This is an interesting new product which Down Under has brought to market. It is a clean burning charcoal lighter product made from corn alcohol that comes in a little plastic tub which burns up with the starter gel. The tub is placed beneath the charcoal grate so that it lights the charcoal from below. To the right you can click on the thumbnail to see their prototype packaging.
The tubs are 3 inches in diameter and about 1 inch tall. The tub has a removable plastic top which is not burned. Once you remove the top, underneath is a paper and foil seal which you peel off the tub before placing in your cooker. You should remove the seal with care as the gel is relatively fluid.
Using The Product
In this photo you can see that we have placed a tub of the starter in the bottom of a Weber Smokey Joe kettle cooker. The tub with gel has been placed in the bottom of the cooker, beneath the charcoal grate.
Here we have added 2 pounds of Kingsford charcoal on top of the charcoal grate and above the tub of starter. In this photo, we have just ignited the starter and there is a small flame peeking out from below the charcoal.
This photo shows the charcoal 15 minutes after lighting the gel. The gel itself burned out in about 10 minutes and 30 seconds. The fire is roaring away and the coals are ready to be spread.
Here are the coals spread out and the fire is ready for cooking. This photo was taken 20 minutes after igniting the gel.
What about this tub which burns with the gel? It is food grade 100% pure polypropylene. It is a simple hydrocarbon polymer, chemically similar to parafin wax (hydrogen plus carbon and free of any chlorine). In a series of tests that the manufacturer had conducted by a lab certified for the State Of California it showed that the tub and gel burned very cleanly, releasing a non-detectable level of volatile organic compounds. As you can see in the photo, we dumped the gel out of one of the tubs, ignited the residual gel and let the tub burn. There was no smell when the tub burned and no detectable smoke.
When the tub of gel was burned in the cooker, it burned almost completely. A few drops of the melted tub did drip into the ash pan below the cooker, so you need to make sure that you either have an ash pan or that there are no openings in the bottom of the cooker to allow the plastic to drip through.
Notice a particularly nice safety feature of this product. The gel comes in a tub, not a bottle. Since the tub contains adequate product for a single use, you won't be tempted to squirt more gel onto the fire. Since it is in a tub and not a bottle, it won't explode like products like Green Heat can.
The gel is alcohol based, made from corn, and as you can see, red in color. It has a faint smell of cinammon mouthwash to us. You can smell the alcohol also, of course. The gel is relatively fluid, about the consistency of maple syrup.
Here is a photo of the gel burning. No smoke, no soot. Just clean-burning alcohol.
Down Under Starter Gel is going to be sold in boxes of 3 and 6 tubs. The projected cost in the 6-tub box will be about 83 cents per tub.
Compared to Other Types of Starters
In the following comparisons, we started 2 pounds of Kingsford briquettes using each type of starter. We were most interested in effectiveness, but we also observed the general process of starting the charcoal.
Compared to Starter Fluid
We bought (shudder!) some starter fluid in order to compare Down Under Gel to the ever-popular fluid. We then used both products to start Kingsford briquettes in a Weber Smokey Joe kettle cooker. How do they compare? Well, for smell there is no comparison. The fluid has that nasty pervasive petroleum smell. The gel, as we stated, has a faint smell of cinammon mouthwash to us. There is virtually no smell as the gel burns, while starter fluid smells horrid until it has all completely burned away.
Safety? With starter fluid, you need to be sure you don't squirt the fluid onto a burning fire. Flare ups and potentially exploding bottles could result. Also, when used as directed, the starter fluid will burn with a huge flame, so you need to be careful that you are away from anything flammable and that no one gets near the fire while it is starting. The gel has none of these problems. Since it is under the charcoal, there are no roaring flames to worry about. Since the gel comes in premeasured tubs, there is no temptation to add more gel to a fire which isn't starting as quickly as you would like.
Another safety issue is that starter fluid is toxic when ingested and has accounted for many poisonings over the decades. Down Under gel is made from alcohol, is non-toxic and has a bitter taste that makes it impossible to swallow.
Performance? In our test, the charcoal was ready to use in 18.5 minutes compared to 20 minutes with the gel.
Cost? When applied in the amount recommended on the label, the starter fluid we purchased cost 60 cents to start a fire consisting of four pounds of charcoal. Of course, briquettes can be notoriously hard to start and if you apply more starter fluid than the recommended amount, your per-fire cost will rise. For example, if you use 6 ounces of fluid to start your fire instead of the recommended 4, the fluid we purchased would cost 90 cents per fire. The gel, as stated earlier, costs 83 cents for a tub that will start four pounds of charcoal.
Compared to Weber Starter Cubes
Weber Starter Cubes compare more favorably with Down Under Gel. These cubes have very little smell when burning and very little smoke. They also come premeasured cubes which means there is no bottle or temptation to squirt more starter onto a burning fire. Also like the Down Under Gel, Weber Starter Cubes don't produce huge flames as they do their work since they are nestled down in the charcoal.
