It’s a matter that’s been dividing American grillers for years, and the argument is as heated as ever.
On one side of the backyard barbeque fence are the charcoal grillers. Drawn by the primal nature of fire and addicted to rich, smoky flavor, they look at gas grillers like soulless hacks.
If you tried to take their charcoal away, you’d have to pry it out of their hands. Possibly with a power tool.
Then there are the gas grillers. To them, charcoal users are like neanderthals.
They’ll tell you that lighting coals is a waste of time. Charcoal grills are messy and hard to control. As for smoky flavor, they can get that with wood chips. (Though charcoal grillers call B.S.)
Is there an impartial middle ground between these two fiery camps? Someone that can lay down the facts without waving their tongs around or getting red in the face?
Yes, our BBQ buddies, that would be us. We’re going to lay down the pros and cons of charcoal vs. gas grills so that you can make an informed decision about your Q-ing needs.
When you finally do fire up the grill, you’ll be sure it’s the right one for you.
The Upside of Gas Grills
The pro-gas argument can pretty much be summed up in one word: convenience. But let’s break the advantages down one by one.
Quick Start-Up Time
This is where gas grills often win the day. Turn a knob, and you can be flipping burgers in just 10 to 15 minutes. Why wait for the weekend when you can “Q up” on any old Wednesday?
Gas grills are great at holding a steady temperature and can be cranked up and down easily and quickly. Not something you can do with coals.
Many also come with two or more burners so you can break your cooking down into hot zones (good for meat) and medium zones (good for veggies) with the different temperature controls.
Gas grills are available with a lot of bells and whistles to enhance your grilling pleasure.
Some come with side burners, which are great for cooking something to go with your steak or just warming up your secret sauce. Others have side tables, spice racks and bottle openers.
Some gas grills even come with a rotisserie kit. If you’ve never tried it, it’s an awesome option for turning out juicy and evenly cooked meats.
You can add accessories to both natural gas and propane gas grills, depending on which gas grill option you choose!
Good For Larger Groups
With a gas grill, you never have to stoke or add coals if you’re grilling for a long time. So if somebody wants an extra hot dog or you have a lot of guests, don’t sweat it. Gas grills hang in there for the long haul for all of your searing needs.
Easier To Clean
Because there are no messy coals or ashes, gas grills are easier to clean in the short-run. Just turn the grill to high and wait for the smoke to stop.
But if you think you’re getting off the hook easily, they still need a deep cleaning at least every few months as grease and carbon can build up below the burners. Be prepared for the occasional scraping session.
The Downside of Gas Grills
While the pros paint an easy-breezy approach to grilling with gas, it still has some disadvantages. Let’s take an impartial look at some of the cons.
One of the hard parts with gas grills comes right at the get-go. Because they’re more complex, they’re harder to set up. They also have more parts that can break or that need to be replaced from time to time.
There’s a price to be paid for all that convenience, and it’s far more than what you pay for a charcoal grill. Be ready to shell out the fairly big bucks depending on how fancy you go.
Most gas grills run on propane gas, which comes in tanks. Gas is explosive so you need to be careful. You have to be sure the line to your tank is properly hooked up and remember to turn it off.
And you need to be extra cautious if your flame blows out. If the gas continues to come out, it could pool in the lower chamber. And that can lead to an explosion when you try to relight it.
So be up on all of your safety tips. And always have an extra tank around. That way you’ll never run out of gas!
Gas grills are larger and more cumbersome. Forget taking this baby to the park with you.
Less Smoky Flavor
That complex, smoky flavor you get from a charcoal grill is pretty much impossible to reproduce on a gas grill. On a charcoal grill, meat drippings fall onto the coals and make smoke and steam that rises up to give your food that sought after BBQ richness.
Yes, you can add wood chips, but the flavor still won’t be quite the same. The good news? Fast cooking items like hot dogs, hamburgers, skinny steaks and veggies taste just about the same as on a charcoal grill because they don’t stay on the grill long enough to absorb the smoke.
The Upside of Charcoal Grills
The argument for charcoal grills can also be summed up in one word. Flavor! But let’s take a look at all the pluses.
Great Smoky Flavor
This is the number one reason that grillers are so passionate about charcoal. The sizzle and smell that fat drippings make when they hit the coals can’t be duplicated. And nothing else delivers that rich, smoky flavor like nice charred briquettes.
If you want to sear a steak and get some of that delicious crunch on the outside, you need to reach a temperature of at least 600F. Most grills can easily achieve 700. And while there are a few gas grills on the market that can reach those higher temperatures, they tend to be very pricey.
You can get a decent charcoal grill far cheaper than a gas grill. Yes, there are a few fancy, high-priced ones around, but in general, you can get the smokebox flavor you want on one that you pick up at the grocery store.
Because there’s no gas tank involved here, charcoal grills are a lot easier to move around. So if you’re camping or picnicking, this is the way to go simple for ease of use.
Yes, this seems completely unscientific. But let’s face it, there’s something about working with fire and burning coals that connects to a deep, instinctive part of us. Plus, it’s a much cooler way to roast marshmallows at the end of the night.
The Downside of Charcoal Grills
Charcoal grillers may not like to admit this, but there are some cons to all that fire and romance.
You need patience and skill to be a charcoal griller. First you have to get those coals lit, which can be a task. I’ve been at more than one barbecue where there was a lighter fluid flare-up. If you’re not careful, your burgers will taste like petrochemicals.
Once lit, the coals need another 15 to 20 minutes to reach cooking temperatures. This is not for lazy grillers.
There’s no dialing in temperature here. You have to become one with the fire and learn how to recognize hot spots and medium spots so that you know where to put your steak and where to put your veggies or dogs.
Less Convenient for Long Gatherings
If your gathering goes long and people can’t get enough of your chicken, you’ll need to add more coals and stoke the flames. Yeah, it’s a commitment.
Like gas grills, you also need to exercise caution here. You have to watch out for any sparks that escape the grill beyond lighter fluid fiascos and burning coals. And when fat drips into the grill, it sometimes causes flames to flare up suddenly. Always be prepared with a squirt bottle when charcoal grilling!
When your BBQ is over, you’ve still got grill duty to worry about. That means dealing with messy ashes and hot coals. And you’ll also need plenty of elbow grease and a good brush to scrub down that grate.
Nobody likes to hear this, but those mouth-watering smoke flavor black bits on your steak are filled with carcinogens. Not so healthy. And gas grilled meats have a lot less. Just sayin’.
Peace, Love and Steaks
That’s the breakdown, friends. So who comes out on top in this BBQ throwdown? That all depends on you.
If you’re adamant about getting a complex, smoky flavor, charcoal wins the day. Anything that stays on the grill longer (like thick steaks, chicken or turkey) will absorb the smoke and steam the fat drippings produce.
But if you’re in a hurry or preparing quick-cooking items like hot dogs, fish or veggies (that don’t absorb much smoke), it’s hard to beat the convenience of gas.
So why not have both?
With the low coast of charcoal grills, it’s definitely doable. The best burger I ever had in my life was cooked on a 16-inch charcoal grill that sat two feet off the ground.
Romance and convenience can peacefully coexist. So why argue about it? Any way you slice it, nothing beats cooking in the great outdoors no matter what type of grill you decide to use.
You might also be interested in: The 7 Best Electric Smokers of 2020