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Charcoal Fire Starters

From Summer Pork Supper

How we tested

Charcoal fire starters—flammable tiles, cubes, or nuggets—are advertised as waterproof alternatives to the newspaper used for lighting charcoal briquettes in a chimney starter. To see how well they worked, we bought five fire starters (made from materials like wax, wood chips, volcanic rock, and paper), priced from $0.13 to $1.25 per unit, and used the lowest number of units recommended by the manufacturers (from one to three) to light chimneys filled with charcoal briquettes. Then we grilled zucchini and flank steak over the coals and tasted each food for off-flavors.

All five starters did a good job of lighting the charcoal, taking about the same time as four sheets of newspaper to heat the charcoal for cooking, and they imparted no off-flavors to the food. To test how waterproof they were, we submerged the starters in water for 2 hours and then tried to light them; while none would light straight out of their bath, all ignited without much trouble after we blotted them dry with paper towels.

Differences were minor; some of the starters ignited more quickly than others, and some made slightly more of a mess in the bottom of the grill basin, but they all worked. Our take? If you don’t keep newspaper around, any of the fire starters make fine substitutes. They may even be preferable if you grill in inclement weather. A bonus: You can use these starters to light a wood fire or, in a pinch, to light charcoal without a chimney (you’ll need to move the charcoal around a bit to get it evenly lit).

Our favorite charcoal fire starters, the Weber Lighter Cubes ($0.14 per unit), took less than 10 seconds to light. Made entirely of paraffin wax, they were easy to clean up afterward and were the most water-resistant of the bunch.

Methodology

We tested five fire starters, priced from $0.13 to $1.25 per unit, made from a range of materials—including wax, wood chips, volcanic rock, paper, and cardboard—and evaluated their performance in lighting fires when both dry and wet. The starters were purchased online and appear in order of preference.

EASE OF IGNITION: We placed the fewest number of units recommended by the manufacturer (from one to three) on the lower grate of a charcoal grill and positioned a charcoal chimney filled with briquettes over it. We lit each starter (or set of starters) with a match and timed how long it took the starters to fully ignite and the coals to be ready for cooking. Fire starters that ignited quickly—in less than 10 seconds—scored highly.

CLEAN FLAVORS: We grilled zucchini planks and flank steak over the coals ignited by each of the starters and had a panel of test cooks and editors taste each food. Our panel did not detect off-flavors from any of the starters, so no points were deducted.

CLEANUP: While grilling over charcoal is already a somewhat messy undertaking, we subtracted points for starters that contributed significantly to the cleanup process or produced higher amounts of wind-borne ash.

WATER RESISTANCE: No starter ignited directly out of a 2-hour soak in water, but all ignited after we quickly blotted them dry with paper towels. Some starters seemed to absorb more water and took slightly longer to dry and light, and thus were demoted slightly.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*