaining about that. As a barbecue enthusiast, I think the convenience provided by a gas/propane grill shouldn't be understated. They're easier to clean and less of a pollutant than their charcoal counterparts, hold temperature consistently and (crucially for many) they are easy to light, usually with the push of a button. Even I own a gorgeous, unapologetically chrome Buffalo P111 (pictured), which has faithfully fed countless hungry stomachs without a hint of trouble. But when it comes to smoking, although there are some decent gas alternatives on the market, nothing beats a good-old-fashioned charcoal/wood combo in getting that rich, deep smoke we're all aspiring to. There's just the issue of getting the thing to light.
When I started experimenting with grilling and smoking I struggled with consistently getting my coals to light. If the weather conditions were less than perfect I'd basically be at the mercy of the gods as to when they would finally hit temperature; needless to say there were a few late dinners. I'm not proud to admit that along the way I resigned to using lighting gel and eventually instant-light coals as they seemed to be the only surefire way of getting a meal cooked on time. Those things are really common on the market but really toxic and are not only loaded with carcinogenic additives and unnecessary chemicals (such as the detergent, Borax - not something I'd generally add to my food), they also taint the meat with a distinctive petroleum aftertaste. Appetising.
But what if I told you there's a practical solution widely available, used by experts and amateurs alike, that lights coals in practically any weather conditions, is reusable and costs under a tenner? You can thank me later.
This is a chimney starter. If you've never seen or heard of one of these before then this guide is for you. This guide is for those enthusiasts who, like me, spent far too long grilling and smoking meat without knowing how to properly light coal.
Charcoal (lumpwood or briquettes)
Charcoal chimneys can be found at online retailers such as Amazon, or even in some garden/homeware stores. Nothing fancy needed, just get one with a good handle that won't burn your fingers because these things get hot. Mine is a little rusted because its seen a fair bit of use, but it does the business all the same. Some might argue that you don't need a chimney starter to light a grill, and they'd be right - you don't need a chimney, but it's widely used because it is by far the most efficient and consistent method of getting the job done. Who am I to argue with that?
Some safety points to consider:
- Never light these things on concrete, as the heat may cause the concrete to explode!
- Don't forget, the chimney remains hot for a while after use so handle with care.
People can debate the virtues of lumpwood vs briquettes; I prefer lump generally, as briquettes are manufactured and can often contain extras like limestone which do nothing but make the coals look pretty. I usually buy catering-grade for a more efficient burn, but for the purpose of demonstration I'm using plain old Big K lumpwood, nothing fancy. Whichever you decide to go for the process is essentially the same - as long as it's pure, unadulterated coal it's purely a matter of preference/availability.
LIGHTING THE COAL
With that explained, lets get lighting. Place the chimney starter onto a flat surface and load the cylinder with charcoal. I'm using the top of a grill but any heatproof surface (except concrete!) will do if slight singe marks aren't a concern. Never light these things on wood or anything remotely flammable (obvious advice of the day).
The easiest way to get a good fire going is to use firelighters. They are quite toxic to be honest but they burn off completely long before the coals heat so they won't impart any nasties into the food. Add a couple to the bottom of the chimney and light. If you don't have any firelighters handy or if you're worried about toxic fumes, you can alternatively use a rolled up sheet of newspaper lined around the bottom rim of the cylinder.
The next step isn't the most difficult - just sit back and wait for the coals to warm. It might seem for a while that not much is going on inside. Once the firelighter/newspaper burns off, the chimney will start to give off less smoke; don't be tempted to move or disturb it unless you're certain there's no heat in there. The chimney starter works thanks to some basic thermodynamics. Being cylindrical, the heat from the firelighter/newspaper underneath rises and circulates throughout the chamber. The heat is also confined within, lighting the coal in half the time it would take under normal circumstances.
Note: After some time, the coal will set alight. It may appear hot enough to cook with at this point, but you should never grill until your coal finishes the combustion process and turns ashy/white.
It's that simple, pretty much every time, and that's how it should be. A full capacity (medium size) chimney starter should take approximately 30-40 minutes to heat, and provide good heat for around 1.5 hours.
In lesson 2 of Grill School I'll explore some of the wonderful things you can do with your wood. Exciting, I know.