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By Cook's Illustrated Published June 2012

Electric Charcoal Starters

Published June 2012
Update: July 2013
We have learned that our top-rated product, The Mr. Bar-B-Q Electric Charcoal Starter, has been discontinued.

How we tested

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.

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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*