Gas vs. Charcoal

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.

What kind of grilling do you do?

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Here’s a pretty good side-by-side comparison chart, though it conveniently skips the environmental factors.

9 Replies to “Gas vs. Charcoal”

  1. At various times, I have used wood, charcoal, gas, and even corncobs. Dad taught me that when I was a kid in Il.

    Currently using a large enough gas grill to do indirect smoke cooking; fire on one burner, meat over the other, and wood chunks over the fire. It’s messy, but effective. I can’t imagine the cost of charcoal for a 12-18 hour brisket or pork shoulder.

    I plan to build a small version of a southern wood-burner, but we receive about 200+ inches of snow here (still melting), so that idea is still on hold. We own 70 acres in the U.P. of Michigan, so wood is definitely a renewable resource here.
    Read the article re: global warming and relative priorities. I do not disagree on the fact/probability of warming, but have yet to be convinced we are responsible, much less able to do anything to affect it. That is a discussion we can have another time.


  2. I have a smoke box in my gas grill – best of both worlds – turn key service with great flavor. Dialed in control on temp, but the added accent of wood smoke. Very highly recommended – a standard Weber part.

  3. you (or the media) are probably ignoring the charcoal connoisseurs who use Big Green Egg type rigs with lump charcoal (not briquets). The BGE rigs give you much more control over temp as well as a much wider range of temp, thus influence cooking technique, as you can do things with them that you can’t do with briquets or gas. Or so the story goes. Of course, definitely NOT cheaper than most gas rigs, so that might play into the whole comparison as well.

  4. baald, I can see the BGE rigs giving a wider range of temps, but more control over temp? How is that possible, compared to turning a knob?

  5. Ludovic, I’ve added an item for Wood, so go for it.

    What’s the case for wood over charcoal? (and any idea how its enviro status compares?)

  6. Wood – be careful. If you don’t know the source, don’t cook your food with it. Whatever is in the wood goes into your food? The only way to burn-off embedded toxins is to superheat the wood into charcoal (lumps). Before you go hangin’ yer weenie over your campfire, think of caterpillar irradiation measures, felled trees that grew next to chemlawns, trees from construction sites, or near runoff ponds on agra-biz farms, or cleared from highway shoulders…not very nice stuff in the wood – and it IS in there. If you know your wood, or you want to spend money on Canadian “gourmet” fireplace logs, I think it’s probably preferable to any other form…but not practical unless you live amongst your fuel source.
    Taste v. convenience – when I return to the motherland I’m buying my first ever gas grill, with some attached doo-hicky that allows me to add woody flavors. ‘I’ll have both, please.

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