Published June 1, 2012. From Cook's Country.
With a nearby outlet and an extension cord, an electric starter is convenient. It doesn’t require lifting and pouring out hot coals the way a chimney does, and it eliminates the need for matches and newspaper. So will we trade in our chimney?
An electric charcoal starter claims to light coals quickly, without lighter fluid or matches. Composed of a looped heating element on a plastic handle, the starter is simply placed in a mound of charcoal and plugged in. We tested four, priced from $15.49 to $35, comparing them with our favorite chimney starter, which takes about 20 minutes, a sheet of newspaper, and a match.
With each model we lit 75 briquettes (about three-fourths of a chimney), an amount we often use in our grilling recipes, but it proved surprisingly frustrating to pile briquettes so heating elements were covered. Two had heads that stuck straight out from the handle and wouldn’t lie flat in our charcoal kettle. However, two with offset heads made a stable foundation, saving time and effort.
Following instructions, we plugged in the starters and left them for 8 minutes. One model called for 10 minutes, and not surprisingly, was more effective at igniting briquettes. We were tempted to leave them all in longer, but manufacturer warnings of overheating and explosion deterred us. (We tried 20 minutes without consequence but don’t recommend it.) Next you must pull out the starters and wait another 8 to 10 minutes for coals to produce the gray, ashy layer that indicates they’re ready for cooking. Unlike a chimney, which lets you pour hot coals where you want them, removing starters makes coals tumble; you must arrange them with tongs.
All worked, eventually. The model that could be left in the charcoal for 10 minutes produced a hotter fire faster, in 15 minutes versus 18 for other models. This is faster, by a bit, than a chimney. But because starters work more gradually than direct flame, coals emit a steady stream of choking smoke as they heat. Also, we missed the even burning of briquettes that chimneys achieve. The starters can ignite completely the coals that touch the heating element, but the exterior coals were often barely ignited after the 8 minutes of heating. The additional 8- to 10-minute resting period ignites the remaining coals, but compared with a chimney, it’s harder to gauge and control how much the coals are lit.
In the end, we preferred a model with an offset head to help us pile the briquettes faster and a longer cord that made it easier to attach the necessary extension cords (all come with fairly short cords). The longest-heating model sped up the process (but not by much more than a chimney). Our winner had all the features we liked and gets you grilling in about 15 minutes. It worked on smaller fires with just 50 briquettes as well as bigger ones with 100.
With a nearby outlet and an extension cord, an electric starter is convenient. It doesn’t require lifting and pouring out hot coals the way a chimney does, and it eliminates the need for matches and newspaper. So will we trade in our chimney? Probably not. It’s nice to have a viable alternative, but electric starters can’t be used without an outlet, which makes them impractical for picnics and tailgating. More importantly, we prefer the more even ignition of coals in the chimney starter.