What is Paraffin Wax?
Somewhere in the short history of mankind’s lust for fossil fuels we’ve discovered a milky white substance whose versatility may surprise you. Carl Reichenbach is credited for this discovery in his studies of the distillation of organic substances from 1830 to 1834 (Wikipedia) with the name deriving from the Latin words parum, meaning “too little,” and affinis, meaning “affinity.” This is because the alkane hydrocarbons are non-polar and non-reactive, having little affinity. Essentially, there are few other substances that will react with paraffin wax. The wax is actually refined from crude oil and thought to be the protective waxy layer plants would produce to coat their leaves millions of years ago.
I’m not smart. I just looked that up. Now you’ve gotten your daily dose of geekery when you thought you were reading about grilling. Don’t worry, I’ve got more goodies.
Paraffin wax has a ton of pretty interesting and unusual uses. For decades, although not so much these days, paraffin was the thin layer of wax used to seal jars. It’s also used to make candles, coat paper, as an ingredient in cosmetics and also as a coating on fruits and vegetables to help them look shiny and delicious and keep out moisture, thus acting as a preservative.
Yes, paraffin wax is edible. In fact, it’s a common ingredient in chocolate! There are different formulas of paraffin though, so don’t go snacking on candles anytime soon.
Paraffin wax is also a great insulator and is currently being used in many electrical and new construction applications. Because of its relatively low melting point, just under 120° F, paraffin is being used as a “phase change” material in drywall. Basically what this means is that the wax absorbs heat as the environment surrounding it warms and it begins to melt. Then, when the temperatures begin to cool, paraffin wax begins to harden again and releases the stored heat. Way cool. Let’s just hope they pair that with some awesome flame retardants, because paraffin wax is highly flammable.
This brings me to the entire reason for this article, which is meant more-so as a tip than an anything. The bottom line is that paraffin wax, with all its uses, is in its simplest form an awesome fire starter. If you’re an avid charcoal griller and you want to light a chimney of coals fast and reliably, get yourself some packaged paraffin cubes and you’ll be well on your way in no time. Just place one cube, that’s all you need, on your lower grill grate, give it a light and set your filled chimney over the flame. Forget about newspaper or other methods that are more susceptible to wind and can create a mess of ashy debris.
Even though paraffin wax is a petroleum based product, it’s a relatively clean solution. It also doesn’t give off any nasty odor or flavor that can stick around and latch onto your food. This can be problematic with other products, such as “match light” charcoal.
Match light charcoal contains lighter fluid embedded within the coal itself. This has two downsides to me. One, you have to make sure you wait long enough for all the lighter fluid to burn off. Otherwise, you’ll taste it in your food. Nasty. Two, you can’t add fresh charcoal to an existing bed of coals. This will ensure the lighter fluid flavor will permeate your food. Nasty and bad for you.
In the end, it’s up to you what catalyst to use in getting your coals lit quickly and effectively. The chimney and some paraffin wax are my reliable standby, but I’m sure there are other methods out there that work well too!