Gas or Charcoal? The second most asked question since Chicken or Egg? The flame war between charcoal grill purists and gas grill hotheads burns brighter than the debate between Mac and PC users. You should read some of the slop slung on the barbecue message boards. On second thought, don’t. Let me try to sort it out for you with a few inflammatory thoughts.
Grills are used mostly for three types of cooking:
1) High heat direct radiation cooking when the food is placed directly above the heat source for things like steaks. Usually there is no lid over the meat.
2) Indirect heat convection roasting for things like whole chickens and roasts when the heat source is off to the side and the food cooks by warm air circulating around it with the lid closed.
3) Indirect heat smoke roasting with the lid closed when the warm convection airflow is heavy with flavorful hardwood smoke.
Let’s see how each fuel performs at these tasks and all the other factors.
Is there a taste difference?
Let’s cut to the most convincing argument: Probably 90% of the world’s greatest steakhouses grill with gas. This is not just a matter of convenience or price. With the prices that steakhouses charge, they can afford any fuel they want. Why is this?
Charcoal makes more smoke than gas, although, when lit completely, when ashed over, good charcoal produces very little smoke. Besides, smoke is not likely to significantly change the flavor of food that is cooked quickly such as hot dogs, burgers, or steaks. When you cook low and slow, the smoke flavor from charcoal is much more noticeable.
Of course there are at least two different kinds of charcoal. Briquets, which are made from charcoal and a lot fillers and chemicals, and lump, which is pretty much just hardwood charcoal. For more info about charcoal, read my article The Zen of Charcoal.
A lot of the smoke you see when grilling comes from drippings from the food hitting the hot surfaces below and from buildup on the grates and the inside of your grill. If you are using charcoal, only a little bit of it comes from the charcoal. If you are using gas, the smoke is invisible. Meat drippings are mostly water, fat, and protein, plus whatever you have added, such as marinade or sugar in barbecue sauce. When drippings hit the heat source they vaporize and some of that condenses on the meat and some penetrates into the meat. Most gas grills cover the flame jets with metal plates, lava rock, or ceramic rocks that absorb the heat and radiate it. Drippings may hit these radiant surfaces where they are vaporized, making smoke and steam, just like charcoal. Some new gas grills have “infrared” burners which are superheated surfaces that are very close to the meat and more vapors get back to the meat with these burners.
But the radiating metal plates on most gas grills cannot put forth as much radiant heat as hot coals so when it comes to making that rich dark flavorful seared crust, charcoal kicks butt if it is set up properly.
There is also a minor difference in the flavor imparted by combustion gases, the volatile by-products given off by the burning of the charcoal or the gas. When propane combusts it makes more steam than charcoal, and that may help keep meat moist giving gas an advantage for some meats. Some cooks think the steam can be a disadvantage for some meats, hampering chicken skin from getting crisp for example.
There is one other flavor difference of note. If you use self-igniting charcoal or charcoal fluid to start a charcoal fire, there can be an unpleasant petrochemical smell during ignition and it can get into the food. Yuk. For this reason you should use a charcoal chimney or an electric charcoal starter. I strongly recommend the chimney because it is faster and easier and needs no outlet. My fave is the Weber Chimney Starter. Electric starter coils work well too, but they require an electric outlet.
If you use your grill for long low and slow smoke roasting, there is a more noticeable difference in flavor. The combustion gases from charcoal when mixed with smoke from wood chips or chunks makes a distinctive flavor typical of traditional southern barbecue. On a propane grill, the flavor is a bit more bacon-like. Below you can see two slabs of St. Louis cut ribs cooked at the same temp side by side with Meathead’s Memphis Dust only, no sauce. The one on the left was cooked with charcoal with wood chips for flavor. The one on right was cooked with gas and exactly the same amount of chips by weight. The charcoal ribs had a deeper smokier fireplace scent and flavor. The gas ribs had a better pork flavor with hints of bacon and they were moister. Which was better? Taste is a matter of taste. I loved them both.
As for cost, it is hard to compare the two. Charcoal is often on sale, and propane fluctuates with gas prices. Either fuel is minor compared to the food. On the environmental front, they are also hard to compare. Charcoal uses a lot of sawdust from saw mills that would other be waste while propane is a petrochemical that has to be extracted from wells. Charcoal produces white smoke, gas produces invisible smoke, but there are still plenty of combustion gases from propane. I am sure we could undertake a study of the two, but I’m also pretty sure that you would best be advised to chose on flavor rather than cost.
But when it comes to direct heat grilling, which is usually fast, the fact is that, if all things are equal such as cooking temp, most folks can’t tell the difference in the taste between charcoal and gas grilled food. That’s a big if. Because most gas grills cannot achieve the same high heat as charcoal, charcoal is superior for getting that great dark crust on steaks that is much more flavorful than tan meat. If you use strong flavored rubs, marinades, and sauces, you will never notice taste differences especially because they hamper browning (read my article on marinades). You may think you can, but blind tastings have shown that you probably can’t. So if there is little taste difference, the choice comes down to functionality. That’s why I own both.
