The question of which type of grill is better: charcoal or gas, has never had a definitive answer. It depends on many different factors, including your particular tastes, and not to mention your cooking preferences. But there are some marked differences between gas and charcoal grills, which we’ll discuss in detail in this article.
You’ll learn about flavoring, cooking time, maintenance, safety, accessories, heat control, healthy eating, and costs.
Charcoal grills are great for achieving that smoky taste they’re known for but can be a little more of a hassle to start. Propane gas grills, on the other hand, are quick and easy to get started, but don’t flavor meat as well.
No matter which way you go, you can make some delicious food and wow your friends and family with your culinary prowess. It all starts with the grill.
Different Fuels for Different Flavors
Perhaps the most important consideration when it comes to charcoal vs. gas grills is flavor. One of the reasons charcoal grillers swear by the little black lumps is the flavor that they impart on the food. Charcoal grills are known for a smoky flavor associated with Southern-style barbecue that many people crave. Even on gas grills with a smoker box, that unique charcoal-smoky taste is elusive. You can get close, but it’s never quite the same.
Smoke and Flavor
The reason for this is that charcoal grills don’t have anything placed between the meat and the heat. When the juices and marinade drip down off the meat and onto the hot coals, it creates smoke that condenses back on the meat.
Gas grills generally have metal or ceramic plates that protect the flame. When the meat drips onto the metal or ceramic, it does create some smoke that condenses back on the meat, but that smoke doesn’t have the same makeup as the smoke that charcoal generates.
Plus, on charcoal grills, it’s easy to throw on some wood chips to get more of that smoky flavor you love. If your gas grill doesn’t have a smoker box, it can be difficult to get that old-time smoky flavor that makes barbecue such a crowd-pleaser.
If you’re looking for that hard-to-describe flavor that charcoal gives your meat, charcoal grills are the way to go. But there are other factors to consider, and cooking time is a major one for many people. When it comes to cooking time, gas grills have charcoal beat. Here’s how.
It’s no big secret that gas grills are quicker to heat up than charcoal grills. The turn of a knob gets the heat going, and in about ten minutes the gas grill is ready to go.
Charcoal, on the other hand, takes 20 to 30 minutes to heat up. If you’re using a chimney starter and cooking at a low temperature, maybe it’ll take 15 to 20 minutes. For quick lighting, gas grills are the way to go.
Maintenance and Cleanup
If you’re notching points down for the two types of grill, you’ll be surprised to know that maintenance and cleanup are a wash. Gas and charcoal grills come out pretty even on this front, but in different ways.
If you’re looking at everyday maintenance and cleanup, gas grills have charcoal grills beat, easily. There are no ashes to empty from the gas grill. No half-burned charcoal to dispose of or save for next time. For everyday maintenance, pretty much all you need to do with a gas grill is scrape the cooking grate with a brush and check to make sure you have enough gas. Pretty easy.
Charcoal grills, on the other hand, require that you wait 24 to 48 hours for the embers to die down. Then you can empty the ash and clear the charcoal grate for the next session. Of course, you’ll also want to scrape your cooking grate with a grill brush.
But, when it comes to deep-cleaning your grill (which you should do once or twice a year at least), gas grills are a pain compared to charcoal grills. A typical charcoal kettle grill is very simple. You have two grates, the lid, and the body to clean. You don’t have to spend a lot of time taking it apart or soaking those metal plates you find in gas grills.
Deep cleaning even the most basic gas grill can be an all-day ordeal— especially if you’ve never taken it apart before. Charcoal grills may look dirtier because of the ash aspect, but they’re much easier to clean.
When it comes to the potential for burns and fires, gas grills are safer than charcoal. Both types of grill come with risks. But, then again, so does cooking in an oven or on the stove. Taking care can eliminate those risks and ensure you don’t get burned or start a fire.
But, some things are hard to control. If you’re cooking with charcoal and the wind suddenly picks up, it can send hot embers out of the grill and potentially start a fire. While this is rare, it’s still a concern.
Plus, putting out a charcoal grill is more difficult than turning off a gas grill, which only takes a knob turn. You may need a fire extinguisher or water to put out a charcoal grill in an emergency. For the most part, reasonable caution mitigates many of the risks of cooking with charcoal.
