Gas Versus Charcoal: Summer’s Most Important Decision

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Gas or charcoal grilling: It's "the grate debate," according to grilling guru Steven Raichlen. Gas grills are good for people who like how easy they are to start and clean up, says BBQ queen 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.

Price Range

Gas
The most popularly priced gas grills are $129 to $299, while grills with more features will run between $800 and $1,500 and well beyond.

Charcoal

On the low end you can get something for about $25. A basic Weber kettle is around $150, while more deluxe models are upward of $600.

Temperature Range / BTUs

Gas
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).

Charcoal
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.

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Assembly

Gas
Gas grills are more complicated to assemble than charcoal; you'll need about two hours for a midrange model.

Charcoal
With charcoal grills, you're looking at a half-hour setup, tops.

Time to Start /Heat Up

Gas
Gas grills light instantly, and take about 10 minutes to heat up.

Charcoal
Charcoal grills require time to light the charcoal, and 15 to 20 minutes to reach cooking temperature.

Cost of Fuel

Gas
It costs around $30 to fill a standard 20-pound propane cylinder, which yields about 20 hours of cook time. That equals $1.50 an hour to cook on gas.

Charcoal
A large chimney starter holds about six quarts of charcoal. Six quarts of a high-quality sustainably sourced lump charcoal will cost you about $5.50. The equivalent quality in briquettes would be about $4.30.

Upkeep / Maintenance

Gas
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.

Charcoal
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

Gas
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.

Charcoal
You’ll have to clean out the ashes often and brush the grates every time you use the grill.

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Taste / Cooking Style

Gas
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.

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

Features to Look for When Buying

Gas
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?

Charcoal
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.

Grill a Little Greener

If either gas or charcoal grills were a clear environmental winner, the decision of what to use would be much easier. But it’s not that straightforward. Charcoal grills release about twice as much carbon dioxide per hour as gas grills do, roughly 11 pounds versus 5.6, says the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. But charcoal comes from trees, which absorb carbon as they grow, making the emissions net zero. Still, groups like the Sierra Club advocate gas grills because they are cleaner burning.

Though there doesn’t seem to be an obvious ecofriendly choice when it comes to what fuels your grill, there are still a few things you can do to lessen the environmental impact of your weekend barbecue.

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Use Nontoxic Cleaners
It’s best to clean your grill with a heavy-duty grill brush and some elbow grease, but if you’re going to use a spray-on cleaner, go for one that’s nontoxic. Two options are SoyClean BBQ Grill Cleaner and Simple Green Heavy Duty BBQ & Grill Cleaner.

Buy Sustainable Charcoal
If you’re buying lump charcoal, look for brands like Wicked Good, Nature’s Own Chunk Charwood, and the Original Charcoal Company, which are made from sustainably harvested wood. Lazzari also produces a 100 percent mesquite lump charcoal made from prunings, dead and fallen wood, and selectively harvested wood.

If you opt for briquettes, avoid instant-light varieties—they’re soaked in petroleum products—and conventional briquettes that use fillers like coal dust and petroleum binders. Greenlink makes briquettes from waste coconut shells and a food-grade binder. Wicked Good sells a briquette made from the same sustainably harvested wood as its lump charcoal.

Grill Good Food
What’s on top of your grate is just as important as what’s underneath it. Try to use seasonal, local, and organic produce and meats. For ideas on how to shop for ecofriendly meat, check out our tips for environmentally responsible carnivores.

Put Down the Lighter Fluid!
There’s no need to use toxic lighter fluid to ignite charcoal when you can use a chimney starter. They’re simple: Stuff some old newspaper in the bottom, fill the top with charcoal, and light the paper. At around $10 to $15, they’re also cheap. Plus, your food won’t have any off flavors from unburned lighter fluid residue. Check out this video to see a chimney starter in action. You can also make one out of an old coffee can by removing both ends, using a church key bottle opener to cut holes around the bottom rim, placing the chimney on top of your grill, and proceeding with the newspaper, charcoal, and ignition.

And don't forget to cook delicious recipes on your grill!

1. Grilled Chicken with Nectarine BBQ Sauce

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This fruity twist on standard barbecue sauce is great with pork tenderloin or chops, or—as you see it here—slathered on grilled chicken. Get our Grilled Chicken with Nectarine BBQ Sauce recipe.

2. Grilled Corn with Soy and Mirin

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For a healthier option with some Japanese flair, try a simple mixture of soy sauce and mirin: It adds a hint of savory flavor while letting the sweet, smoky intensity of the grilled corn come through. Get our Grilled Corn with Soy and Mirin recipe.

3. Grilled Shishito Peppers

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Delicately sweet and usually mild, they are an easy snack to throw on the grill. Simply toss with olive oil, cook on a hot grill, and sprinkle with togarashi (a Japanese spice mix) and coarse salt. Get our Grilled Shishito Peppers recipe.

4. Mexican BBQ Chicken

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A recipe inspired by Mexico’s pollo al carbon, chickens marinated and cooked on huge charcoal grills. The marinade contains achiote paste, chopped cilantro, jalapeños, garlic, lime, and orange juice. Get our Mexican BBQ Chicken recipe.

5. Thai Grilled Chicken Breasts

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“When the fashion fades you tend to be left with the good ones and the pop-ups move onto something else.” Get our Thai Grilled Chicken Breasts recipe.

Roxanne Webber wrote the original version of this post.