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Charcoal Vs Gas Grill

Charcoal or Gas Grill


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.

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.

3) Indirect heat smoke roasting for things like ribs when the warm air 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?

Charcoal makes a tiny bit more smoke than gas, although, when lit properly, good charcoal produces little smoke and it is not likely to get into food that is cooked quickly such as burgers, hot dogs, or even steaks.

The smoke you see when grilling comes mostly from drippings from the food hitting the hot coals. Meat drippings are mostly water, fat, and protein plus whatever you have added, like sugar in barbecue sauce. When drippings hit the coals 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 hit these radiant surfaces where it is vaporized, making smoke and steam, just like charcoal.

There is also a minor difference in the flavor imparted by combustion gasses, the volatile byproducts given off by the burning of the charcoal or the gas. When propane combusts it makes more steam than charcoal, and some say that keeps meat moist giving gas an advantage. Others think the steam is a disadvantage, hampering chicken skin from getting crisp.

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 prefer the chimney because it is faster and easier and needs no outlet. My fave is the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter.

If you use your grill for 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. Which is better? Taste is a matter of taste.

But when it comes to direct heat grilling, 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. If you use strong flavored rubs, marinades, and sauces, you will never notice taste differences. 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.

Charcoal pros and cons

Charcoal purists are vehement and border on snobbery. They who would never ever never own a gas grill. They claim it is the flavor, but for me, a lot of it is the thrill of playing with fire and the ritual.

The real 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 500F. If you use a lot of coals or if the coals are raised close to the cooking surface, they can cook as hot as 700F. 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). My favorite charcoal grills have a crank that let you raise and lower the charcoal bed.

On 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 that is 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 not ever 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 does 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.

Two types of gas

With gas grills you have your choice of liquid propane (LP) or natural gas. 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 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 BTUs 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.


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