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Grilling: Charcoal vs. Gas


Joe Blowe
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Have you ever watched a barbecue or grilling cook off?

There's such a thing as a grilling cook-off?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Are you a charcoal zealot?  Gas only?  Swing both ways?

I really enjoy the speed and convenience of my Weber gas grill but when there's more time and people are sitting around outside watching me cook I go for the charcoal. I believe there is a flavor difference but I can't articulate what it is from memory alone. Time for another side by side comparison!

My thing is to use hardwood shavings and other bits on the gas grill - fast and smoky.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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I went to a Canada Day Rib Fest this past weekend and most of the pits use all of the above methods. They have cherry wood, charcoal and gas. All the booths had claims of being the best and had trophies and banners to back up their claims. They all tasted the same except for the bbq sauces and dry rubs they are selling.

I have a grape vine in my back yard and the cuttings from last year, along with maple and apple branches, are placed in a foil pack and used as a light smoker for quick grilling in my gas bbq.

Edited by Fugu (log)
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I live in a flat and don't have a garden, hence no bbq... but I love the smokey flavour and was trying to do something work indoors. here is what I did

put a cast iron griddle pan the fire for 10 mins, until it was blazing hot

I took a large piece of pork and beef fat and dropped it in, until it produced a lot of smoke.

I used the rack from my oven roasting pan on top of the griddle, so that the meat (pork loin steaks) was 3-4 inches above the griddle. I covered the whole thing with tinfoil and smoked it for 2 mins each side. Removed the fat and then cooked it as normal.

I was very happy with the result! It could be very hard to tell that the meat was not cooked on a bbq. Remember, the distinctive flavour comes from 2 factors: one is from the smoke coming the fat dripping on the charcoals, and the other from the wood used. I generaly do not use aromatic woods, so I mainly went to recreate factor 1. and it worked pretty well. I cannot see why it could not work with wood chips added.

one detail for this method is to put the unseasoned meat in the fridge for an hour. This creates a "cured" texture on the surface of the meat, which helps the smoke to adhere better (tip from Heston in his fish pie recipe, when he smoked haddock in a squirel trap...)

give it a try

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For things that cook quickly (hamburgers, steaks, vegetables and so on), I don't think there's a difference in flavor between gas and charcoal. At least, I've never noticed one.

Still, a charcoal grill does offer more versatility. You can smoke things on it, for one thing: when I'm done grilling, I'll throw a couple of chunks of wood on the coals, then put an eggplant or red peppers on the grill and close it. After 30 minutes or so, you've got a nice smoked eggplant (ideal for baba ganoush) or peppers (put them on turkey sandwiches) with zero effort. Can't do that with a gas grill.

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I've cooked for a long time on charcoal - decades - and I swore I'd never go to gas, but last summer I had lunch with some friends in NH who were using something I'd never seen before - a Weber Q100, or "Baby Q".

When I got back to Maine I bought one at the local hardware store and have never looked back - to charcoal. These are amazing grills. I think part of it may be that they have a heavy cast iron grill rack with a U-shaped gas burner that primarily heats the cast iron. If you like grill marks, this cooker gives you the best grill marks I've seen.

But, if you're cooking meat, you have to keep an eye on it. These things cook much faster than charcoal.

Edited by Country (log)
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one detail for this method is to put the unseasoned meat in the fridge for an hour. This creates a "cured" texture on the surface of the meat, which helps the smoke to adhere better (tip from Heston in his fish pie recipe, when he smoked haddock in a squirel trap...)

give it a try

HI,

I am confused. Do you actually put the seasoned meat in the fridge for an hour????

Tim

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I'm sorry to take such a hard line but I think gas grills are pretty much worthless. I didn't always feel that way but mine's been collecting dust for years. Actually, it makes a great outdoor storage cabinet. :rolleyes:

To anyone who feels that cooking over charcoal doesn't add flavor, all you have to do is taste product cooked over charcoal and product cooked over gas side by side and you will be forever dispelled of that notion. For example, charcoal cooking turns beef tenderloin into something nearly edible but cooking the same cut over gas does not produce results that are even close to as palatable.

=R=

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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I'm sorry to take such a hard line but I think gas grills are pretty much worthless.

=R=

Well and succinctly said. Give the man a cigar.

Or, perhaps, a rib.

Whatever.

