We were at the home improvement store recently and happened to wander through the barbecue section just to see what's out there right now. After talking with a couple people and a salesperson, we realized there is considerable confusion about gas vs charcoal grills. To dispel the mystery, we're going to break down exactly what makes charcoal and gas grills unique.
The Differences Between Gas and Charcoal Grills
Ultimately, despite considerable differences in appearance and cost, charcoal and gas grills differ in only one meaningful way: the fuel. While that may not seem like a big deal, it's actually a significant factor to consider for the flavor of your food and the type of grilling you plan to do most often.
Gas grills most often are fueled using a refillable propane tank but can often be easily converted to operate on the natural gas supply from your home. Charcoal grills of course burn charcoal, but that's a little too simple of an explanation to offer any information.
Unlike gas grills, you'll find a lot of different designs of charcoal grills that function differently from one another. Charcoal grills cook food over hot coals and can help add a distinct smoke flavor to your meat. Both charcoal and gas grilling are effective ways to cook and they each have special purposes for achieving great results.
Is it healthier to grill with gas or charcoal?
In most studies, gas grills can be healthier for you and the environment than charcoal grills. Natural gas or propane burn very cleanly, so there isn't much toxic chemicals adhering to your food. When using a charcoal grill, two types of chemicals called PAHs can get on your food. PAHs are believed to be carcinogenic. Charcoal also produces copious amounts of carbon monoxide and can put soot into the air. The production of charcoal is considered to be more harmful to the environment than the process of producing natural gas or propane.
One thing to remember is that some of the most potentially harmful chemicals come from animal fats and meat drippings burning in a hot flame rather than the emissions from a particular type of fuel. You can still get nasty PAHs on your gas grill when the food drips on the burners.
Charcoal vs. Gas Grills: Which Is Better?
If you are expecting us to say "this one is better than the other," you'll be disappointed. There are times when we prefer a gas grill over charcoal and vice versa. There are certain benefits to using gas and disadvantages as well. When deciding which one is better, it can be helpful to know the things each type does well to decide whether you want to cook on gas or charcoal grills.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Charcoal Grilling
Cooking on charcoal is the classic way to grill and barbecue. Charcoal can add smoky flavor and gives your meat an excellent crisp surface. Charcoal is a great choice when you want authentic flavor and the versatility to cook at a wide variety of temperatures. Using a variety of techniques, you can cook just about anything on a charcoal grill. It is reasonably simple to use wood chips or chunks with most charcoal grills to add layers of flavor.
On the other hand, charcoal does have down sides. One of the biggest turn-offs to using charcoal is the charcoal itself. Charcoal can get expensive and consistency can vary from one batch to another. Some types of charcoal are better than others, for example you'll have better results using lump charcoal rather than charcoal briquettes. Charcoal is also messy. Bags of charcoal often leave unsightly black dust, the ashes left over after cooking must be cleaned up, and burning charcoal can emit soot and ash into the air. You can actually see a charcoal grills carbon footprint.
Cooking on a charcoal grill takes more knowledge and experience than other types of cooking. You'll need to control the strength of the fire and the air flow on your grill to get the results you want. Flare-ups are common and can quickly ruin a meal.
Pros and Cons of Gas Grilling
One of the biggest things in favor of gas grilling is the convenience. Gas grills instantly light so you can get to cooking quicker. Temperature control is often easier on gas grills because you can raise and lower the temperature as you need to. Because you can get a gas grill searing hot quickly, a gas grill can be wonderful for steaks, burgers, hot dogs, and lots of quick meals.
What you won't get with gas is the natural smoky taste. Gas grills don't provide any natural flavor, so you will need to focus more attention on seasoning and marinading to get good flavor. High heat made by most gas grills means you can burn bone in chicken without even cooking the inside. It can be difficult or impossible to maintain low temperatures on gas grills as they are intended for cooking at higher temperatures.
