The quintessential question for grill fans the world over is, and has always been, gas or charcoal? This polarizing debate has been alive for quite a while now, and there are no signs it will cool down any time soon. But here are a few indisputable facts about each of these grilling options. Hopefully, this should help explain why the difference between gas and charcoal needn’t be that difficult to understand.
What Should a Grill Do?
The safest way to understand which cooking method is better is to take a look at what a grill is supposed to achieve in the first place. For instance, this piece of cooking equipment should provide cooking in three different ways:
1. Direct Radiation
This is when food is placed right above the heat source. Typically, the food is not covered with anything.
2. Direct Convection Roasting
In this scenario, the food is placed next to the heat source so that it cooks through indirect heat because the lid is closed. Because this cooking method relies on convectional currents, the air around the food is heated by the grill and the heat it carries with it is what cooks the food.
3. Indirect Heat Smoke Roasting
For this cooking method, the grill lid is closed. So, the food cooks through convectional currents. However, the air that cooks the food is also full of the hardwood smoke, which adds flavor to the food.
Does Gas Grilled and Charcoal Grilled Food Taste Different?
Charcoal Grills Sear Better, but not by Much
Searing creates a brown surface on meats through caramelization and the Maillard reaction. Besides creating a crunchy surface, searing also makes the meat more savory and sweet. The thing is, charcoal grills are better at this than gas grills. The reason being that they are able to produce more infrared heat, which is better at achieving this cooking outcome.
That said, there are a few great gas grills today that can do a terrific searing job because they come with special sear burners designed for the job. And if this sounds like a less than enthusiastic endorsement, it is not – about 90% of grilled prime beef people eat at steak houses is prepared using gas grills.
In fact, these establishments don’t pick gas over charcoal because gas is more convenient that charcoal; they wouldn’t mind the extra hustle if it meant better grilling results. They use gas because gas is able to provide more consistent searing results because it provides more heat control that lets them achieve dark and even searing on the meat.
Some of their grills can reach temperatures of 1,200 degrees F. A charcoal burner typically maxes out at around 500 degrees F. And since a higher temperature is better for searing, gas burners are preferred in such places.
Charcoal burners have one thing going for them though – they can sear more steaks at a go than their gas counterparts. This might be a more compelling reason to pick a charcoal grill over a gas grill than the quality of the seared meat.
Smoke Flavor Variations
Gas and Charcoal grills will produce different types of smoke. For obvious reasons, charcoal grills produce more smoke. The smoke from charcoal grills is also more complex, and this makes them capable of producing a greater range of flavors.
Gas is very simple, and when burned, it just produces water and carbon dioxide. The only way to create smoke on a gas grill is to add wood to the grill. Alternatively, you can let the falling food drippings act as sources of smoke for the grilling food. So, things like meat, and the additives on the food such as sauce help to create the smoke flavor.
But at the end of the day, getting the smoky flavor is a question of what kind of steaks you are preparing, and how you are doing the grilling. Thin pieces of meat cooked over a long time have the most noticeable smoke flavor effect.
Again, there is no clear winner in the smoke flavor battle because gas-grilled foods have a flavor that is more like the food being grilled, while the charcoal-grilled food has a smoke flavor that is more reminiscent of the fire used to prepare the food. Which is better, you ask? That depends on who you ask.
Mercaptan is not an Issue
Mercaptan is a foul-smelling gas added to gas so that you know when you have a leak. Some people automatically assume that this smell is cooked into the foods when using a gas grill. But that is not true. As gas burns, whether propane or methane, mercaptans also burn up in the process and turn into sulfur dioxide.
This gas mixes with water to form sulfuric acid, which is what is deposited on the food and not the foul gas. But this should not be a concern either, the amount of sulfuric acid that ends up on the food is much less than what the foods naturally have.
Charcoal Grill Pros
There are people who will lose their heads at the suggestion that a gas cooker could be better, or even match up to a charcoal grill. To their credit, the smoke flavor created by these burners is really good because it comes from a stronger and more complex smoke sources. Gas grills can only aspire to play catch up in the smoking game.
Even in the searing department, in the right hands, a charcoal grill will give the leading steakhouses and their gas grills a run for their money. With some charcoal grills, the searing temperature can be raised to even over 800 degrees F, practically negating the one thing that makes searing meat on a gas burner more advantageous.
Charcoal Grill Cons
A charcoal grill is not as safe as a gas grill. It has a higher risk of fire. So, however much you love charcoal grilling, you may find that some buildings and local laws might prevent you from using them.
Charcoal is also messy, and while a gas burner will go on or off with the turn of a knob, a charcoal burner will take a lot more effort. Gloves, tongs and a little experience can make using these grills easier though.
Charcoal grills can do a terrific grilling job, and even do better than their gas-grill counterparts. But this requires you to know your grill inside out and have enough practice to get the best results out of it.
Gas Grill Pros
They are more convenient to use; and they offer more heat control. For many people, every other reason is irrelevant. And it’s true, to some extent. Lighting up a gas grill is easy, and getting the desired temperature a bliss. The temperature, by the way, can go higher than what charcoal grills can offer, which makes things like searing much easier.
They are easier to maintain and they come with accessories that make them capable of many cooking outcomes. Cleaning up a gas grill is easy, and this only needs to be done every couple of months. They have accessories such as spice racks, and side burners that can be used on side dishes. This can make using them a lot more rewarding.
Propane vs Natural Gas Grill
You can choose between propane and natural gas grills. An adapter kit is usually required to make a propane grill work with natural gas. There are a lot of propane vs natural gas grill debates going on at the moment. However, natural gas is cheaper than propane, and its supply is more consistent because the gas company will keep you hooked to their supply. Propane requires you to get tanks; and they can run out in the middle of an exciting grilling session, which can be quite the anticlimax.
Gas Grill Cons
Their smoking results can leave a lot to be desired. Even with the addition of wood chips to make them produce the smoking effect, these grills waste a lot of it.
Gas is also a huge health risk because it is explosive. Leaving the gas grill on without a flame can cause leaks capable of causing huge fires.
A gas grill, because of its convenience, is also much expensive. It is also made of more parts, and this makes it more expensive to buy and maintain.
Environmentally, charcoal grills are a better deal because they use products like sawdust which would otherwise have been thrown away. Propane has to be extracted from wells, which is bad for the environment.
So, Charcoal or Gas?
This, unfortunately, is up to you. There is no one correct answer. If you prefer taste above all else, a charcoal grill will be your best option. But if you think convenience is key, then a gas grill is what you need. But then again, there is nothing to keep you from getting both if you want the best of both worlds.