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Gas or charcoal grilling: It’s “the grate debate,” according to grilling guru Steven Raichlen, but what is the difference between gas and charcoal for grilling, and which is better?
“Gas grills are good for people who like how easy they are to start and clean up,” says BBQ queen Karen Adler. Raichlen adds that they are “great for weekday dinners when time is at a premium”; Adler says people choose charcoal grills for the smoky flavor they impart, and because they can reach very hot temperatures for searing and charring. Raichlen says that they are “great for smoking,” which he says you can’t really do on a gas grill.
Of course, there are several other types of grills (hybrids, kamados, electric grills…), but gas and charcoal are the classics, and so we’re drilling down on those. To do so, Chowhound spoke with barbecue and grilling experts to find out what you can expect to spend on each type; how long they take to assemble, heat up, fuel costs, total costs, clean up; and more. We’ve summarized the options to help you figure out the pros and cons of gas versus charcoal grilling and which will be a better fit for your summer grilling needs. So ready up, especially if you’re shopping for a new grill for summer; your next pork chop or steak depends on it!
The most popularly priced propane or gas grills are $129 to $299, while grills with more features will run between $800 and $1,500 and well beyond. As with anything you can find as many bells and whistles as you’d like but there are always great deals on sturdy gas grills that should last you a very long time.
On the low end, you can get something for about $25. A basic Weber kettle is around $150, while more deluxe models like a Kamado or Sunstone, are upward of $1,000 or more. There are a few small single-use, portable charcoal grills on the market now that can cost as little as $15, like the CasusGrill. 100 percent biodegradable and lightweight these are perfect for camping or hiking adventures.
Some cheaper models may not reach the high temperatures needed to perfectly sear steaks (you’ll need to reach about 600 degrees Fahrenheit). But Weber’s website adds that better-engineered grills with lower BTUs will use less gas and perform more efficiently. When shopping, ask about the temperature the grill will reach and the burner configuration (the two factors depend on each other).
A loaded kettle grill with red-hot charcoal can reach 700 degrees Fahrenheit. The type of charcoal used will affect the temperature (lump usually burns hotter than briquettes). Charcoal is king among barbecue pitmasters, who insist that real barbecue is only achieved by cooking with smoke at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Gas grills are more complicated to assemble than charcoal; you’ll need about two hours for a midrange model.
With charcoal grills, you’re looking at a half-hour setup, tops.
Gas grills light instantly and take about 10 minutes to heat up.
Charcoal grills require time to light the charcoal, and 15 to 20 minutes to reach cooking temperature.
It costs around $30 to fill a standard 20-pound propane cylinder, which yields about 20 hours of cook time. That equals $1.50 an hour to cook on gas. Incidentally, here’s a neat way to tell how much gas is left in your grill’s propane tank:
A large chimney starter holds about six quarts of charcoal. Six quarts of a high-quality sustainably sourced lump charcoal will cost you about $5.50. The equivalent quality in briquettes would be about $4.30.
You’ll have to check the gas connections and fuel lines, replace the flavor briquettes, and refill the propane tanks as needed. You may also have to replace the ignition or grates now and then, and keep the burners, igniter collector box, and drip tray clean. If you cover your grill when not in use, you can minimize upkeep.
The grill grates should be replaced annually, or every other year, depending on wear and tear. There aren’t a lot of other parts to maintain unless you opt for a model with electric or gas ignition.
Clean the cooking grate before or after you grill by simply turning the grill to high until the smoke stops, then brushing the grates. Cast iron grates require more specialized care.
You’ll have to remove the charcoal tray and clean out the ashes often and brush the grates every time you use the grill. The winner in this category is clearly gas or propane grills and, in a lot of cases, is the reason folks opt for gas over charcoal.
Gas makes it easy to grill delicate foods like chicken breast, fish, fruit, and vegetables, whose flavors can be overwhelmed by smoke. A smoke box (like a drawer for wood chips) can achieve some of the smokiness of a charcoal grill. But even those who love gas grilling for convenience aren’t necessarily fans of the flavor.
Guaranteed smoky flavor for your steaks, pork chops, chicken and other grilled foods. A charcoal grill may also double as a smoker with a little practice and some strategically placed wood chips.
