Gas or charcoal? It is a question that has bedeviled American consumers and cooks for decades, since the first LazyMan propane grill went on sale in the 1950s and left the Smiths with their briquette-fueled brazier looking jealously over the fence at the Joneses and their new outdoor science stove.
In the abstract, there is no one correct answer. You can have affirmative responses to the use of either fuel. You can stack them as high as summer corn.
For instance: You get great smoky flavor and an unparalleled crust from cooking over or beside coals or wood. That said, on a Wednesday night there is little easier than lighting a gas grill after softball practice and cooking a bunch of brats for the team. There are positives and negatives to each form of fire, depending on what you are cooking, and when and for how long.
“We are way past ‘versus,’” said Adam Perry Lang, a barbecue chef from New York who built his career on food enhanced by the flavors and scent of wood smoke. Lang said that at home, he cooked over propane, and that, in some cases, he actually preferred gas to charcoal or wood. “They’ve gotten very good,” he said of gas grills. “You can make some really, really good food with a gas grill.”
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A lot of people do, or try to. Roughly 180 million Americans have some kind of grill in the yard, on the patio or sitting out on the deck, according the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a trade group. Of that number, said Eric Davis, a spokesman for the association, roughly 62 percent have gas grills, and 50 percent own charcoal-fired ones – which suggests that at least 12 percent (or something in the neighborhood of 20 million Americans) might employ both gas and charcoal grills in their pursuit of outdoor cooking joy.
Davis is among them. “My gas one is a little more convenient,” he said. “It all depends on how much time I have.”
So which to buy? Or which to use? Chefs and experts – as well as a few days spent testing both gas grills and charcoal grills with colleagues from The Sweethome, a product recommendation site owned by The New York Times Co. – suggest a number of factors to consider before you shop and cook.
Gas grills are, of course, a marvel of expediency, and among the simplest ways to keep heat and smoke out of your kitchen during the summer months.
They are ideal, said chef Josh Cohen, who owns bars and restaurants across north Brooklyn, for cooking fish, for roasting vegetables, for making a fast dinner of sausages and peppers. He suggested brining thin fillets of fish in a solution of salt and sugar for about 10 minutes, then patting them dry and grilling them gently on one side over gas on a hot, clean grill. “Only about three to five minutes, and you’re good,” he said. There is no need to flip them until you’re putting the fish on a platter to serve.
What gas grills are not good for, Cohen and others said, is high-heat searing. Even the ones that scored highest in The Sweethome’s testing were ultimately unsuited for cooking a pricey, well-marbled steak, or even a good hamburger, unless you deploy a cast-iron pan or steel plancha on top of the grates to help concentrate the heat and allow the meat to cook in its own fat.
Matt Hinckley, a chef and the proprietor of Hinckley’s Fancy Meats in Orlando, Florida, said he did just that. “Apartments aren’t geared for cast-iron searing,” Hinckley said. “It sets off the smoke detectors every time. People watch these TV chefs making a cast-iron pan white hot and throwing a steak on it. I can do it outside and get a great sear on my steak, without compromising the air quality of my living conditions.”
For Hinckley, who said he cooked over propane “probably 70 percent of the time,” a gas grill is simply easier to deal with for daily cooking, especially in the dense humidity of an Orlando summer. “It’s great for low and slow grilling,” he said. “Especially with the fattier cuts, propane requires less maintenance. Those flare-ups over coals can cause problems.”
Lang is of the same mind. “You put a really well-marbled steak over live fire,” he said, “it can be really volatile.” For meats high in fat, he also recommends a gas-fired grill or the use of a pan or plancha. “Start the meat in the pan,” he said, “render some fat, then kiss the steak onto the fire at the end for a crust. You want browning to occur before you start the caramelization. That’s the best of both worlds.”
As for cooking over charcoal or wood? It is a technique practically as old as humankind. It is not particularly difficult, as any cave man would tell you. But it is more complicated than simply turning a knob on a stove. You have to build and bank and tend a fire. You have to pay close attention to temperatures and “zones” of heat.
Grilling that way may not be the best use of time on a weeknight, but on weekends – or any time you can get free to concentrate on your cooking – a charcoal grill cannot be beat. (That is not just idle opinion. The Sweethome’s side-by-side testing of both hamburgers and barbecue chicken cooked on gas and charcoal grills delivered a flavor win to charcoal by a wide margin, regardless of the model.)
Good things to grill over charcoal? In Hinckley’s opinion: steak, so long as it isn’t too fatty or too slicked in oil. “I’m always going to go toward charcoal for that,” he said. “It’s hard to generate enough heat with a propane grill.” Also: chicken, pork, fruit and anything that will be cooked long enough in the presence of smoke and indirect heat to qualify as barbecue.
For his part, Lang suggested “choice cuts, less fatty proteins, even skinless chicken” for the charcoal grill, where they can pick up the scent of the smoke beneath them. “You can just lacquer them like in Japanese cooking, with a baste,” he said.
But he cautioned that much the same could be done on a propane grill.
“I love everything about wood and charcoal, but not at the expense of people stepping away from grilling altogether because it’s complicated to light and tend a fire,” Lang said. Grill on gas if you have to, or if you want to: “There’s no B team anymore,” he said.