Gas or charcoal?
It's the eternal question for grillers everywhere — a trick question, really, like asking whether Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter is the better athlete. Different rules, different skills, whole different game.
There are absolutists who believe that charcoal (if not wood itself) is the only way to go, the sole method for delivering even, stable heat, and maybe a whiff of smoke. To these proud, patient types, gas is a cheap shortcut. A smaller, but equally fervent band of absolutists will tell you charcoal is a waste of time and material, and a tank full of propane, or natural gas, and a well-designed grill will give you precision and consistency that you'd never get with a pile of burning briquettes.
We're not going to settle that debate here. We're not even going to try. Lovers of the open flame will find good reason to embrace either method, and some of the most ardent advocates of grilling have learned to live with both.
Instead, let's consider some pros, cons and useful items to keep in mind for when you're standing in the store aisle, making this major life decision. (To those who go the wood way, we salute you. But that level of devotion is a topic for a different story.)
Versatility: Hands down, the biggest virtue of a gas (liquid propane or natural gas) grill. Unless you live somewhere that gets snow drifts higher than a small child (and even if you do), your gas grill can easily be used year-round. I consider my gas grill less a barbecue and more a second oven, much the way a restaurant cook would regard his or her kitchen. Over the years it has served to roast turkeys, bake pizza and even boil water.
Speed: Gas grills heat up quickly — or should, if it's a quality model — enough to be at grilling temperature within 10 minutes. That transforms the grill into a weeknight gadget, ready to make a quick dinner in barely more time than it takes the microwave to heat a burrito.
Ease of use: Most models ignite with a twist of a valve and the press of a button. Extinguishing a fire is as easy as shutting off the gas (though you need to remember to turn it off at the end of the evening).
Temperature control: While using charcoal requires a certain art, even the novice griller can maintain precise using grill knobs, and multi-burner grills make it a cinch to create several temperature zones on the grill surface.
Ease of cleaning: Those temperature controls allow you to quickly blast the grill surface with heat after you're done cooking, leaving charred residue that can easily be brushed off later. No charcoal means almost no ashes or coals to dispose of.
Cost: No question that gas grills cost more than the classic kettles and other charcoal designs, usually starting at $150 and sometimes topping $500.
Maintenance: Cleanup is easy, but gas grills require venturi tubes, valves, and other complex parts, which can be costly to replace and may require special care, if you leave your grill untouched for a season or two.
Flavor: Gas grills have that quick heat, but even the best flavor bars still can't replicate the smoke and radiant heat provided by hot coals. The taste argument, more than any other, polarizes grillers in every corner.
Heat: While a good gas grill can easily exceed 500 degrees F, some charcoal grills can go even higher if properly (and safely) tended. That level of heat isn't for everyone, but perfectionists may find it essential for tasks like searing rare steaks. And charcoal is a decent pick for the low-and-slow approach needed for really terrific barbecue. Say what you will, but running propane for 12 hours — even at a low setting — becomes a tricky, costly endeavor. And many outdoor chefs insist you can't get the same wood-smoked flavor from gas, even with a proper smoke box.
Cost: Unless you're buying a charcoal grill made from titanium, it's going to cost less than a gas grill of comparable size and quality.
The consTime: Charcoal grills may be for the hearty, but not for the hasty. They require at least 20 minutes to heat up, and properly preparing the coals often can take longer.
Cleaning: Charcoal grilling can be a messy business, and the grills need regular cleaning to function properly.
Temperature: Only a master griller can approximate on a charcoal grill the temperature control you get with gas — and even then, it's hard to suddenly go from low heat without adding more charcoal and starting over. Experts will set up hot and cooler zones on the grill, but that takes some practice, and it's still imperfect.
Seasonality: There certainly are robust souls who have no fear of grilling on charcoal in the dead of winter, but the lengthy prep time and careful tending of the fire are not so fun in the snow.
Reputation: Whichever option you choose, avoid those no-name specials in the seasonal aisle. They're usually flimsy and, especially for gas grills, tend to break easily. Even if you just want a basic kettle, consider your grill an investment. A little money now is likely to save you more money later to replace a second-rate grill.
Watch your heat: Many better grills — both charcoal and gas — now come with thermometers built in. It's worth having thermometers both for the grill's internal temperature (especially if you need low heat) and, if you're cooking meat, for the food itself. If you can't find a thermometer for your charcoal grill, a frequent alternative is to hold your hand about four inches over the coals and see how long you can keep it there. Two seconds is high heat, five seconds is low.
Make it last: Cooking grates vary wildly in quality. Anything with a thin wire-like surface you can skip off the bat. Porcelain or coated grates may seem like an easy solution — and they are, if you don't mind replacing them as they wear out. But thicker bars made of stainless steel are a surefire bet, and can last for years if they're cleaned regularly.
Light 'em up: If you grill with charcoal, and I can't stress this enough, do not use lighter fluid. Aside from the hazards (who among us never squirted more fluid onto a flagging pile of briquettes, despite it being a really bad idea) it's likely to impart a bit of its taste to your food — unless you leave the coals burning for hours. Those electric starters are a royal pain (see “Time,” above). The chimney starter, though, is as ingenious as it is effective. Essentially a long cylinder you fill with charcoal, it requires nothing more than a match and a bundle of newspaper — and gives you hot coals in about 25 minutes.
Leave your coals be: Don't rush your charcoal into service. It needs time to build a coating of ash and build up its full heat potential. If the briquettes are still on fire, they're probably not hot enough to cook over, but just because the flame dies down doesn't mean the grill is ready. Otherwise, you'll burn your food without really cooking it. Look for a solid coating of white ash with a red glow clearly coming through.
Size matters: Though hibachis and some of the mini-grills on the market are compact and convenient, they don't really work that well for regular grilling — and are too small for more than a couple pieces of food at a time. Consider them as a backup option. And with any grill, make sure to get a good look at the total grilling surface. How much food will it hold, especially when you factor in the needed spacing to get a spatula under burgers? For charcoal, Weber's 18.5-inch kettle is about as small as I'd go, or 350 sq. in. (about 2 feet wide by 15 inches deep) for a gas grill. And consider whether a warming rack will help spare you extra space.
Fear the fire: Grilling is more about heat and controlled smoke than cooking over open flame. If your grill is subject to frequent flare-ups, you may need to move the food farther from the heat source or turn down the heat. Keep a spray bottle of water handy to extinguish fires that may ignite and burn your food.
Be wary of BTUs: Like horsepower, BTUs (British thermal units, a measure of heat output used for gas grills) are less about raw numbers and more about what you do with them. A high-BTU grill that's inefficient just wastes propane, and therefore your money. Standard grills starting at about 25,000 BTUs should work as a basic unit, and 35,000 is a good starting point for a family grill.
Have the right tools: Most of those stylish grill-tool sets are built for looks, and are often just about useless. Different cooks prefer different tools, but here are two that any griller should keep handy: (1) a spring-loaded set of tongs, which grip far better than the one-piece versions and function almost like an extension of your hands; and (2) a really sturdy grill brush. Brushing your grate before every use will make your grilling experience much more pleasant.