Do you yearn for the sensory overload of hardwood charcoal – the glow, the wisps of perfumed smoke – or do you prefer to turn a few knobs, momentarily tolerate the sulphurous stench of propane, press a button and get the job done over rows of blue flame? If you count yourself among the ranks of the latter, don't worry – you're not a bad person, and you're definitely not alone. Despite the loss of that authentic grilled flavour (and no small amount of foodie cred), the majority of us have been buying gas grills for the past 20 years. And the reason is obvious: convenience.
Let's face it, a charcoal grill is a pain in the ass. Cleaning one sucks, and lighting one can be both time-consuming and dangerous. Enter the Looftlighter. The Looftlighter resembles a curling iron on steroids and uses a blast of 600C air to light lumps of charcoal in little more than one minute, no lighter fluid, chimney starters, matches or newspaper required. It works, too. It took just over five minutes to light four small patches of coals on my grill, though my finger ached a little after holding down the power button for so long (I imagine this is actually a safety feature, however). After shutting the lid, I returned in five more minutes to a raging cauldron perfect for high temperature grilling.
The Looftlighter also comes with a back story that's too good not to tell. It's the brainchild of Richard Looft, a renaissance man if ever one existed. Over dinner, he described to me his pre-entrepreneurial career in the Swedish dramatic arts scene, working with legendary director Ingmar Bergman, actors Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist, the stars of the Swedish Millennium trilogy films based on the novels of Stieg Larsson, and countless others. That is, until he hosted the dinner party that changed his life: Looft used his new charcoal grill to prepare the centrepiece of the meal. "I made a whole chicken, and I was very proud. It looked fantastic," he said. "We started eating, and it tasted like lighter fluid, so we had to throw it away and buy pizza, and I got very angry."
To be slightly more accurate, Looft went MacGyver. He turned to his tool shed for inspiration, and borrowed the heating coil from a broken toaster and the guts of an Electrolux vacuum cleaner that could blow air to create the prototype of the product that now bears his name.
In theory, lighting charcoal grills is just the most obvious job this tool can perform. In one of his podcasts, Food Network personality Alton Brown copped to using his Looftlighter to sear meats he cooks sous vide. I tried this with chicken breast and pork belly and can testify to the fact that it works, but it's a tedious process that's almost as slow as cooking in a low temperature water bath in the first place. I also experimented with the device to pop corn and torch sugar atop crème brûlées. Food fail: The force of the air from the Looftlighter blew sugar (and burnt, but, admittedly, popped corn) all over my counter.
But isn't it enough that the Looftlighter does the one thing it's supposed to do really well? The grillers who rave about it think so. Now let's see if it can make converts out of all those people who've switched to gas.