How to Choose Between Gas and Charcoal Grill

Grilling can be intimidating. It tends to be male-dominated, although I will say that the BBQ dudes are much more laid back, friendly, and helpful than the sous vide dudes, who tend to be pedantic and a little upset. But beyond the community, it can be hard to know where to start. The first question to ask yourself is gas or coal?

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My dad is good at a lot of things—veterinary medicine, fly tying, telling the same story over and over again without getting bored—but cooking is not one of them. He can fry a little, but now that he knows what I’m capable of, he rarely tries to fry anything for me. I came to the grill on my own, without the guidance of a BBQ dad, and avoided this area of ​​cooking for a while. But then I got a Weber kettle and became the BBQ dad I needed. I’ve smoked pork chops, whole turkeys , and lamb shoulder blades with it, as well as great grilled pizzas , pickles , and blood donuts , as well as more mundane foods like chicken and steak . All this to say that I have some bias towards charcoal, but even I can admit that propane and propane accessories are more suitable for some people.

Why do you want to fry?

There are several reasons to get into the grill, and all of them are good. Maybe you want to enjoy hot dogs and burgers all summer long, or maybe you want to have a real barbecue. Maybe you’re dreaming of summer grilled vegetables, or maybe you’re just tired of heating your kitchen during these sweltering summer months and want to take it outside. You can use either charcoal or gas to do it all, but each has its own strengths (and weaknesses).

One is much cheaper than the other

You can buy a really good charcoal grill that also doubles as a smoker for less than $200, and a good one for about $50. A gas grill has more moving parts and components, so it costs more. Serious Eats reckons a “decent” gas grill will cost you at least $500, although it’s worth noting that the grill executives at AmazingRibs.com have given this $200 gas grill the coveted “Platinum” seal of approval.

If you haven’t inherited a gas grill from someone, the lower entry cost of charcoal makes it a good choice for those who are “not even sure if they like the grill” or are just looking for a cheap way to barbecue this summer.

Charcoal provides the best flavor for long cooking times.

Charcoal produces smoke, and smoke is one of the things that gives food that classic grill flavor. But as Serious Eats points out, smoke isn’t the only source of flavor when grilling, especially if you’re working with short cook times:

Propane or natural gas burns relatively cleanly. The by-products of their combustion are mainly water vapor and carbon dioxide. Charcoal, on the other hand, produces a whole host of other molecules, some of which can actually get onto your food and add flavor to it. At the same time, there is a competing source of taste: the evaporating droplets of your food. The little sizzle, pops, and flashes you get when your burger drips juice (mostly fat, water, and dissolved proteins) onto hot grill rods or coals. As these proteins and fats are burned, they create new flavor compounds that are deposited back onto the meat during cooking. This happens whether your heat source is charcoal or gas.

For foods that cook quickly over direct heat, such as hamburgers, sausages, and vegetables, you probably won’t notice a difference in flavor between charcoal and gas—the smoke won’t have enough time to develop a very strong flavor, but those fizz and sizzle will be. But for slower-cooking proteins like brisket, chicken, pork shoulder, ribs, or even thick steaks, you need charcoal smoke, especially since these foods are mostly cooked using indirect heat (away from a heat source). and do not get as much benefit from flashes and evaporating drips.

Obviously, smoke has one drawback: it smells, and it smells. I’ve never given up showering after charcoal cooking, but between powerlifting, hot tubs, gardening, and general greasy, I already shower at least twice a day during the summer, so that’s not a problem for me.

Charcoal is also dirtier and produces ashes that must be disposed of. There is no such by-product in a gas grill, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to clean the grates or any debris that drips under the grates. And while a charcoal grill requires more regular cleaning, it’s much easier to deep clean a neglected charcoal grill than it is to clean an abandoned gas grill , so be honest with yourself and your level of laziness when making a decision.

Gas is much more convenient.

Starting a gas grill is very easy. Turn the knob and press the small button on the lighter. It is turned on and heats up very quickly (about 5-10 minutes). A charcoal grill takes at least half an hour to heat up, even if you use a chimney , and it’s also a lot dirtier. If your goal is to quickly cook proteins and vegetables within a week with minimal effort and cleanup, a gas grill may be right for you.

It’s also easier to control the temperature on a gas grill – just adjust the knobs – and it’s easier to keep them at a certain temperature. Even the most homogeneous coal briquette is not able to burn as stably as a gas tuned to a certain flow rate. To control the temperature on a charcoal grill, you need to control the air flow. It takes some learning, but I think it’s worth learning, especially since…

Charcoal offers a much wider temperature range.

Not only do charcoal grills get hotter than gas grills, but they can also maintain a much lower cooking temperature. According to Serious Eats , a gas grill has a temperature range of 225°F to 600°F, while a charcoal grill can operate from “as low as 1200°F and above”.

Manufacturers of gas grills will try to obfuscate the issue with Btu, a unit of measurement that AmazingRibs.com ‘s Meathead considers “useless”:

It’s very hard to tell how much heat a gas grill will put out because manufacturers only tell you BTUs, British thermal units. This is a useless number. BTU is just a measure of how much gasoline is being used, such as miles per gallon in a car. Not very useful if you want to know what the top speed is. The number you need is called “Heat Flux”, which is Btu per square inch of the main cooking surface (additional surface, warming grate not included). You have to calculate this yourself to compare potential heat from one grill to another (although we do that for you in our database of hardware reviews ).

