When it comes to American food culture, there are few topics that are debated more passionately than the type of fuel you use in your grill. Choosing one over the other puts on one side of a great divide and guarantees that someone, somewhere will disapprove of you and your food. How great is the difference between gas and charcoal, really? What are the benefits of each? We will answer these and other questions below in another BBQ Showdown.
Beyond fuel, how do gas and charcoal grills differ?
One of the key differences is temperature. Charcoal consists of carbon, which burns at hotter temperatures than you can get from a gas grill. For steaks, this can mean a faster sear that seals the juices in. Higher temperatures can also cook vegetables quickly without making them soft and soggy.
The juices from your meat that drip out onto the coals will also have a major impact on how your food tastes. These juices get vaporized by the bed of burning coals and rise back up to flavor the meat.
Gas grills use liquid propane, which means that you can start grilling with the turn of a knob. A gas grill may not burn as hot, but you can get started sooner. When you are done, you simply turn your grill off and clean your grates.
What does a charcoal grill do better than a gas grill and vice versa?
You get the full benefit of charcoal when cooking larger, slow-cooking items. If you are going to be smoking a whole chicken or a Boston butt over several hours, a charcoal grill is a better option. It is also the best option if you are grilling a steak since it can easily reach temperatures above 500 degrees.
If you are cooking hamburgers or chicken breasts on a weeknight, a gas grill will be the most convenient option. You get to cook and clean up without the time-consuming hassle that comes with igniting charcoal and cleaning up the ashes after grilling.
What are the downsides of grilling with charcoal and of grilling with gas?
Setting up your charcoal grill before cooking is a dirty job, as is cleaning it afterward. In addition, it can be difficult to get a fire going if you are inexperienced with charcoal. Unless your grill is equipped with an accurate thermometer, you may have a hard time determining the temperature at which you are cooking. Flare-ups on a charcoal grill can also be difficult to control.
The drawbacks of gas grills include the fact that most mid-range and budget models are unable to achieve high enough temperatures for searing steaks without also cooking their interiors. In other words, they may not be for you unless you like your meat well-done. Even if your gas grill has a smoke box for wood chips, you may find the smoke flavor lacking since the average gas grill does not seal tightly enough to keep the smoke in.
Low-temperature smoking is also difficult with a gas grill. The problem is that a low flame is more likely to go out. If this happens with a gas grill, the grill would proceed to fill with highly combustible fuel and create the risk of it suddenly igniting. As a safety measure, the flame in a gas grill cannot be reduced below a certain point. Unfortunately, that point is too high for effective slow cooking.
Which is more expensive, grilling with gas or grilling with charcoal?
You can find quality kettle- or barrel-style charcoal grills online (and at many hardware stores) for a little over or a little under $100. You should be able to get at least three summers of grilling from these; often, many more.
Basic gas grills are priced in roughly the same range, but are generally considered to be lower in quality than their charcoal counterparts. You are unlikely to get the same amount of use due to the higher number of moving parts. For a more reliable model that you can expect to last for more than three years, you should expect to spend no less than $300, both online (see options on Amazon) and at hardware stores.
The cost per meal is dramatically different. Charcoal can cost up to five times more than liquid propane. This can make cooking with it significantly more expensive over the course of a year if you grill regularly.