I agree with you wholeheartedly. Gas is good for reheating stuff, that's about it.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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I'm sorry to take such a hard line but I think gas grills are pretty much worthless. I didn't always feel that way but mine's been collecting dust for years. Actually, it makes a great outdoor storage cabinet.

Hmmm, thats a pretty rash statement. I think I turn out some damn tasty food on my gas grill. And, I dont have to wait 30 minutes before I can place food on it. I love my gas grill, I'd take it anyday over charcoal.

To each her own I guess.

gallery_25969_665_361350.jpg

This was great. I used a rub and nothing else and it was so moist and flavorful.

Edited by CaliPoutine (log)
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To anyone who feels that cooking over charcoal doesn't add flavor...

When I've purchased good cuts of beef, at some cost, I want to taste the beef and not the charcoal flavoring. This was not always the case, until I came across the Weber Q. Really, dedicated charcoal lovers should try one. As I wrote above, I think it has something to do with the heavy cast iron grill rack - that one preheats on high for a good ten minutes or more before cooking.

I know I'm sounding like a salesman for Weber, but this thing works. Something I never found in other gas grills I'd encountered at friends' and family get-togethers. I was a dedicated charcoal lover and even built my own charcoal grill (being in the steel business and having designed and built a number of woodstoves), and the charcoal cooker I built was better than most. It's now sitting, unused, in my backyard.

PS. If I want smoke in my meat I'll use the Cookshack smoker.

Edited by Country (log)
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I'm sorry to take such a hard line but I think gas grills are pretty much worthless. I didn't always feel that way but mine's been collecting dust for years. Actually, it makes a great outdoor storage cabinet.

Hmmm, thats a pretty rash statement. I think I turn out some damn tasty food on my gas grill. And, I dont have to wait 30 minutes before I can place food on it. I love my gas grill, I'd take it anyday over charcoal.

To each her own I guess.

Worthless? Well, some people just know how to maximize their gas grills. I'm with Cali on the gas grill and I can easily infuse fruit wood smoke if it calls for a long smoking time. Just be creative.

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I'm sorry to take such a hard line but I think gas grills are pretty much worthless. I didn't always feel that way but mine's been collecting dust for years. Actually, it makes a great outdoor storage cabinet.

Hmmm, thats a pretty rash statement. I think I turn out some damn tasty food on my gas grill. And, I dont have to wait 30 minutes before I can place food on it. I love my gas grill, I'd take it anyday over charcoal.

To each her own I guess.

Worthless? Well, some people just know how to maximize their gas grills. I'm with Cali on the gas grill and I can easily infuse fruit wood smoke if it calls for a long smoking time. Just be creative.

I can do that too and it's not the same . . . not even close.

=R=

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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one detail for this method is to put the unseasoned meat in the fridge for an hour. This creates a "cured" texture on the surface of the meat, which helps the smoke to adhere better (tip from Heston in his fish pie recipe, when he smoked haddock in a squirel trap...)

give it a try

HI,

I am confused. Do you actually put the seasoned meat in the fridge for an hour????

Tim

no, unseasoned meat, but without covering it with anything so it dries up on the surface (due to the fridge's very low humidity)

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I had always used charcoal. Then I came to live with a man who was in the propane business. (Picture Hank Hill) No charcoal for him.

Once again I'm using charcoal because no gas grill I have ever used gets the right heat. The newer ones may cook hotter but I haven't tried any of the newer models.

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When I've purchased good cuts of beef, at some cost, I want to taste the beef and not the charcoal flavoring. This was not always the case, until I came across the Weber Q. Really, dedicated charcoal lovers should try one. As I wrote above, I think it has something to do with the heavy cast iron grill rack - that one preheats on high for a good ten minutes or more before cooking.

My desire to change from charcoal to gas was motivated solely by convenience. Charcoal grills get fantastic results, but if you have limited time or energy and like grilled foods on a regular basis, even in a mild winter, gas is easier. Now I don't think twice about grilling and probably grill ten times more often than I did with a charcoal grill. That counts for a lot. I wouldn't dispute the superior taste that can be had with wood or charcoal when a practiced chef is on duty, but on the other hand, with a little talent and experimenting, a steak or rotisserie chicken cooked on a gas grill is awfully damned good.

