Gas Versus Charcoal

Gas or charcoal grilling: It’s “the grate debate,” according to Steven Raichlen. Gas grills are good for people who like how easy they are to start and clean up, says 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.

CHOW 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, and clean up; and more. We’ve summarized the options in a chart to help you figure out whether gas or charcoal will be a better fit for your grilling needs. When you’re ready to fire it up, take a look at some grilling tips.

Gas

Charcoal

Price Range

The most popularly priced gas grills are $129 to $299, while grills with more features will run between $700 and $1,500 and well beyond.

On the low end you can get something for about $20. A basic Weber kettle is around $85, while more deluxe models are upward of $400.

Temperature Range / BTUs

Some cheaper models may not get hot enough to sear well (you’ll need to reach about 600 degrees Fahrenheit). But Weber’s website adds that BTUs “are not a measure of cooking power. … Tightly engineered grills use fewer BTUs and cook food 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.

Assembly

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.

Time to Start /
Heat Up

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.

Cost of Fuel

At the time of writing, it cost around $18 to fill a standard 20-pound propane cylinder, which yields about 20 hours of cook time. That equals a little over a dollar an hour to cook on gas.

A large chimney starter holds about six quarts of charcoal. Six quarts of a high-quality sustainably sourced lump charcoal will cost you about $1.70, and the equivalent quality in briquettes would be about $3.35.

Upkeep / Maintenance

You’ll have to check the gas connections and 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, ignitor 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 a gas ignition.

Cleanup

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 clean out the ashes often and brush the grates every time you use the grill.

Taste / Cooking Style

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.

Guaranteed smoky flavor. A charcoal grill may also double as a smoker with a little practice.

Features to Look for When Buying

To be able to do any indirect grilling, you will need at least two 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.

Roxanne Webber is an associate editor at CHOW.