To be able to do any indirect grilling, you will need at least two gas burners. If you’ll want to add flavor with smoke, see if the grill includes a smoke box. Other things to think about: Do you want fold-up side tables or a built-in gas gauge or thermometer, and how big of a surface will you need (will you be grilling for parties, or just for two)? Do you live in a damp climate? If so, it may be worth springing for a stainless steel or enamel coating. And does the grill come with a cover, or is one available?
If you want to do long, indirect cooks or just don’t want to deal with the hassle of ash cleanup, you might want a model with a high-capacity ash catcher. A hinged grate makes it easier to add charcoal. Being able to raise or lower the grate can make it simpler to control how much heat is being applied to your food. Some grills have built-in gas ignitions, but with a good chimney starter, this may be a waste of money.
Here’s how to set up indirect heat zones on your charcoal grill:
If after all this you still can’t decide between gas and charcoal, there’s no need to buy two grills. A hybrid grill, with the option to use both natural gas or propane and charcoal, exists for those who want the best of both fuel worlds. Some, like this Char-Griller 5050, comes with two completely separate grill tops (great for big parties), while others like the Char-Broil Gas2Coal easily convert from gas to charcoal by placing a tray over the gas burners. Fair warning that handling a tray of charcoal so often to convert back to gas could get messy.
If either gas or charcoal grills were a clear environmental winner, the decision of what to use would be much easier. But it’s not that straightforward. Charcoal grills release about twice as much carbon dioxide per hour as gas grills do, roughly 11 pounds versus 5.6, says the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. But charcoal comes from trees, which absorb carbon as they grow, making the emissions net zero. Still, groups like the Sierra Club advocate gas grills because they are cleaner burning using mostly natural gas.
Though there doesn’t seem to be an obvious eco-friendly choice when it comes to what fuels your grill, there are still a few things you can do to lessen the environmental impact of your weekend barbecue:
Use Nontoxic Cleaners
It’s best to clean your grill with a heavy-duty grill brush and some elbow grease, but if you’re going to use a spray-on cleaner, go for one that’s nontoxic. A few options are Citrusafe Grill Cleaning Spray, Simple Green Heavy Duty BBQ & Grill Cleaner, and Weber Professional Strength Degreaser.
Buy Sustainable Charcoal
If you’re buying lump charcoal, look for brands that use all-natural, sustainably harvested wood.
If you opt for briquettes, avoid instant-light varieties—they’re soaked in petroleum products—and conventional charcoal briquettes that use fillers like coal dust and petroleum binders. Some brands make briquettes from waste coconut shells and a food-grade binder.
What’s on top of your grate is just as important as what’s underneath it. Try to use seasonal, local, and organic produce and meats. For ideas on how to shop for eco-friendly meat, check out our tips for environmentally responsible carnivores.
Put Down the Lighter Fluid!
There’s no need to use toxic lighter fluid to ignite charcoal when you can use a chimney starter. They’re simple: Stuff some old newspaper in the bottom, fill the top with charcoal, and light the paper. At around $10 to $15, they’re also cheap. Plus, your food won’t have any off flavors from unburned lighter fluid residue. You can also make one out of an old coffee can by removing both ends, using a church key bottle opener to cut holes around the bottom rim, placing the chimney on top of your grill, and proceeding with the newspaper, charcoal, and ignition.
No matter what type of grill you go for, here are just a few of our favorite grilling recipes:
For a healthier option with some Japanese flair, try a simple mixture of soy sauce and mirin: It adds a hint of savory flavor while letting the sweet, smoky intensity of the grilled corn come through. Get our Grilled Corn with Soy and Mirin recipe.
Related Reading: Easy 5-Ingredient BBQ Recipes to Grill All Summer
Delicately sweet and usually mild, they are an easy snack to throw on the grill. Simply toss with olive oil, cook on a hot grill, and sprinkle with togarashi (a Japanese spice mix) and coarse salt. Get our Grilled Shishito Peppers recipe.
A recipe inspired by Mexico’s pollo al carbon, chickens marinated and cooked on huge charcoal grills. The marinade contains achiote paste, chopped cilantro, jalapeños, garlic, lime, and orange juice. Get our Mexican BBQ Chicken recipe.