The truth about self-starting charcoal: how to avoid one of the most common grilling mistakes
Self-starting charcoal is one of those inventions that ranks right up there with self-adhering stamps and rechargeable batteries. It's a time-saving device that begs the question, "Why didn't someone think of this sooner?"
But some people say that self-starting charcoal is unhealthy. In truth, if used properly, self-starting charcoal is safe, however, there is an equally disturbing drawback associated with this fuel source.
Self-starting charcoal is typically coated in petroleum or some other combustible material to make it catch fire without lighter fluid. It does away with dangerous flare-ups that are common when using lighter fluid. And you don't have to remember or deal with a smelly, messy can.
But can the petroleum cause health concerns? According to current research, the answer is no - provided the charcoal is used correctly.
The coating on self-starting charcoal burns off as the coals heat up. Generally, if you wait until the coals are turning gray before putting food on the grill, any harmful aspects of the starting fluid will have burned away. Unfortunately, many people get impatient and fail to wait, or they don't use enough coals and end up adding more once the food has already started cooking.
This is one of the most common grilling mistakes and is where using self-starting charcoal can become a health hazard.
In addition, if you stand over the grill while lighting the charcoal you risk inhaling some of the problematic chemical fumes. It is best to avoid breathing in and move away from the grill once the charcoal is lit. If you handle the briquettes, be sure to wash before touching food or eating with your hands.
The Real Problem
Even if you wait until the chemicals burn off, some self-starting charcoal does make the food taste different, and not in a good way. Foods with delicate flavors, such as fish or other seafood seem to be particularly susceptible to adverse flavoring from this fuel source. And most people making slow-cooked BBQ or using smokers completely avoid using self-starting charcoal for this reason.
Using regular charcoal with lighter fluid does not typically create an unpleasant flavor. This is probably due to the fact that the charcoal is not soaked in the fluid so it doesn't absorb as much of the chemical as does self-starting charcoal.
As easy and convenient as self-starting charcoal is, there are reasons to choose a different fuel source. Although it may not be unhealthy when used properly, it has been known to give food an unpleasant taste. If you do choose to use self-starting charcoal in your grill, be sure to let the coals burn long enough before placing your food on the grill.