We’ve all seen the videos of people messing around with lighter fluid on their charcoal grill. Sometimes the effects are funny, and sometimes they’re disastrous. The plain truth is that you won’t be in danger if you’re using the lighter fluid as directed.
In fact, since lighter fluid can make your food taste strange, we recommend not using it at all. Instead, invest in a charcoal chimney starter for your charcoal grill.
Now, all that being said, gas grills win the safety comparison by a hair.
Accessories and Benefits
If you’re looking for bells and whistles, gas grills are the way to go. But be prepared to pay for the privilege. Since gas grills have a little more flexibility as to where the gas can be routed, they come with more accessories and in more variations than charcoal grills do.
For example, if a gas grill has three burners, you can cook at three different temperatures. You can use one area for keeping food warm, one for crisping veggies, and another for cooking meat.
Doing the same on a charcoal grill is not impossible, but it requires more forethought. It involves setting up the charcoal in a specific manner, such as a two or three-zone fire.
In the end, grilling great food is all about controlling the temperature, which is generally easier to do on a gas grill.
Controlling the heat in your grill is perhaps the most crucial factor for tender, flavorful, and moist meat. It’s much easier to control the temperature on a gas grill by turning a knob. As mentioned above, you can easily have multiple heat zones for grilling ease.
On a charcoal grill, you can regulate the temperature, but it requires a little more finesse and usually is done best after you really get to know your grill. Sometimes heat control requires that you add more charcoal to your grill.
On a gas grill, you don’t have to worry about the fuel unless you run out. If you do, you simply have to switch your tanks and keep grilling.
However, no matter the type of grill, it is vitally important that you have a good thermometer that you can place near the meat for an accurate read.
Is it Healthier to Cook with Charcoal or Gas?
When it comes to healthier eating, gas grills are winning out over charcoal grills. The same smoke generated from dripping juices that flavors the meat so well can also create carcinogens. Less smoke from gas grills means fewer carcinogens on your meat. But, there are some things you can do on either kind of grill, like marinate your meat and trim the fat off.
The Cost of Charcoal vs. Gas Grills
Factoring the overall cost of charcoal vs gas grills is probably more involved than you would like, so we’ll stick with the basics. Charcoal grills are cheaper to purchase. A typical 22″ brand name charcoal grill will run you around $100. A propane grill with a brand name and a basic setup will cost around $200. The clear winner this round is the charcoal grill. But wait… what about fuel costs?
Propane is pretty cheap across the board. Once you have a tank (call it $40), rates land somewhere between $15 and $25 to fill up a 20-pound tank, which will last for around 20 hours on a typical grill. The time it takes to grill a typical meal, we’ll call an hour.
If you spend $20 on a couple of blue bags of charcoal briquettes, you’ll get around 40 pounds of charcoal— about 10 uses or 10 hours. So, for the same 20 hours you would get on a gas grill, you’d have to spend $40 in charcoal. If you’re cooking with more expensive lump charcoal, you’ll easily spend double the money for the same 20 hours of burn time. So, let’s add those up.
$200 for the grill itself. $40 to purchase a propane tank. And $20 to fill the tank. For a total of $260 for the grill and around 20 hours of grilling.
$100 for the grill itself. $40 for charcoal. For a total of $140 for the grill and around 20 hours of grilling.
As you can see, the charcoal grill starts off cheaper but can get more expensive as time goes on. Not much more expensive, but still, there’s a difference. Maybe that smoky charcoal flavor is worth the extra money you’ll spend.
Also, keep in mind that gas grills have more moving parts than charcoal grills. More parts that will eventually need replacing and cleaning. More ways for things to go wrong and take your grill out of commission for a little while. Charcoal grills are simple and easy to care for. Rarely do pieces break. And if they do, they’re cheap to replace.
On paper, gas grills have charcoal grills beat. It’s easier to maintain the temperature on a gas grill. Everyday cleanup is also a breeze, and gas grills generate less smoke, making them a slightly healthier choice. The cost of fuel will win out eventually over charcoal grills, even though the upfront costs of purchasing a propane grill are higher than charcoal grills.
But there’s that one, ever-important factor that makes people like charcoal grills: the smoky taste. Add to that the fact that charcoal grills are easier to maintain and clean, and that’s all some people need.
There’s something primitive and thus attractive about cooking over hot coals. It just feels— and tastes— right. But it’s not for everyone. Your preferences will dictate which way you swing on this great debate.