There’s nothing quite like the taste of food cooked over an open fire. It brings to food additional layers of flavors and aromas that harkens back to a more primal time in humankind’s history. While our ancestors, both ancient and not so ancient, relied on live fire to cook, we no longer have to mess with it, yet every summer, people across the US spend countless hours standing over grills and barbecues doing just that. Not because we have to but because we want to. While much of the world still relies on open fires for cooking, modern Western man does not. Instead, through the marvels of electricity and natural gas, all we need to do is turn a knob and/or push a button to heat up an element that we can then cook over. Live fire cooking has become a “luxury” for us and not a necessity like it has been for everyone up until the early parts of the 20th century.
For some of us, grilling has become an art form, while for others, they are just lucky to have not charred the food beyond recognition or to have burnt down the house. This series is devoted to the latter person, though even the grill jockeys among us might learn a thing or two.
While there are many good places to start, in a discussion of grilling, we will start with the first decision everyone, who wants to grill, needs to make. Should I choose gas or charcoal? Contrary to what many grill masters, who most often prefer charcoal, will tell you, the decision is not quite as simple or cut and dried as it seems. There are various factors to take into account, from flavor, to time invested, to environmental impacts. My recommendation would be to have both as it gives you the best of both worlds, but I understand that, for many people, that isn’t an option due to space constraints, budget constraints or merely trying to explain to your significant other just why you need two grills. Some people just don’t understand!
It should be noted that when I speak of “gas” grills I am speaking of those that run on liquid propane that is contained in a small tank, usually attached to the grill. Some gas grills run on natural gas, but those are built-in jobs that have been connected to the house’s gas line. These can be expensive, thus not seen terribly often. In general though, with some exceptions, most statements I make about gas are relevant to both.
Let’s face it, when it comes to the time issue, gas beats charcoal hands down. With charcoal, one has to light the fuel then wait for 20-30 minutes for the charcoal to burn down until it is covered in ash and only then is it ready to use. With gas, a few turns of a couple of knobs, the flick of a button and a short, 5-10 minute preheating time and you are ready to cook. After a long day of work, when all you want is a quick burger on the grill, you can’t beat the speed of gas. There is also less clean up involved in gas grills as there is no build of spent ash that needs to be removed from the grill on a regular basis, though occasional cleaning is necessary.
In terms of flavor, the best choice is charcoal. Gas is inherently flavorless. The flavor created cooking on a gas grill is provided by the charring action of the hot grates and any smokiness comes from the burning and vaporizing of melted fats and meat juices. Gas is also a moister heat since, when propane burns is creates carbon dioxide and water, which can somewhat inhibit getting a good carmelization on the meat. On the other hand, charcoal not only provides flavor from the above reasons but, being made from wood, also provides its own smoky character. In addition, charcoal oftentimes burns hotter allowing for better charring and caramelization. Flavor is the number one reason grill jockeys prefer charcoal over gas.
When it comes to controlling your heat, both gas and charcoal have their advantages and disadvantages. With gas overall heat is much easier to control. Turn the gas up for more heat and down for less. It is much more complicated with charcoal and involves lowering or raising the grill grate, removing or adding more charcoal, etc. But where charcoal shines is its flexibility. With gas you are bound to the way your burners are set up. There are only so many options and configurations open to you if you have a gas grill. Charcoal on the other hand is almost infinitely variable. You can move charcoal around your grill to give you hot spots and cool spots. You can create various configurations for indirect grilling, or by moving all your charcoal to the sides, create a more oven like environment.
Finally, if environmental impacts are a concern of yours you still have a tough decision to make. Sure, gas is a nonrenewable resource, and drilling for gas can leave scars on the earth, but gas also burns much cleaner than charcoal which puts about 4 times more carbon in the atmosphere than gas does, and while wood is a renewable resource we continue to deforest this planet much more quickly than we replant. Just think about how many trees are sitting in bags, disguised as charcoal, in your local grocery store. Now multiply that by the thousands of stores that carry charcoal. It’s a complicated issue and each fuel source has its pros and cons. It is not in the scope of this article to tell you which is more environmentally friendly, but to give you the up side and down side to each fuel source and then let you choose for yourself.
While I could go on and on about the differences between gas and charcoal, I have listed the most important differences between the two. As you can see, each has its good points and its drawbacks. My gas grill gets lots of use due to the convenience of it, but there is just something so primal about cooking over the live “flames” of charcoal that draws me in, and the flavor just can’t be beat. In the end though, it doesn’t matter whether you choose gas or charcoal. What matters is getting out there and grilling!
In Part II I’ll be discussing the nuts and bolts of grilling, from preparing your charcoal to determining when your food is done, while in Part III I will talk about the basics of barbecuing.