I’m often asked about my opinion in the great charcoal vs. gas grill debate. I do own both style grills and use them both frequently. Which I use, and for what, depends on several factors, including what I’m cooking, who I’m cooking for, and how much time I have.
I will begin by stating that, in my opinion, food generally tastes better being grilled over charcoal than it does gas. Even after a gas grill becomes properly ‘seasoned’, it can never replicate the delectable flavor that comes from the smoke produced from fat dripping on hot coals.
That being said, the next question is often “do I use briquettes or lumpwood charcoal?” I personally have a preference for natural lumpwood charcoal, as it is free of coal dust, binders, and other impurities often found in charcoal briquettes. Cooking with lumpwood charcoal, however, takes getting used to, because it burns much hotter and faster than briquettes, it is at times described as ”briquettes on steroids”.
As a result of lumpwood charcoal burning hotter and faster than briquettes, what a person is cooking on the grill sometimes influences their choice of charcoal. Lumpwood excels at very hot grilling, properly cooking things like burgers and steaks in a manner that suits them, i.e. hot and fast. When it comes to low and slow barbecuing of ribs, pork shoulder and brisket, that can take hours, some people reach for the briquettes which burn slower, and at a lower temperature.
Both grilling and barbecuing can be done with both types of charcoal, but adjustments must be made for optimum performance. The main thing to remember about using charcoal briquettes is, to NEVER begin cooking until ALL the charcoal is covered with a fine gray ash. Failure to properly pre-heat briquettes will result in off-flavors being transferred to the food, which is the charge most often leveled at the humble charcoal briquette. However, used properly, it can and does provide delectable results.
Gas grills are much more convenient than charcoal grills, which tends to make them more popular particularly in inclement climates. They would likely be the go-to-grill when you want a quick steak after a busy day at work. While it does not produce the same flavor that charcoal does, it is still most often a far more flavorful choice than preparing your meat in a skillet or in the oven. I use it most often during the week, but would usually not use it if I were entertaining, and wanted to really impress guests with my food. That is not to say that gas grilled food is not delicious…just not as delicious as it could be.
So, which to buy? Based on the above observations, purchase based on how/when you plan to use your barbecue. Weekend warrior who wants to occassionally entertain? Go for charcoal. Busy professional who loves grilled food? Gas.
If you’ve never purchased or owned a charcoal grill, I’d suggest you try a Weber Smokey Joe. It is a miniature kettle-style grill that can be placed on a picnic table, uses little charcoal, can easily cook for up to four people, and costs around sixty euro. Do not be tempted by the off-brand, inexpensive grills you see on sale at the various shops, as most often you get what you pay for, and these generally do not last more than a season or two.
Finally, the cheap, disposable grills so popular in the shops in summer do a fine job, but can be difficult to get good results on, particularly for the novice. This is ironic, as the inexperienced grillers are most often the people who purchase and use them. These grills burn quite hot, and regulating the heat/flame can be difficult or impossible, resulting in food that is burnt on the outside and raw on the inside.