Charcoal or Gas Grill?
As a professional caterer that specializes in grilling, and as a backyard barbecue fanatic, and as a 40 year veteran of the meat business, you can bet I have something to say about this topic.
In my 35 years as a caterer I have used almost exclusively charcoal for our catered events. However; when I get home from a long day of work, and even after a catered event, I always use gas.
The main reason I use gas is for the convenience. When I arrive home, I light up the gas on the grill, pre-heat for 5-10 minutes while I prepare my meats, and within precious few minutes, I’m already cooking. Charcoal grill enthusiasts might still be getting the coals going while I enjoy my first bite of grilled steak!
Most people believe that charcoal imparts more of a smoked flavor to their meats, but in reality charcoal does not add much smoke or flavor without the aid of wood chips. Certainly a “new” gas grill fresh off the showroom floor likewise has nothing to add to your grilled meats. The real flavor from grilling usually comes from the smoke created from “burning” previous residues of fat, protein and sauces that were cooked on the grill earlier.
Many people do not realize that charcoal is nothing more than some type of wood or composite wood that has been partially burned already, deprived of oxygen. It burns hotter, cleaner, and more efficiently than wood. The charcoal briquet, or lump charcoal is transformed into a convenient fuel with almost no water in it (only about 2-3%). Since is has ten times less water than cordwood, it burns hotter (as much as 200° hotter). Charcoal is the preferred fuel for more than half of the world’s population.
So essentially, the process of making charcoal briquets or lump charcoal removes almost all of the flavor from the wood. So, if you want smoke you still have to add wood chips to your charcoal grill. Surprised? You probably thought all of that extra time and effort to start a charcoal grill gave you some flavor benefits. Some people complain that starter fluid gives their meats a chemical taste; so these folks use a charcoal starter chimney or heating coil to get their coals ready. Actually, I use tons of charcoal every year with a mixture of regular charcoal and a “match light” type charcoal, in an 80 20 ratio. When catering, I need to get the heat up quickly so I can get busy cooking. I use the 80 -20 ratio and then add up to a quart of charcoal starter. After 20-30 minutes I never have the least odor of starting fuel. The key to removing the flavor from the starter is to get the fire hot enough to burn off any excess fuel. Sometimes you might try to stir the coals a little to help this process.
So if you don’t really get much flavor from charcoal, and you still need smoke chips, and it takes 20-30 minutes for the coals to get ready… should you consider a gas grill instead?
If you want a charcoal grill, go ahead a get one. Since there is not much to a simple charcoal grill, you can buy one very inexpensively. Kettle types, like the Weber can be bought for well under $100, and small Hibachi grills can be had for just over $20.
Having said that, get yourself a gas grill too, or instead. I can bet that nobody that has a charcoal grill will use it more than a handful of times a month, while I use my gas grill 6-7 times every week, year ‘round. The advantages of multiple burners, temperature controls, instant on and instant off, upper racks and cheaper fuel make the gas grill my choice for home use.
There are just a few things you need to know. When your gas grill is new, you have got to buy smoke chips, and put them in a tiny pan in the corner of your grill until your unit gets “seasoned” with spattered food, sauces and smoke. The first couple of times when your new grill is shiny and new, your smoke chips will be your only ally in adding that desired “grilled” and smoked flavor. Be a little patient, and within a few days, after a batch or two of chicken or ribs and a few hamburgers your grill will match the flavor of most charcoal grills, with half of the trouble and much less time!
Also, when cooking choice Rib-eyes or other richly marbled steaks over gas, be careful not to wander off… The flames from a gas grill can and will catch your dinner on fire as the fat drips into the grill. Keeping part of your grill on low, or moving your steak to a higher rack is a technique I often use. Anytime you are grilling it is best to have a “cooler zone” when things flare up on you. Of course, with gas you can always turn down the heat. But if the flames are already going strong you will need to douse them a little water (or the beverage you are drinking.)
Also, be careful not to be too fastidious in cleaning your grill. Cleaning the cooking grate with a brush is fine, since that will help send cooked food into the lower levels of your grill to be turned into smoke and added flavor. After brushing the grate I like to rub it with some beef fat or brush on some chicken fat to keep food from sticking: but be careful. Adding chicken fat or any liquid grease can trigger a fire if your grill is fired up. It is best to treat the grate with the gas off.
Personally, I clean my grate very infrequently. If your grill has some sort of flavor pan over the burners, watch for excess accumulation of grease and burnt food residues. These areas can sometimes either catch fire or simply alter the flavor in a negative way.
Grilling can sometimes be a real adventure, but will be the source of your favorite meals over time. Whether you choose charcoal, gas or both, the more you grill the better you’ll be at creating that ultimate feast!