Gas v. Charcoal: The Great Grill Debate

I was recently asked by my journalist friend Althea Chang (@theabug on Twitter) to weigh in on gas versus charcoal grilling for her piece on I put in my two cents and since have been meditating on the pros and cons of each technology.

I’m as much an authority as the next blog who will disagree with me, and I’m looking forward to some commenters weighing in down below with your opinions and preferences. This being my 31st summer of grilling research, here’s what my completely unscientific research has revealed:

#1 Charcoal Grills Give Better Flavor To The Cooked Food
They just do. Why? The charcoal adds smoke to the cooking process and that flavor, the essence of a barbeque, is why we humans like grilled food at all. This dates back to our ancestors who had no choice but open pit/spit wood-fired cooking. I read once that that primal recognition is what makes cooking shows so popular. In our caveman brain, we are still fascinated by controlled fire resulting in delicious food.

#2 Number One is Only True When Using Natural Lump Charcoal or Wood
Neanderthal didn’t have briquettes or lighter fluid, and neither should you. They are marketed as convenience items, but really, they add unnecessary chemical elements to the air both in manufacturing and in use, and give the food an off, petroleum flavor.

#3 But Chef! Lighter Fluid & Briquettes Work So Fast!
Fast fire, sure, I’ll give you that. But do they work well? Its certainly dramatic when you squirt some lighter fluid into some briquettes and up blows a huge flame. But that does not make for good food. Save the pyro for your fireworks display.

Instead, invest twenty bucks and buy yourself a charcoal chimney. Here’s mine on its inaugural night on our brand new grill:

Stuff the bottom compartment with old newspaper, fill the top with natural lump charcoal, set the newspaper on fire and voila, 20 minutes later or so, the charcoal will be coated in grey ash, glowing bright red beneath. That’s when you dump the contraption over.

Fill one side of your charcoal grill with hot coals, leave the other side empty. This step creates what’s known as “zone heating” giving you a really hot side and a less hot, indirect heat side to regulate the temperature of whatever you are grilling by moving it around over the fire.

#4 What About Gas Grilling?
There surely is a place for a gas grill. Namely, the winter. When its February, and you’re craving a grilled sirloin, you may not care about chimneys and zone heating and all that crap. Its cold and you want steak. Enter the gas grill. Turn a knob, click a button and viola: A hot grill. Without smoke, you’ll miss that “barbeque” taste, but you can kind of fake it by soaking some applewood, hickory or mesquite chips in a bowl of water, then making an aluminum foil canoe for them to sit in on the grill grate to create some smoke. My guess is you won’t want to do this in February either. I sure don’t.

Also, natural lump charcoal can be a bit pricey so gas is cheaper in the long run but a good gas grill will set you back a few hundred bucks to get started, whereas a smokey joe goes for under a hundred.

And gas grills create no ash, so if you are without a compost pile, you will have to figure out a safe way to dispose of your spent charcoal ashes.

The verdict: If you can, get both. The charcoal grill makes great food, the gas grill makes good, fast food. Steer clear of chemical accelerants and enjoy the process. The most important thing to remember is to have fun. No one likes a dogmatic snob at the party. Bring some meat to whatever heat and relax! Its a party!

Finally, a note about the word “barbeque.”
True barbeque refers to a cuisine, not a technique. So we say, “let’s barbeque” when really we should be saying “let’s grill something.” Interestingly authentic barbeque generally requires a smoker, neither of the contraptions mentioned above. Smokers are increasingly easy to come so if true barbeque is what you crave, pick one of those up as well. If three contraptions in the backyard is too much for you (or too much for your spouse/roommate/partner) to deal with, you can fake a smoker set up. Click here for instructions on how to smoke ribs.


  • Heather Van Riper

    I am on the side of charcoal baby!!  Lately I have been cooking dishes that take a long time to cook, and benefit from the flavor of wood smoke. The longer cooking times are suited for cheaper cuts of meat (ie. pork shoulder).  I find that my Weber Jr is the perfect size for cooking dishes suited for 2-3 people, and does not take a ton of charcoal.  1 Coal charge lasts about 3 1/2 hours.

    Let’s face it gas or coal, either one rocks for keeping the heat out of the house!!

    One note: my husband has breathing problems, and the coal smoke can irritate him, so I have to cook earlier in the day,before he gets home.  If you have asthma, I would stick to gas.

    PS.  I think that lighting and using either a charcoal or gas grill is a skill set that ANY woman should have.  Whichever side you are on – find a young woman you know – and teach her how!