One of my main concerns about going to gas was that many of the gas grills I checked out did not have cast iron grill racks. We ended up buying a very modest Weber Genesis for which we were able to order replacement cast iron racks. They don't present a sticking problem and they get plenty hot enough to make for beautiful dark criss-cross grill marks.

I know people who really enjoy making a wood or charcoal fire. More power to them! Invite me over! If anyone in my household was so motivated and cared enough to do it at the drop of a hat when tired and hungry I might be the proud owner of a charcoal grill. I might dig a pit and grow my own hickory trees! But all things considered, I get delicious smoky grilled carcinogenic food while I kick back with a gin & tonic and give no thought to my heat source. So what's better, charcoal or gas? Life's too short to argue about it. If it gives you pleasure, bring on the fancy wood. Or turn on the gas.

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Let's have an experiment. Who here has both gas and charcoal grills?

I have both - and I still have real charcoal left from when I was using charcoal.

And..... (drumbeat) - today I scored a beautiful swordfish steak caught on the Grand Banks - not Mexico, etc. So, if the weather is good tomorrow afternoon or evening, I'll split the steak in two and cook one piece on the Weber Baby Q (gas grill), and one piece on the charcoal. Only addition to the steaks before cooking will be sea salt and ground black pepper, and some Colavita evoo. Maybe Lucini, but probably Colavita.

So, if the weather cooperates, which is now looking a little iffy, I'll try to do an honest test.

Edited by Country (log)
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So what's better, charcoal or gas? Life's too short to argue about it. If it gives you pleasure, bring on the fancy wood. Or turn on the gas

Katie Meadow shows true wisdom in the above statement. Good food can be made using either method. I encourage all to make those grates hot, using whatever source you have, and cook something good on it.

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A note on what was to be my test of grilling swordfish on gas and charcoal. The friend that would have joined me in this taste test was in Provincetown, and the steak was too large for just myself, so I froze half and grilled the other half on the Baby Q. This was my first time grilling swordfish on gas and I have to say it came out great. Great taste, great grill marks and, above all, moist. As I remember, when grilling swordfish on charcoal it came out fairly dry, though good tasting.

Anyhow, once again I'm more than happy with the results from the Baby Q, and I can't imagine going back to charcoal.

Edited by Country (log)
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As I remember, when grilling swordfish on charcoal it came out fairly dry, though good tasting.

Anyhow, once again I'm more than happy with the results from the Baby Q, and I can't imagine going back to charcoal.

I agree that it's certainly great to use either method - shoot, as long as you're cookin' and if I was able to use a gas grill, I'd be firing that bad boy up daily...however, if something comes out fairly dry it isn't due to the use of charcoal - it's either product based or operator based.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Folks should definitely use whichever method they prefer. For me, though, the days of cooking over gas outdoors are in the rear-view mirror because the results when cooking over charcoal are superior. If I don't want that particular flavor, I'll simply cook indoors. A lump charcoal fire burns much hotter than gas, which also benefits many foods that are typically grilled.

As for the time factor, I can be cooking over lump charcoal in 15 minutes via the use of a chimney and a wad of newspaper. That's just enough time to prep the meat for the grill, so it doesn't really slow down the overall process at all.

=R=

Edited by ronnie_suburban (log)

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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I find this topic interesting as I will be buying a grill soon. One thing that hasn't been mentioned is that the cost of a decent charcoal grill is much much cheaper than a decent gas grill.

A quick question if you don't mind me derailing the thread, what do you do with the lit charcoal when you're done cooking? Do you just hang around waiting for it to die out, or can you extinguish it somehow?

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I strictly use charcoal.. If I wanted to use a gas grill, I would just cook on a cast iron on the stove top... I have a bunch of grills but, my go to is the Big Green Egg.. I use an electric charcoal starter that I paid 15 bucks for.. The grill is up and going in 15 minutes..

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I use charcoal for two reasons, neither of which has anything to do with flavor. First, the upfront cost was lower and I was feeling broke at the Lowe's that day. Second, because I enjoy grilling over charcoal. I admit, I am something of a "method man," that is, I enjoy the process of cooking as much as the result. I have certainly been known to over-complicate cooking projects, and this knowledge does not bother me: I like cooking. There is something very Neanderthal about tossing a big steak on a pile of burning embers, and I am quite fond of it. It helps that the results taste good, of course, but if they tasted exactly the same as with gas, I'd still choose charcoal because I think it's more fun :smile: .

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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