Using the cubes with briquettes requires a little bit of care in laying the fire since the cubes need some airflow through the briquettes to do their job well. Since the Down Under Gel tub goes below the charcoal grate, less care is needed in building your fire.
Performance? We used 2 cubes in building our fire and determined that 3 would have been better. 2 cubes took 26 minutes to get the fire ready to cook (whereas the gel took 20). We feel that 3 cubes would have brought this time down to 18-20 minutes.
Cost? Well, for a four pound fire, at least 4, and maybe 5 cubes would be required to get the fire ready in 20 minutes. This works out to a cost of about 54-68 cents per fire, compared to 83 cents for the Down Under Gel.
Compared to a Weber Chimney Starter
Chimney starters are great on one hand because all you need to start some charcoal is newspaper. On the other hand, the newspaper can leave a lot of ash flying around the place and you often need to move the starter full of red hot coals from where you started the charcoal to the cooker, which requires care. On yet another hand, you can use a chimney starter full of lump to create a fire that burns at about 1500 degrees for some killer seared tuna. On still another hand, a chimney starter is big and dirty to be carrying around for a picnic or trip to the beach. And on yet still another hand, you need to be careful with the very very hot chimney starter after you dump the charcoal out. So as you can see, a chimney starter has its pros and cons.
How long does it take to light? We took 2 pounds of Kingsford in a Weber Chimney starter and used 2 sheets of newpaper. After the newspaper burned out, we snuck a peak under the chimney and decided to try one more sheet. After 8 minutes, the core fire was pretty well established in the chimney. After 10 minutes we dumped the charcoal into our Weber Smokey Joe cooker. After 17 minutes the charcoal was ashed over and ready to cook.
As for cost, a Weber Chimney Starter costs $17.99 at Ace Hardware these days. You can certainly find them cheaper. But at that price, the break even point is about 22 cooks before you start saving money with a chimney starter.
What About Starting Lump Charcoal In A Ceramic Cooker?
Good question! Ceramic cookers don't exactly lend themselves to having a starter placed beneath the charcoal because there is nearly always old charcoal left in the cooker from the previous cook. However, as you can see in the photo at right, you can nestle one of these tubs down in the charcoal. We had left over lump down in the bottom of the cooker and fresh charcoal on top. All of the charcoal was Wicked Good Charcoal's Competition Blend, a relatively difficult lump charcoal to light.
This next photo shows how we then carefully placed a few pieces of lump over the tub. This does two things. First it provides charcoal above the flame to be ignited. Duh... Second, however, the charcoal above the flame traps heat in the little chamber you have formed allowing the lump charcoal beneath the tub to ignite also.
As you can see here, the flame is trapped in the chamber with only a small amount of flame coming out of the opening between the pieces of charcoal.
Finally, this photo shows a very well established fire in the lump charcoal after the Down Under gel had completely burned out.
We feel that a tub about half the size of these tubs would be sufficient to start lump charcoal since lump charcoal is easier to start than Kingsford briquettes. Perhaps Down Under could consider this, which would bring the cost per fire down for lump charcoal users. Typically, only one or two Weber starter cubes are needed to start a lump charcoal fire, for example, which costs 14 to 28 cents. A full tub is overkill and a half-tub would do the job and cost less.
In fact, we actually tried that. We took half a tub of the gel, nestled it down in a hole in the lump, stacked some lump over the top and then lit the gel. The gel burned out in about 6 minutes and the fire started easily. After 10 minutes there was a hot red burning core of fire, the cooker was at 230 degrees and at this point you could have let the fire build for a rip-roaring steak sear or start shutting down the vents for a lower temperature cook.
Down Under is selling the gel in boxes of 3 and 6 tubs, as seen in the photo to the right of their prototype packages. Another very interesting plan for briquette users is Down Under's plan to sell bags of briquettes with a tub of their starter gel included. What an interesting challenge to the "instant lite" lighter-fluid soaked bags on the market. Down under is planning 4 and 10 pound bags, each with a tub of their gel included. All you will need is a match! And the projected price of the 4-pound bag of Down Under charcoal briquettes with a tub of Down Under gel is exactly one-half the price of a Kingsford 2.25 pound BBQ Bag which is soaked with starter fluid.
All in all, we are pretty impressed with this product. It may require a paradigm shift in some cooks' thinking, but if you look at the other types of starters, this product compares favorably with the other methods. It burns with no smell and no smoke. It is safer than some of the other methods and more effective than others. It compares favorably on price and is probably as convenient, if not more so, than the others. You should start looking out for this product in the next 90 days or so.
If you are interested in this product, you can now purchase it at the following web site: Charcoal Grilling 101.