The world of barbecue is full of debates. Every cook has a different recipe and a different set of techniques that makes their food unique. Cooks argue about the difference between wet marinades and dry rubs, debate the merits of high temperature cooking vs. low and slow cooking, and even criticize the choice of meats that are cooked. But, the one area of barbecue cooking that produces the most heated debates centers around a barbecue chef’s preference for gas versus coal grills.
Both charcoal grills and gas grills have their loyal fans. The argument that charcoal grillers make most often is that the flavor produced when grilling over charcoal is superior. Gas grillers suggest that the choice of fuel does not matter and that the taste is the same regardless of the fuel source. Moreover, gas grillers love the convenience and ease of use that a gas grill possesses.
Grills are used to cook meats and other foods in one of three ways. First, a grill is used for high heat cooking where food is placed directly over the heat source and cooked very quickly. Next, a grill can be used to cook food indirectly like an oven. In this method, the fuel source is put off to one side of the grill and the food is placed on the opposite side, away from the direct heat of the coals or gas burners. The lid is placed down and the food is cooked by the hot, circulating air. Finally, some people use the grill for low and slow smoking.
The main argument for using a charcoal grill is that it imparts better flavor than cooking over a gas grill. A majority of the world’s finest steak houses grill their steaks using gas grills when they could very well afford to opt for charcoal. This is because research in food science and experience has taught chefs that it does not really matter in terms of flavor. Many people are under the impression that charcoal produces smoke, when in fact, a grill burning charcoal produces little smoke at all on its own. The smoke that grillers see from a charcoal grill only appears once food is placed on the grates. This smoke is the result of oil and moisture dripping from the meats and burning on contact with the coals. Steaks are on the grill for such a short period of time that any smoke produced from the charcoal is unlikely to penetrate the meat to make much of a difference. On top of that, if a strong marinade is used, the point is rendered moot even more. The fact is that most people cannot tell the difference between foods cook on a gas grill and foods cooked on a charcoal grill. Thus, due to the ease of use of gas grills, they are the preferred type of grill used in restaurants throughout the world.
Charcoal grills do have a couple of benefits over gas grills, however. First, charcoal grills can get hotter than any gas grill that is commercially available. Temperatures in a gas grill typically max out at 500 degrees, but temperatures in a charcoal grill that is using hardwood charcoal can reach temperatures over 700 degrees. This allows chefs to cook faster and to get a nicer sear on the meat. Next, charcoal grills are much less expensive than gas grills. A typical gas grill will cost several hundreds of dollars for a basic model, while a large charcoal grill can be bought for under $100. Of course a griller has to buy charcoal every time he wants to grill, but gas grills need to be refueled as well from time to time.
Gas grills have their benefits as well. One reason that cooks love gas grills is that they offer superior temperature control over charcoal grills. Cooks can turn a knob to lower and raise the intensity of the heat instantly. Gas grills also often come with many accessories like grill racks and side burners that can accommodate saucepans. Also, some models are equipped with infrared burners that can produce intense amounts of heat for quick searing.
Both types of grills also have some negative aspects. Charcoal grills are more work to clean and produce more pollution. Also, if a person uses lighter fluid to ignite the fire, it can produce a chemical taste in the finished product. Also, a charcoal grill is much more prone to flare ups from dripping fats and juices. Finally, temperature control is not as easy to regulate as a gas grill, making the griller’s skill and experience an important factor in the quality of the food. Gas grills are expensive up front and do not get as hot as charcoal grills. Also, they do not lend themselves as well to smoking as charcoal grills since the seals on the lids can be loose.