The Great Grilling Debate: Gas vs. Charcoal Grills
If you’re buying your first grill or replacing one that’s past its prime, use this guide to determine the best fuel for BBQ success.
To become the kind of grill master who wows crowds at family cookouts, you need the right equipment. The two most popular types of grills, gas and charcoal, each have ardent devotees and can help you prepare your favorite grilled fare. But which does so more quickly, easily, affordably, and deliciously? Ahead, we’ve pitted the two options against one another—gas vs. charcoal grills—so that the key differences will help you determine which best suits your lifestyle, culinary preferences, and budget.
Charcoal grills are less expensive than gas grills.
A basic charcoal grill has a fairly primitive setup with fewer components—typically just a grill grate laid over a rounded metal charcoal chamber with attached legs—so you can find one for as little as $15 and top out at around $150. A gas grill, consisting of a grill unit with an attached wheeled frame plus a gas tank, will burn a bigger hole in your wallet, anywhere from $130 to $300.
Gas grills offer better fuel economy.
The fuel for charcoal grills is more short-lived, thus more expensive per use. It will set you back around $10 for a typical 20-pound bag of charcoal, but this would last you only three grilling sessions on average, or around $3.30 each time. It would cost you $15 to fill a typical 20-pound fuel cylinder with propane gas, which would last you 25 grilling sessions, or $0.60 per session.
Gas grills heat up faster.
Making burgers on a busy weeknight is a cinch with a gas grill, which can take under 10 minutes to reach cooking temperature (usually a minimum of 130 degrees Fahrenheit) from the time you ignite it. This’s because the grill is directly connected to the fuel source—either a tank in the grill frame filled with propane, liquefied petroleum gas (also known as butane), or natural gas, or a gas supply line in your home. There’s no need to manually light the gas or wait for it to heat up; the gas flame ignites with the press of an ignition button.
Charcoal grills take on average between 15 to 20 minutes to reach cooking temperature. You must first light the fuel source—either lumps of natural charcoal or condensed blocks of coal known as charcoal briquettes—then wait for the charcoal to turn into embers that radiate heat to cook food.
Gas grills offer easier temperature control.
Adjusting the temperature on a gas grill is usually as simple as turning a dial. To increase or decrease heat intensity in a charcoal grill, you must manually add or remove coals from the charcoal chamber, adjust the position of the food on the grill grate to be closer or further from the flame, or open or close the grill’s oxygen intake vents.
Charcoal grills yield a smokier flavor.
Charcoal grills produce a good deal of smoke, but the burning of complex organic molecules in the charcoal produces aromatic compounds. When the smoke and aromatic compounds interact with food, they imbue it with a distinctive char-grilled quality that improves depth of flavor in such fare as steak and poultry. Gas grills emit less smoke and, as a simpler molecule, gas produces only water and carbon dioxide when fully combusted. So while gas imparts food with a less pronounced flavor, that’s a plus when grilling fish, veggies, fruits, and other delicate fares.
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Gas grills are cleaner and easier to clean.
There’s generally little to no ash to contend with in a gas grill. While food drippings often settle on the grill grate and grill base, the gas vaporizes most of it. That means when it’s time to clean, you can simply scrub down the grill base and grate with a grill brush.
The burning of charcoal produces a great deal of ash in the charcoal chamber, and fallen food drippings tend to accumulate over time. To clean a charcoal grill, you’ll first have to empty the ashes from the chamber before scrubbing down the base and grate with a grill brush.
On both grill types, when grease hardens and accumulates, apply a degreaser to the soiled area (e.g., Citrusafe BBQ Grid and Grill Grate Cleanser, which is available on Amazon), let the solution dwell for a few minutes, then use a garden hose to rinse it off.
Gas grills are more eco-friendly.
Eco-friendly homeowners hoping to reduce their carbon footprint should know that gas is the greener grilling method. A Department of Energy study on the carbon output of grills found that a gas grill fueled by liquefied petroleum gas generated only 5.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per hour—nearly half as much—as the 11 pounds per hour generated by charcoal grills.
Charcoal grills are more portable.
You can tote a charcoal grill with you to a tailgating event, local park, or campsite thanks to the smaller size and the lack of a gas tank. Newer single-use charcoal grills (e.g., Ready-to-Use Disposable Grill, which is available on Amazon) are made to be thrown away the unit after use (though they are not recyclable). The more cumbersome assembly of a gas grill—coupled with the fire risk of toting around a gas tank—makes it too unwieldy for travel.
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