Gas Grilling versus Charcoal

Gas Grilling versus Charcoal: Pros and Cons

The age-old battle of backyard chefs continues—what’s better, charcoal or gas grilling? Each type of barbecue has its plusses and minuses. For many folks, it’s just not a barbecue without charcoal. Gas has many strengths, and if statistics are anything to go by, the number of gas grills in backyards easily outnumbers charcoal ones. Still, there’s more to the equation than that.

So, what’s right for you? The simple answer is that the right grill is the one you enjoy cooking on most. It’s a matter of personal preference, and the correct solution for your neighbor might not be the right answer for you.

Selecting the Right Barbecue

Let’s say you are just getting started at barbecuing, and you aren’t sure what you want to buy. There’s a lot to consider and a lot of factors to weigh.

Since each type of cooking fuel has its strengths and weaknesses, it’s not uncommon to find backyard pit masters who keep both types handy. There are even combination models that give you both fuel options in the same grill. If you have space in your backyard, then there’s no reason you have to pick. Grab a decent Weber charcoal grill to start, and if you find yourself wanting more convenience to speed things up, find a gas grill that suits your needs, too.

A charcoal grill stands out for the flavor that it imparts on your food. Nothing comes close to the smokey goodness that meats and veggies take on when they’re cooked over hot coals. Even the smell of coals lighting is enough to make your mouth water. Folks who take their barbecue seriously would never consider cooking on anything else.

But lighting those coals takes time, and keeping the heat evenly distributedtakes practice. It’s not something that most people want to do on weeknights after a long day in the office. Although, some people do. For most, charcoal grilling is reserved for special occasions when there is plenty of time to have fun with it.

Gas grilling, on the other hand, is all about convenience. It doesn’t produce the same favors, but it makes up for that shortcoming in versatility. A gasser is much like the stove in your house. Turn the knob, light the burner, and the grillwill be hot in a few minutes. You can also control the heat very quickly, which makes it possible to cook virtually anything on a good gas grill.

Barbecue Accessories

The best charcoal grill is a very basic device that doesn’t require a lot of fancy gadgets to get going. The number one accessory you need is a chimney starter, which gets the coals burning hot without using lighter fluid or other chemicals that can end up in your food.

On the other hand, gas grills come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes. Some come loaded with options, and others are more basic but accept add-on accessories. Depending on your cooking style, you might want to look at options like arotisserie, a smoker box, or a side burner. Many chefs like to use lava rocks or ceramic stones. These retain and distribute the heat better to even out the temperature on the grill, preventing hotspots and uneven cooking.

One feature to consider before buying the grill is a powerful infrared burner. These are small burners that are designed to get super-hot to sear a steak or burger effectively. Most gas burners don’t get hot enough for efficient searing, but these infrared burners are often too small to sear more than a few steaks at a time. Some chefs prefer to use a good, quality cast-iron pan to do their searing. Cast-iron will retain the heat better than anything else and can get super-hot.

You can find a gas barbecue with as many burners as you’d like. Three or four is the ideal number for the average-sized backyard cook station. Any fewer burners yield too little control over the cooking temperature, and any more are simply needless, complicated, and more expensive.

All barbecues are going to require some basic hardware that you might already have in your kitchen. A long-handled grilling tongs are a must, and so is a digital thermometer. At a minimum, you want to have an instant-read meat thermometer, but having a remote digital oven thermometer that goes right on the cooking grate is also handy. Those round thermometers that manufacturers put on the lid are not only inaccurate, but they are also in the wrong place to do any good.

Prepping Comparison

The time it takes to prepare your grill prior to cooking is one of the downfalls of classic Weber charcoal grills in comparison to their gas-burning cousins.

Both types will require some clean-up before being lit. Most cooks use a wire brush or a pumice stone to rid the grate of any grime. The grill should be clean before you start cooking. If you’re running on gas, you can then light the desired burner and close the lid to preheat it. It should be ready to cook in about five minutes.

A charcoal grill will always require a little more cleaning. There is likely ash left over from the last time you used it, which will need to be removed. The grate will need to be cleaned with a brush or stone.

Once it’s clean, you can set up the charcoal in your chimney starter. When the coals are hot and ready to cook after about fifteen minutes, you can distribute them over the lower grate. Put the clean cooking grate on top and then start cooking.

In simple terms, the preheating phase of preparing a charcoal grill to cook takes longer than a gas grill. In reality, there was extra time spent getting the chimney starter loaded and cleaning the old ash. It isn’t particularly tedious, but it is undeniably more effort than turning the gas grill “on.”

Cooking Comparison

There are three basic types of cooking that you’ll want to do regardless your fuel of choice. You need high, direct heat for searing. You’ll also need lower, indirect heat for most of your cooking. And many backyard chefs like to experiment with smoking, for which you’ll need low heat and a source of smoke like soaked wood chips.

So, what’s the best fuel to accomplish all of this? The primary advantage of the charcoal grill is the flavors it imparts in your food. Foods that are worth the effort like thick steaks, chicken, or pork chopstake a long time to cook and are able to best soak up the flavor. Things that cook fast, like hot dogs or fish, don’t benefit from the smoking.

Another one of coal’s strengths is that it can get very, very hot. The cooking grate directly over a pile of hot coals can easily get to 900 ℉. This crazy, hot zone is the perfect area to sear meats. At such high temperatures, your foodcan burn before the internal temperature even gets to safe levels. To prevent this, set up a two-zone fire byputting the hot coals all on one side of the grate for searing. Reserve the other side for indirect cooking. For more information about how to use a charcoal grill, check out our in-depth article here.

