Outdoor Grilling: Gas or Charcoal?

When it comes to the religion of outdoor grilling, there are worshipers of gas and worshipers of charcoal.

Pull Quote

Some people believe charcoal grilling yields better tasting food than gas grilling.Some people believe charcoal grilling yields better tasting food than gas grilling.
And like many of the most well-known debates of our time---Beatles vs. Stones, dog vs. cat, Coke vs. Pepsi---the answer to which grill is right for you comes down to your personal preference.

[Quote] | The right grill for you is the completely wrong grill for me. Picking out the grill that suits your needs really depends on your preference.

[Attribution] | Dana Henderson, Northern California area manager for Barbeques Galore

Just Turn It On

[Intro] |

[Body] | It may not be the most important decision in your life, but the different styles of barbecue grill can certainly give rise to debate.

Your choice of grill may also define who you are.

"Most people are going to go one way or the other. They're not going to have a split decision," said Dana Henderson, Barbeques Galore's area manager for Northern California. "The right grill for you is the completely wrong grill for me. Picking out the grill that suits your needs really depends on your preference."

People loyal to the gas grill are generally those who favor ease and flexibility in their outdoor cooking. Gas grills also offer greater versatility, allowing you to cook burgers and vegetables and heat buns at the same time without burning any of them.

"You can do zone cooking where you have a hot, a cold and a medium zone all in the same grill," Henderson said.

The simple twist of a knob is another major attraction for people who favor the gas option. With no coals or wood chips to heat, gas grillers can flip a switch and be ready to cook within 10 minutes, a big plus for those living in colder climates that want to barbecue year round.

Light My Fire

[Intro] |

[Body] | While gas grills may offer ease and convenience, and gas grill lovers claim there is no taste difference, those in the charcoal camp disagree wholeheartedly.

"I'll give someone a piece of something cooked over charcoal and they're just amazed because the gas grills we're so used to just have no flavor," said Ray "Dr. BBQ" Lampe. "Gas grillers talk about convenience, but there's more to it than that," said Lampe, who has appeared on the Food Network's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate."

It is true that a charcoal grill requires more preparation time than a gas grill, Lampe acknowledged, but he said there are ways to speed up the coal-heating process. For one, he recommends using lump charcoal, which is much easier to light than traditional charcoal briquettes.

"Lump charcoal lights really quickly; that's what most people around the world use," said Lampe, the author of several barbecue cookbooks. "Lump charcoal is just charred wood, so the good news is that it's just wood that you're cooking with. There's nothing heavy added to it."

Another way to get coals red-hot quickly is to use a starter chimney, which is a large cylinder you fill with coals and place inside the grill to contain the heat and protect coals from wind.

"Just put some newspaper in the bottom and put the charcoal on top," Lampe said. "In 10 minutes you've got a big batch of briquettes going and you just throw them on the grill."

No Fuel to the Flame

[Intro] |

[Body] | In areas where it hasn't been outlawed, lighter fluid can speed up the process of firing your charcoal. But ask any barbecue aficionado and he or she will likely agree that it's best to stay away from anything doused in flammable chemicals.

"I recommend never using anything that has touched lighter fluid," said Henderson. "Sometimes the lighter fluid will affect the flavor of the food. ... We recommend using a chimney starter with lighter cubes, which doesn't add any extra flavor to the charcoal."

Hybrid gas/charcoal grills do exist, so if you absolutely can't make up your mind there's a way to satisfy both sides of your barbecuing desires. However, having a smoke-and-ash-producing coal grill in close proximity to the intricate parts of a gas grill could cause complications.

"There are a few categories of grills that offer both in one," said Henderson. "It's not particularly recommended to combine gas and charcoal because the latter creates a lot of ash and it can clog burners and cause problems down the road."

Financial Planning

[Intro] |

[Body] | Of course, like many things in life, your dream grill might not be the one that fits your current budget.

Gas grills cost quite a bit more than charcoal grills and can run anywhere from $200 to thousands of dollars. In addition, gas grills must be cleaned promptly, and they have delicate parts that must be replaced and maintained to ensure the longevity of the appliance.

You may get a decent coal kettle for under $100, and having fewer mechanical components to maintain means it is much more budget-friendly.

"A charcoal grill lasts forever. There's no maintenance or anything, you just get some new charcoal and put it in there," said Lampe. Cleaning involves little more than scrubbing the grate and dumping the ashes.

Bottom line is to think of your grill purchase as an investment. As with any piece of equipment, the longevity of your grill depends on whether it is sturdy and well-made.

"There are flimsy grills out there that are not going to last---they're going to burn through," said Lampe. "Like anything, if it feels solid it's going to be an advantage."

Take It Outside

[Intro] |

[Body] | For people who want to take outdoor cooking to a new level, Henderson recommends investing in an outdoor kitchen. He said he's noticed an increase in customer interest in designing and building complete outdoor cooking areas.

"The trend is definitely moving toward outdoor kitchens, because when people are investing in a barbecue, they're looking for the grill that will last them quite a while," said Henderson. "When you start putting it in perspective, an outdoor kitchen can actually increase the value of your home."

So whether you're fond of gas or charcoal, there's really no right or wrong way to enjoy cooking over an open flame. The grill that best suits your lifestyle is the one that meshes best with your cooking habits, patience and philosophy on flavor.

Do your research and make a list of features you want when you're picking out the newest addition to your home appliance arsenal.

[Intro] |

[Body] |

[Intro] |

[Body] |

[Intro] |

[Body] |

Sidebar

[Tools & Tips] | Whether you're a gas griller or a charcoal lover, there are tools and essential knowledge to keep barbecuing safe. According to both Henderson and Lampe, these are the tools and safety tips that are absolutely necessary.

You need a good pair of tongs with a long reach. This, the most important tool, will be used nine times out of 10. A sturdy spatula is good for flipping burgers, although tongs may also be used.

Don't overlook a nonflammable grill pad. This is especially important for use with charcoal grills, in case coals fall to the ground.

Buy a good grill brush that corresponds to your grill surface---brass bristles for porcelain and cast iron, and stainless steel for stainless steel.

Never use water to put out a fire. Instead, keep a fire extinguisher handy in case of an emergency.

Remember to turn off your gas grill at the source after cooking. For charcoal, remember to close your vents to kill oxygen and cool off the coals.

Never cook with charcoal on a wood deck. Coals can fall through and cause a fire.

If you live in an apartment building, check with your manager about the barbecue policy. Many allow only electric grills as a safety precaution.

Things You Will Need

  • The Heat Is On

About the Author

Based in Los Angeles, Calif., Michelle Lanz began writing professionally in 2004. Her articles on the arts, pop culture and food have appeared in "Wired," "Good," "Teen People," MSN and Metromix among others. She holds a B.A. in English and film studies from University of California, Santa Barbara and a M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California.