Product Review: Meker Fire Starters
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Don't use lighter fluid or buy matchlight-style charcoal for grilling, use this instead

Meker Fire StartersBachelorontheCheap.com

You can start your charcoal several ways, you can use lighter fluid, you can buy those ‘Match Light’ briquettes, or you can do what until recently was the preferred food-friendly way to go, and that’s fire up your charcoal using a charcoal chimney.  There's another option and it's now my preferred option, use charcoal starters.  I'll get into the benefits of those in a bit.

I don’t like lighter fluid for several reasons. I don’t like to store it, I don’t like running out, the smell can get on your hands and clothes, and inexperienced grillers tend to put WAY too much on or start grilling over charcoals that aren’t really ready yet, giving your food that nasty fuel taste.   Then there are those folks that soak coals in lighter fluid for a lengthy period of time, further compounding the fuel-tasting food issue.  Those ‘Match Light’ briquettes are OK, they’re very convenient, but they are more expensive than traditional briquettes and like the charcoal/lighter fluid starting method, can put a fuel taste on your food if cooked over before the coals are really ready. Avoid the fuel taste risk completely and start your charcoal WITHOUT resorting to lighter fluid. 

For years I relied on charcoal chimneys to fire up the grill and after the initial purchase of a quality chimney is also the cheapest way to start traditional charcoal.  All you have to do is crumple up some paper to get things going, which doesn't cost anything to do.  There's no lighter fluid smell, no lighter fluid expense, no "oh shit, I'm out of lighter fluid," no fuel-tasting food risk.  I still use a chimney on occasion for large cooks, but since I don't subscribe to a newspaper anymore, I use brown paper bags, old notes, and documents deemed for the shredder instead.  The paper source has changed, and it's not as readily available as a stack of old newspapers, but it works.  So from a simple paper fuel standpoint, my use of a chimney has declined. 

Enter, charcoal starters, a.k.a., firestarters

Better than a chimney, are charcoal starters.  Weber Cubes, Royal Oak Tumbleweeds, and Meker Fire Starters are all good.  They're every bit as convenient as Match Light briquettes, faster than lighter fluid, and far easier to prep than a chimney.  All you have to do is strategically place a starter or two in with your charcoal, light the starter(s), and in 10-15 minutes your coals are ready to receive the meats.  There's no lighter fluid mess and no fuel-tasting food risk.

If you're still stuck in the lighter fluid world, another reason to go with charcoal starters is the cost.  It's on par with the purchase of lighter fluid, and even cheaper if you're heavy-handed with the liquid stuff.  One Weber Cube, or Royal Oak Tumbleweed, or Meker Fire Starter is enough to get your grill going, two if you're not very patient, vs. multiple squirts of lighter fluid.  It doesn't take long to go through a 32-ounce bottle of the stuff.  

Check out some simple cost breakdowns:

Charcoal starter pricing chart
Charcoal briquets are generally cheaper than lump charcoal, about the only exception is a sale.  Speaking of sales, Kingsford is good at that, they're the ones that started the trend of bundling two bags together at a cheaper price.  As of this writing, you can get two, 16lb bags of Kingsford Original Briquets at Walmart for $17.86.  That breaks down to $8.93 per bag.

Now let's look at some fire-starting setups and the initial cost starting with the classic charcoal & lighter fluid method:

Charcoal set up price comparisonIf you're still into lighter fluid (you shouldn't be at this point), Expert Grill products are the way to go if you want to save a few bucks.  Remember, Expert Grill is made by Royal Oak, the charcoal is a quality product and besides, the savings can go towards meat!

Lump charcoal & lighter fluid:

Lump coal price comparison

Now I could play around with a few more lump coal and lighter fluid combos, but the point here is to show how much more expensive it is to grill with lump coal than briquets.  In my experience, the better flavor argument just isn't worth the price.  The better option is to buy a bag of wood chunks, pecan, apple, mesquite, your choice, and add them to your briquets, but that's a story for another day.  Of note, the B&B price is for a 20lb bag.  The Royal Oak price is for a 15.4lb bag (reference, first chart).  I'm not a fan of Cowboy lump, it can be inconsistent from bag to bag, far more small pieces than big, and I've found unburned pieces of pallet in a bag.

"Match Light" starting:

Match light prices

No lighter fluid required, it's in the briquets

This is the cheapest, initial, out-of-pocket way to start a grill... or is it?  Remember, we're talking a 12lb bag of Match Light vs. a 16lb bag of traditional charcoal briquets.  The more important reason not to go this route though is flavor.  This product, and I don't care how seasoned a griller you are, carries an inherent risk of giving you food with a fuel taste.  It only takes one not-yet-ready-for-food briquet to do that.  Think about it, you might get 6 decent burgers, but the 7th and 8th patties have that slight lighter fluid taste to them because they were on that certain spot on the grill where the coals weren't quite ready...  Is that worth the cheaper price?  

Firestarters:

Starter prices

SteakI just reposted the typical firestarter prices here, with no pairing with briquets or lump charcoal.  Yes, the price of firestarters will be a bit more out-of-pocket than a 32-ounce bottle of lighter fluid (Kingsford - $5.49, Expert Grill $4.88), but as I stated before, starters are more efficient in starting your charcoal than lighter fluid, especially if you're heavy-handed with the liquid stuff.  Odds are, and especially as you gain grilling experience, you can make a box of Weber Cubes last the same number of cooks as a bottle of lighter fluid.  The more important factor, is you've got a clean burn using firestarters, with NO risk of lighter fuel-tasting food.  Firestarters are much easier to use, and just as convenient if not more, there are no storage concerns and no potential for a smelly mess.

My preferred setup is Kingsford, using Meker Fire Starters, topping the briquets with a few chunks of pecan wood.  This delivers a clean burn, and great flavor.   Small bags of chunk wood typically run in the $6 - $12 range.  You only need a couple of chunks to put some great smoke flavor on the typical, grilled family meal, so a bag of chunks is going to last for a while.

$pend Wisely My Friends...

~ Mike

 

Related: Product Review: Meker Fire Starters

Related: Adding more flavor to grilled foods, no seasoning required

Related:  Grilling Good Eats, by Mike Thayer

 

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