The fuel can also be a disadvantage. While there is no unpleasant petrochemical smell from gas when cooking, getting your propane tanks filled can be a barrier. Propane can be hard to find and might be prohibitively expensive when it's available. It's a good idea to have a couple propane tanks and to keep one filled all the time. That way, you don't run out of fuel.
When to Use a Charcoal Grill
Charcoal grills are best for cooking meat that you want crisp, juicy, and packed with so much flavor. Grilling gives you the opportunity to use different types of charcoal to add subtle flavors or enhance particular types of meat. If you want to barbecue then a charcoal grill is the best option. Charcoal grills reach a lower cooking temperature to easily cook delicate foods like fish. If you want to get a smoky charcoal flavor and a crisp skin, charcoal is the way to go.
A charcoal grill can be less expensive but buying charcoal over time can outweigh any difference in fuel cost. A charcoal grill requires more effort and experience to get superior results.
When Gas Grills are Better
There are a few times when gas grills are really wonderful. One of those times is in the winter. How convenient gas grills are really shows up when it's time to grill some chicken and the weather is cold or wet. Gas grills are ideal for searing steaks since you can get them very hot, sear, then reduce the heat to finish cooking. You can also reverse sear on a gas grill easier than on charcoal. However, some gas grill designs make it difficult to cook with indirect heat which reduces the versatility.
A mid-range gas model will have a relatively high cost to purchase. Most often, full-sized gas grills are bulky and take up a lot of room, particularly models with side burners. Plumbing your gas grill to your house makes it simple to keep fuel costs low.
Different Types of Charcoal Grills
The shape of a charcoal grill can make a difference in the way it works. Probably the most famous type of charcoal grill is the kettle grill. These are simple grills with a lid and a base. The base of the kettle grill is filled with charcoal and the grill grate sits just above. A domed lid fits on top. This is the most basic charcoal grill design out there, and it works well. A popular camping accessory is a travel sized charcoal grill.
You will also see kamado-style grills. Rather than use metal that is inefficient at holding heat, these grills are made of heavy-duty ceramic with the grill grates resting in the base. A charcoal kamado grill is versatile because you can use it for low and slow smoking, barbecuing, or grilling.
Variations of Gas Grills
The most common gas-fueled design is a full sized gas grill. These are cabinet-like designs that use a burner of series of burners to make heat. Larger grills have more space on the grill grates and often have two or three levels of cooking surface. Travel sized gas grills can be as small as a single burner that attaches directly to the propane tank. For camping, portable gas grills make a lot of sense since you don't have to deal with red hot charcoals necessary safety precautions.
Since a gas grill doesn't have a true fire box, they are generally rectangular in shape. While it is easy to get a lower or higher temperature gas grilling is most often done at a high temperature range where food cooks quickly. Some grills will have additional side burners useful for heating a pot of liquid or may have a griddle surface.
Getting Smoky Flavor from a Gas Grill
It is possible to get a smoky flavor and cook delicate meats using indirect heat on a gas grill. You'll simply have to use a few methods to get your grill to work the way you want.
The way to get smoke flavor and low temperature cooking on gas is by using the indirect heat method. Multiple burner grills are best for this process. You'll light the farthest to one side burner and set it at a medium temperature. Set the next burner to a low temp. Place the meat on the side of the grill that doesn't have a burner.
In order to get the smoke flavor from gas grilling, you'll want to use a disposable aluminum dish. Simply put dry wood chips in the aluminum tray and place on the grill. You want the chips to smolder, not burn. If you see flame, blow it out and move the chips to a cooler part of the grill. The smoke from the wood chips will give you excellent flavor almost as good as using a charcoal smoker.
Choosing Between Charcoal and Gas Grills
You'll likely form your own opinion about which one is better. We like them both and use both depending on the particular situation. Both gas and charcoal grills offer you an excellent way to cook and are versatile tools. If we had to pick between a charcoal or gas grill, we would choose charcoal – but keep in mind we're die hard barbecue fans. We can also admit that the positives of gas grilling make it an attractive option.