Charcoal pros and cons
Why we love charcoal grills. Charcoal purists are vehement and border on snobbery. They who would never ever never own a gas grill.
The most important reason to buy a charcoal grill is that charcoal can get hotter than standard gas grills, and heat is what you need to get steaks and lamb crisp on the outside and red or pink on the inside.
Charcoal grills typically cook up to 500°F or more. If you use a lot of coals or if the coals are raised close to the cooking surface, they can cook as hot as 700°F or more. When I get my hands on top quality lamb or beef, I use bricks to raise the charcoal grate on my Weber Kettle to within 1″ of the meat and the result looks and tastes as good as anything you can get at Morton’s (see the picture at the top of this page). I also use the Hovergrill that came with my Smokenator to raise the coals. It’s a wire grate with legs that can sit on the charcoal grate placing the coals within 1″ of the meat. My favorite charcoal grills have a crank that let you raise and lower the charcoal bed.
Charcoal, especially before it is fully lit, emits combustion gases and smoke flavors. When fully lit and ashed over, it produces less smoke flavor. But that smoke flavor is soooooo gooooood.
The down side. Charcoal is dirty to handle; it can be hard to light; it takes about 15 minutes longer to get up to temp; there can be flare-ups that can burn the food and flareups may be a health risk; it is hard to tell what temp you are cooking at; the temperature cannot be turned down rapidly; during long cooks it slowly loses heat and you need to add more charcoal; charcoal grills rarely have rotisseries; and there is a lot of ash to clean up after.
Most of these problems are easily surmounted if you know how: If you use gloves, shovels, or tongs, you need never handle raw coals. If you keep the charcoal dry and use a chimney, getting hot coals is easy. If you push the coals to one side of the grill and set up a 2-zone cooking environment, fatty meats like chicken skin do not drip on the coals and flare up, and even if there are flareups, a squirt gun can contain them. And cleanup of ash is easier with some of the one-touch grills or grills that have removable ash trays.
The most important part of any cooking, indoor or out, is regulating heat. To do that you need a reliable oven thermometer, and a little know-how that takes time to acquire. Alas I have never seen a charcoal grill with a half good thermometer, and the thermometer is never mounted where it is needed, near the meat. The temp in the top of the dome can be very different at meat level.
Since charcoal grills do not have temperature dials to raise or lower temp, it is important to learn how to set up a 2-zone fire which helps you regulate heat by moving meat from the hot to the medium zone, and learn how to control the energy of the fire by closing off the oxygen intake vents. They are your temperature dials.
In short, cooking with charcoal can yield superlative results if you calibrate it and practice. The high heat is perfect for red meats, and if you learn your instrument, it will reward you handsomely. It is not intuitive and brainless, but there is little it cannot do when you achieve mastery, Grasshopper.
Charcoal devotees claim it is the flavor, but for me, a lot of it is the ritual and the thrill of playing with fire.
Gas pros and cons
Gas grills outsell charcoal grills and it is easy to understand why. They offer convenience and control. Those two words alone cinch the argument for many folks.
Why we love gas grills. They are easy to start, they heat up within 10 to 15 minutes, they hold temperatures steadily yet we can crank them up and cool them down in a hurry, they can be configured for indirect and multi-zone cooking, and they are easy to clean. If it’s Tuesday, you’re late getting home from work, and you need dinner ready in an hour, a gasser can do it. Low to mid-price gas grills typically have a top end of 100 to 450°F. More expensive grills can get up to 700°F. Newer high end models with sear burners can get as hot as charcoal.
Temp control. Although they excel at holding a steady temp, they are not perfect. A dial setting of 1 may equal 275°F on a 70°F day, but it can be 225°F on a cool, windy, or rainy day. Or 300°F on a hot day. But once you get to know your instrument, it is pretty easy to manage and if it has two or more burners it is easy to have two or more heat zones. On a three burner grill you might use a hot zone for meat, a medium zone for veggies, and a low zone for holding finished foods. It is still necessary to know what temperature you are cooking at, and the thermometers on most gas grills are worthless, even expensive grills, so I strongly recommend you buy a good digital oven thermometer and a good digital meat thermometer. Click here for my Buying Guide to Thermometers.
Most gas grills use metal plates, lava rocks, and ceramics to radiate heat, so there are no open flames, no flareups, and cleanup is easier because drips are usually vaporized. There’s no ash, so gassers are easier to clean, but they suffer from carbon and grease buildups that need to be scraped or pressure washed every few months. There are also gas jets and venturis that can clog up. Spiders seem to like it down in there, and I have even had to dig a wasp’s nest out of one of the tubes once. Click here to read about how to clean, maintain, and troubleshoot your grill.