As such, charcoal grills will run much hotter (and colder) than their gas counterparts, but except when you’re grilling something, there are very few times you need the temperature to get above 600℉. However, I like being able to.

Do you want to smoke?

I have had great success using my Weber kettle as a smoker. As I mentioned earlier, I have been able to smoke turkey , pork shoulder and lamb shoulder using the snake configuration with great results and rave reviews. You need to fiddle a bit with the vents to keep the temperature stable for long, slow and slow cooking, but my fellow BBQ dads* know this is a feature and not a bug as the smoker will keep you “too busy”. ” for housework and tasks that take more than half an hour to complete.

[*This is a gender-neutral term.]

Weber kettles and other similarly designed charcoal grills are great for smoking because they seal very well, creating an environment where the smoke hangs and really flavors your meat and forms a crust. All you have to do is throw some wood on the hot coals.

You can technically smoke on a gas grill by wrapping pieces of wood in foil and placing them under the burners, but they just don’t seal well. As Serious Eats explains , this is good for safety, but bad for smoking:

On the downside, a gas grill doesn’t seal very well. This is by design and serves as a safety measure. Gas grill burners will blow gas whether they are burning fuel or not – so what happens if you seal your gas grill completely? Eventually, all the oxygen inside will be used up and the flame will go out, but the gas will continue to pump, filling the entire grill with flammable fuel. All it takes then is a tiny spark, and BOOM.

Because of this, it is difficult to give the meat a smoky flavor – even with long-term cooking and a whole bunch of wood chips – with a gas grill.

Do you want to burn?

A gas grill will give you crisper grill marks, but it’s not very good . These dark stripes indicate where the Maillard reaction took place, and the Maillard reaction is the chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars that gives “fried” food a special, delicious taste. (If you’re having a hard time imagining what it tastes like, think toast, fried browned potatoes, or the crust on a steak.) Thin stripes of browning mean thin stripes of flavor.

With a charcoal grill, your food is grilled under the direct, radiant heat of the coals. The hotter and closer they are to your food, the better you will fry them. The grates trap food and provide some direct heat, but the coals do most of the work.

With gas grills, the situation is different. The flame heats the grates, which then fry the food (in thin strips) through heat conduction. You can mitigate this and increase the browning area by moving the food around and exposing the pale areas to the hot grills, or you can get a gas grill with an infrared burner, but these are expensive and rarely big enough to ignite the meat. several steaks at the same time.

How big should you buy?

If you live in a suburb with a big backyard and a decent HOA (or no HOA at all), you should dare to buy the biggest, ugliest grill money can buy. But if you live in an apartment, apartment building, or any other dwelling that doesn’t allow a lot of smoke to billow, you may need to scale your grilling aspirations to fit your lifestyle. The good news is that there are several grills – both gas and charcoal – that are suitable for smaller spaces. Grill executives at AmazingRibs.com recommend the Weber Go-Anywhere portable gas grill , as well as the charcoal version , and I like Smokey Joe .

With any grill, you need to make sure it’s big enough for two-zone cooking – you need enough space for a heat source on one side, as well as enough space for your food to be some distance away from that heat source. Why? Everything but your fast food burgers, dogs, and thin cuts of meat and vegetables will need to be cooked using convection, circulating hot air around the food. Think chicken thigh: you can sear it all you want, but if your only heat source is scorching and direct (be it a cast-iron skillet, hot coals, or a grill), you will burn the outside long before the meat is cooked to a safe and edible temperature. Simply put: your chicken (or ribs, or thick steaks, or root vegetables) needs a place to hide from the direct heat – and at the same time enjoy the warm air circulating inside the grill – so that they can reach their full flavor potential, not getting burned to the ground.

Putting it all together

As you can see, choosing a grill depends on a lot of factors, but there are three main questions you should ask yourself before buying anything impulsively from the Home Depot parking lot:

  1. What is my budget? A fancy charcoal grill can be purchased for much less than a fancy gas grill.
  2. Where will I put it? How much space do you have? Do you want to take it with you to the park, to the beach or on a hike? Are you even allowed to have a grill in your apartment?
  3. What do I want to cook? Gas grills are great for quick weekday meals, classic burgers and hot dogs. Charcoal grills make better smokers and are better for those looking for weekend “projects”. Charcoal also provides better flavor through the smoke, but that flavor is only really noticeable with longer cook times using indirect heat.

In addition to answering these questions, you need to make sure the grill seals well, has a well-designed ventilation system, an easily adjustable temperature control, and enough grate space for two cooking zones.

Product reviews are not my thing, but AmazingRibs.com has an incredible searchable database where you can read their reviews of grills, smokers and all kinds of outdoor stoves. I’m already a dedicated Weber Kettle bitch and I don’t see this changing anytime soon, but still interesting to see. And no matter what grill you buy, make sure you also get an external thermometer . The little dial thermometers mounted on top of your grill are notoriously inaccurate, no matter how expensive your grill was.

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