You can use the same two-zone technique with gas grills. The burners are divided up in a way that makes it possible for you to use high heat on one side and low heat on the other. This enables the same cooking plan with a much simpler setup. Most gas burners only get up in the neighborhood of 500 ℉, so the sear will never be as good using a gas grill. As mentioned above, you could use a cast-iron pan to build up the heat or invest in a good infrared burner for the sear. Even though it doesn’t get as hot, it is much easier to control the precise temperature you want your cooking grate to be at.

Most restaurants cook over gas every day, so it is totally possible to get great results over a gas burner. Since most home cooks barbecue at temperatures that are too hot to begin with, the decreased power coming out of the gas option shouldn’t put you off.

The cooking fuel also affects the cooking environment inside the grill. Propane combustion adds moisture to the environment, while coal is very dry. The longer you cook your meat, the drier it will get. You can use a water pan to keep moisture in the grill while meats cook. This is especially critical for long recipes and for smoking meats over many hours.

Flare-ups happen with both types of cooking fuel, and you should always do your best to avoid them. Very fatty food should not be placed directly over the hottest areas where drippings can ignite. If flare-ups do occur, use your long tongs to move the items away from the direct heat. With gas, you can kill a burner or two to cool things off quickly. With coals, you can spray a little water on the fire, but be careful not to spread ash on your food while doing it.

Another thing to consider about flare-ups is the risk of building up nasty chemicals on your food. According to WebMD, built-up char on the food that comes from flare-ups contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), both of which are potential carcinogens. You can read more about some possible solutions to these problemshere.

Clean Up

Shutting down a gas unit is as simple as turning the knob to “off.” Once it has cooled, you can clean the grate. It’s a good idea to turn the gas valve off at the tank, as well.

Charcoal grills require a little more since you can’t just turn the fire off. While you can close the air vents to suffocate the fire, you’ll have to wait for it to cool down on its own. If you’re in a hurry, you can use a bucket of water or a hose to put the coals out quickly.

Pros of Gas

It should be obvious by now that the primary advantage of cooking with gas is convenience. You can turn it on and off like a stove or oven, and it heats up quickly with very little work or time on your part. Once it’s lit, you can easily control the temperature on the grill with enough precision that you can cook pretty much anything you like. A good barbecue can effectively replace your entire kitchen stove keeping heat outside of the house during the hot summer months.

Additionally, gas grills cook cleaner than charcoal. There’s no chance of getting ash in your food, and there are no dirty coals to deal with. There is less clean-up required on a daily basis. A 20-pound propane tank will last the occasional home chef a few months or longer, meaning that you can cook again and again without replacing fuel. One big meal can use up a bag of Kingsford charcoal, making the gas a much better value.

Propane is also somewhat safer than hot coals. Coal fires are very hot, indeed, and they do not go out quickly. Many fire codes, apartment buildings, and condo associations ban charcoal grills from balconies or backyards. Weber grills can make sparks and flying ash, and it is possible you might be forced to stick with gas in your area. Keep in mind that propane is an explosive gas that requires special handling, too.

Finally, gas offers a lot of versatility for the home cook. You can get a wide variety of accessories ranging from smoke boxes to rotisseries. There are so many options of every shape and size on the market. You’re sure to be able to find a model that meets your needs. There are even many varieties of small, portable gas grills on the market that use one-pound camping propane cylinders.

The best foods to cook on gas are things that cook quicklyor that require carefully controlled heat to cook. For example, you can cook thin fish fillets or hot dogs on a gas grill with little trouble. There would be no advantage to cooking these over coal since they won’t be on the grate long enough to impart any smoke flavor. If you’re looking to bake or cook delicate veggies, gas grills are perfect since they allow you to carefully control the heat over every area of the cooking surface. You can cook everything else from chops and steaks to burgers and kabobs with little difficulty.

Pros of Charcoal

The main reason to pick charcoal grills is that they can get much, much hotter than gas. Hot coals can get your cooking grate to over 900 ℉ in short order. That’s perfect for searing meats and finishing them over indirect heat. Wood coal imparts that smoke flavor that everyone loves and expects in grilled food.

The designs themselves are much less complicated than gas grills. They don’t have valves, regulators, or gas lines. Therefore, they are much cheaper than gas-fueled options and easier to setup. A bonus result is that it makes even large models more portable than similar-sized gas grills.

Charcoal grills excel at cooking things that take a little time or need an excellent sear. Thick steaks, chops, racks of ribs, and chicken can be started over high heat for the sear, while being careful that excess drippings don’t flare-up. Once seared, move to indirect heat and cook them to the proper internal temperature.

Conclusion

Remember, if you have the space and a passion for grilling, you don’t need to pick between gas and coal. In the perfect world, chefs would have their choice every day of the year. If you have time on the weekend for a big gathering of friends, light up the barbecue and enjoy some outdoor time. When you’re in a rush after work and just want a quick burger, turn the knob on and get down to business.

Yes, there is no denying that wood coal produces the best flavors. Several blind studies have proven it pretty conclusively over the years. As much as your cooking style is a matter of personal preference, so is your eating style. If your family eats steak, chops, or ribs often, a Weber charcoal grill might be your best bet. You will appreciate the quality of the smoke flavors and get a better result for it.

Ifyou’re looking to use your barbecue for a wide variety of outdoor cooking, a gas grill will provide the most versatility. For many backyard chefs, the convenience of gas means that they will use their barbecue more often. With the many ways that you can use a good-quality gas grill, your food will be excellent regardless.