Charcoal fire starters promise to light charcoal—even when wet. Do they work?
Published July 1, 2016. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 17: Summer Pork Supper
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.
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing. We stand behind our winners so much that we even put our seal of approval on them.
Miye is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She covers booze, blades, and gadgets of questionable value.