First of all, you should know I’m not a “Match Light” guy. I like to use charcoal lit via lighter fluid like my dad, and probably his dad before him, did because it’s all part of the process that I grew up with.
The smell of the fluid burning off puts me right back on a remote beach in the Hamptons at sundown, waiting for the grill to be ready for ribs, my dad chatting with Mr. Smith, our two families’ late 60s Jeep Wagoneers (one pea green, one brown) parked in the sand nearby, waiting to take us back to the real world, barbecue-stuffed kids lying on the roof or dangling our legs off of the tailgate during the whole miles-long ride back down the beach to one of the two-track sand trails providing access through the dunes.
So for those olfactory-triggered memories alone, there’s no Match Light for me; I need real charcoal.
But what kind? See, I’m also one of those guys that buys generic aspirin. Actually, generic ibuprofen, and I buy 500 at a time for like 6 bucks at Walmart, because there is simply no difference, no matter what the commercials try to tell you. Not in effectiveness, anyway, which is all I care about.
And charcoal, I thought, is probably much the same. So when I did my review of the Bodum Fyrkat last week, the first time I set it up I cheaped out and fed it Sam’s Choice, the generic Walmart brand of charcoal briquets. It said “professional quality” on the bag, which I knew was dopey and should have hipped me, but charcoal is charcoal, so I went with the cheap stuff.
Well, as it turns out, I’m not as slick as I thought I was. That Walmart crap took forever to ash, and once it got going it burned really inconsistently. While I was able to pull off the grilling session, it wasn’t what I’d call an impressive showing. So despite the fact that I had plenty left, I went back to the store and sprang for a bag of the briquets I grew up with: Kingsford.
I bought the regular stuff, the stuff that appears to be in the same bag it was in 40 years ago (I may have to do a shootout of some of the other variants at some point in the future), and it was hugely better than the generic.
It ashed up quickly and burned perfectly, making it easy to get a consistent heat pattern on my grill. Once I was done cooking, I extinguished the coals by closing the cover and vents, then removed samples of each brand to examine.
Almost every Kingsford briquet had burned consistently, while there wasn’t a single Sam’s Choice that looked like it had burned remotely cleanly. The Sam’s Choice may be bigger, so theoretically it will burn longer, but based on how poorly it worked I’ll take on the labor of adding more coals more frequently, thank you.
And I’ll pass on the Sam’s Choice for another reason, too. I really wanted to use Kingsford because there’s something nice about tradition when you’re doing something like grilling, and now I have a legit excuse to spend the little bit extra dosh necessary to buy it the stuff. Bonus: the Kingsford bag has a history of charcoal on it. Did you know that they made the original charcoal (or so this story goes) back in 1920 from wood cast off during the manufacture of Ford Model Ts? I did not know that either, but it turns out that Kingsford started their charcoal empire right there with those chunks of car.
So, as it turns out, sometimes the generics suck. Maybe not when you’re buying a pain killer, but probably if you’re buying cereal, and definitely if you’re going for charcoal. Don’t cheap out: just buy the damn Kingsford.