Every year the debate heats up again, with dozens of new articles on gas versus charcoal grills. In discussing the great flame wars, the argument goes something like: charcoal gives the food a more smokey taste; gas is much more convenient; charcoal doesn’t last as long; gas grills are too expensive, and so on. While many people just tune out all the chatter, some folks really want to know which type of grill is better in general as well as for cooking different types of food.
Gas grills began surpassing charcoal grills in sales back in 1994, with gas grills now accounting for about 60 percent of all grill sales. While this may be just an issue of convenience, to help you figure it all out, here are some of the reasons why some backyard cooks prefer one type of grill over the other:
Pros and Cons at a Glance
● Prices starting at under $100.
● Superior for slow cooking.
● Ideal for smoking.
● Temperature range up to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.
● Requires practice.
● Food needs constant attention.
● Takes about 30 minutes to reach cooking temperature.
● Requires regular cleaning and disposal of ash.
● Simple to set and maintain temperature.
● Takes just a few minutes to reach cooking temperature.
● Only and occasionally cleaning is required.
● Can be expensive, with good grills costing over $300.
● Better for fast-cooking foods.
● Doesn’t trap smoke well.
● Limited cooking-temperature range of between 225 and 600 degrees Fahrenheit, with no infrared sear zone.
While a basic charcoal grill can be had for under $100, one with all the bells and whistles will of course cost more. However, even the most expensive model will last for years with proper care. Because it has more parts, a gas grill will typically cost at least half again as much as a comparable charcoal grill. Charcoal wins on cost.
Everything being equal, the flavor of fast-cooking foods, like burgers, chicken and steaks, cooked over charcoal is indistinguishable from the taste of foods cooked over gas. While one would imagine cooking over a solid fuel source, like charcoal, would produce a more smokey flavor, side-by-side taste test show this isn’t the case. However, there is one caveat; using a staring fluid or a self-igniting charcoal will sometimes impart a chemical smell into the food. For this reason, an electric charcoal starter or charcoal chimney should be used when lighting charcoal. Because gas burns clean, with the only by-products of combustion being water vapor and carbon dioxide, there is nothing to impart flavor into food. On the other hand, charcoal produces a host of molecules that can add flavor to slow-cooked foods, like ribs and roasts, making charcoal superior for smoking. Charcoal has an edge on flavor.
Charcoal grills cook mostly by heat radiation, meaning heat moving through the air, whereas gas grills cook more through conduction, by the food coming into direct contact with grill bars. Closing the lid on a charcoal grill reduced oxygen flow, effectively suppressing the heat, whereas leaving the lid open maximizes oxygen flow, and heat. The exact opposite happens with a gas grill, as closing the lid doesn’t affect the flame, but does prevent heat from escaping. This can make a huge difference when searing a piece of meat. However, the heat on a gas gill can be adjusted by turning the flame up or down.
Despite popular lore, searing does not seal the juices in meat, but does create a chemical reaction that enhances flavor. Known as the Maillard reaction, searing browns the surface of meats and creates a combination of rich, sweet and savory compounds. Searing also creates that satisfying crunchy crust. Most charcoal grills sear meat far better than most gas grills, as charcoal simply produces more direct infrared heat. However, a few gas grills, typically the high-priced models, have specialized sear burners that can do a decent job of searing. The two main points to remember about temperature control are:
● Closing the lid on a charcoal grill will lower the heat.
● Closing the lid on a gas grill will raise the heat.
As a result, charcoal and gas score roughly even on temperature control.
Heat-Up and Cool-Down Times
This is where gas grills really shine, as charcoal grills take more time to heat up. Firing up a gas grill is as simple as turning on a gas kitchen range. This convenience is one of the big reason so many people are moving to gas, away from charcoal. Even when using a charcoal chimney, charcoal will take at least 30 minutes until you can cook. Also, once the coals are lit you only have a set amount of time to get the grilling done until the heat is gone, So, be sure your super-secret special sauce is ready before you light the fire. Also, when you are done cooking with gas you just turn the knob and the flames go out, but charcoal has to burn out. Gas wins on heat-up and cool-down times.
Like heat-up and cool-down, cleanup is a breeze with gas. The only thing that requires regular cleaning on a gas grill is the grease tray, that catches the meat drippings. The only other real cleaning on gas grills is the occasional scrubbing of the cooking grates, but this is needed with charcoal grills as well. Charcoal grills leave ash to clean up, and some charcoal grills must be emptied after every use. Gas wins on cleanup.
The final verdict on which is better, gas or charcoal, is up to the cook to decide. In the end, you should pick the type of grill that will give you the most utility and enjoyment. Clearly, there is something ritualistic, perhaps even primal, about taming the flames and cooking a big piece of meat over a live charcoal fire. While gas may never replace charcoal in the hearts of the traditionalists, the convenience of gas grills cannot be denied, especially if you are someone who enjoys grilling often.