In some circles, the gas vs. charcoal grill debate is like red state/blue state, saints vs. atheist heathens. Charcoal purists swear there’s a noticeable taste difference, while gas users claim there is none, or that if there is, it’s minuscule compared to taste factors that come from the dry rub or marinade, cooking technique, and quality of meat. Some even cite studies “showing that there is no effective taste difference between food cooked with gas vs. charcoal.” Charcoal users claim that if you can’t taste the difference, you’re not paying attention. There’s also a big romance factor associated with charcoal – piling up, lighting, tending the coals is part of the ritual, and rituals are important. I can dig that, but happily trade it for the convenience of being able to come home from work late and start grilling immediately. And I’m just not sure I buy the taste difference thing, unless you’re wanting to make a real smoker.
I’ve found that some charcoal enthusiasts think gas grills don’t produce smoke at all… which is absolutely not true. A gas grill is not an oven! The smoke from gas grills can be voluminous (even scary), and comes from the burning off of fats and drippings from meat, as well as the carbonized residue of previous grilling sessions. Yep, it’s a different kind of smoke from charcoal smoke, but it’s definitely smoke.
Our family are gas peeps – we sort of skipped the charcoal phase and went straight for convenience. For us, the gas decision was partly environmental, wanting to sidestep or reduce particulate emissions that come from burning wood, for the same reason newer houses don’t even come with fireplaces.
Charcoal grills emit more carbon monoxide, particulate matter and soot into the atmosphere, contributing to increased pollution and higher concentrations of ground-level ozone.
In fact, in Canada, charcoal is now a restricted product under the Hazardous Products Act. But the carbon footprint question is more complicated than it appears on the surface – charcoal may come from renewable forests, which in turn consume the same amount of CO2 as the grills they fuel produce. Then again, a lot of charcoal products are infused with chemicals to make it easier to light, burn longer, etc. Slate has a great piece on the environmental factors in the gas vs. charcoal question.
Then there’s the cost factor – gas grills cost more, but reqire far less expenditure on fuel – a round of charcoal cooking can cost up to $5.00 in briquettes, while gas might clock in at around $0.50 per session.
OK, poll time – do you do gas or charcoal? Let me know in the comments whether you can taste the difference.
Here’s a pretty good side-by-side comparison chart, though it conveniently skips the environmental factors.