Some people discard the lava rocks or ceramics every year. My brother-in-law makes the world’s finest swordfish on a crappy old gas grill with lava rocks he has been using since they were harvested in the last ice age. Some of his lava rocks have begun to disintegrate and there are gaps where bare flame slips through to lick the meat. I have never been able to come close to his swordfish on all my fancy toys.
Accessories. Gas grills can come with a wider range of accessories. Most are set up so you can easily attach a rotisserie accessory and many come with side burners so you can keep sauces warm or cook side dishes. You can get night lights, side tables, spice racks, storage drawers, side burners, and there’s probably even one with a DVD player.
Infrared and sear burners. The biggest problem with gas grills is that only the top end models get hot enough to get a steak crunchy on the exterior without overcooking the interior. If you like your steaks well done, gas grills are perfect for you. But if you like your meat crunchy on the outside and rare to medium rare on the inside, the temp at which it is most tender and juicy, then most gas grills just don’t get the job done. The italicized word is “most”. Many of the more expensive gas grills now come with “infrared” burners off to one side. This is a bit of a misnomer because all grills cook by infrared, or heat, radiation. Infrared burners use a gas flame to superheat a ceramic or metal plate that radiates much more heat than standard burners. As much as twice the heat. In the 700°F plus range. That’s the kind of temp that steakhouses cook at. It can give you those deep dark crusty steaks with red or pink interiors. Alas, most infrared burners are only big enough for one or two steaks at a time. Weber has its own technology for high heat searing. They call them sear burners, and they lie in a corner just below the grates. Char-Broil’s new Quantum line has a radiation plate beneath the entire surface. My Quantum hits 680°F about an inch above the grates. GrillGrates can be added to most any gas grill and can significantly improve the cooking characteristics.
Infrared/sear burners may be perfect for steaks, but they are much too hot for direct heat cooking of most fish and veggies. Even with steaks, you need to keep an eye on food over direct infrared. They can incinerate in a hurry. Infrared burners can sometimes be used for rotisserie cooking and can even be used for indirect heat cooking.
Smoking. Some high end gas grills also have smoke boxes for wood chips, but for most gas grills you need to make foil packets or put pans of wood down under the cooking grate near the flame. Even though it is not recommended, I often throw aromatic woods right down near the burners on my Weber gas grill.
Alas, most gas grill lids do not seal well, so a lot of the smoke is lost and more wood is needed than on a tighter grill.
Price. Because the mechanisms are more complex, gas grills tend to be more expensive than comparable charcoal grills, assembly of new gas grills is more complex than charcoal grills, and there are more parts to break and be replaced.
Two types of gas. With gas grills you have your choice of liquid propane or natural gas.
Liquid propane (LP) gas comes in 20 pound steel tanks. If you have an LP grill you should always have a full backup tank on hand. Nothing is more annoying than setting a chicken on the grill, cranking up the lawn mower, and returning in 30 minutes to discover that the tank ran out and the bird is raw.
Propane gas is ideal for grills because, when pressurized, it compresses and turns to liquid, making it easy to store in tanks. It also contains more cooking energy than natural gas as measured in British Thermal Units (BTU). A BTU is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water 1F. There are about 2,500 BTU in one cubic foot of propane and only about 1,000 BTU in one cubic foot of natural gas.
Gas grills typically range from 15,000 to 60,000 BTU per hour. Manufacturers tout the number of BTU their grills can produce, but the number can be very misleading. The number of BTU is not indicative of the heat it can generate. That must be calculated by BTU per square inch, something they never tell you. Higher BTU grills usually have more cooking surface over which the BTU are spread. Small grills can have as little as 5,000 BTU and large ones up to 60,000. Higher BTU grills use more fuel if you use all burners. 55-75 BTU/square inch is the typical range. Sideburners typically run 10,000-15,000 BTU.
Natural gas is mostly methane. It must be delivered to the grill by a pipeline from your house so a certified contractor will be needed to do the installation and the grill must be parked in a permanent location. Propane grills cannot be hooked up to natural gas without an adapter kit and the regulator may need to be adjusted. Natural gas is cheaper than LP gas and you never have to worry about running out, unless you don’t pay your gas bills.
Which to buy?
Which to buy? I have both gas and charcoal. Almost all my birds, fish, veggies, pizzas, and breads go on my LP gas grills, almost all my red meats go on my charcoal grills. If you’re starting out, and you want no fuss no muss, go gas. If you can afford it, get an infrared burner and a side burner.
If you’re willing to put in a bit more time to gain mastery of your tool, then go charcoal, and look for one that let’s you raise and lower the coal.
Or you could buy the Char-Griller Duo (right), which does both. It’s a cheaply made grill, but I’ll bet we see better duos in the future.