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Gas or Charcoal Grill, what is the best?

A charcoal vs gas grill, which one is best for you?

When purchasing a grill, your first important consideration is deciding on a charcoal vs gas grill.  Here are the pros and cons of charcoal vs gas grills and the benefits of each.  If you don’t want to read this whole article, then just know this; charcoal grills produce the best tasting food and gas grills are more convenient.  Curious for the details?  OK, let’s dive in.

The taste of grilled food with the ultimate sear;

Regardless of the dilemma of charcoal vs gas, they taste of the food is the main reason why people like to grill their food rather than prepare it in the oven, on the stove or even in the microwave.  Grilling food adds flavor that you simply can not get any other way.  The added taste you get is two parts; searing of the food and smoke flavor. 

When heating proteins with carbohydrates (sugars), something amazing happens: the Maillard reaction.  This is the absolute most significant contribution to flavor.  Just think of toasted bread compared to regular bread, seared tuna compared to raw tuna, grilled meats and vegetables compared to raw.  The seared result in each case is much richer and more delightfully complex in flavor.  This amazing process reorganizes aromatic compounds into entirely new flavors. In other words, in the seared versions we get flavors that are completely absent in the original.

To achieve this, your grill needs to be able to reach at least 500°F.  When food sears, it transforms the food surface by drying it out and making it more crispy.  Searing happens when amino acids react with sugars under high heat.  This is why baked bread, roasted coffee, seared steaks and searing pork chops smell so good!  On charcoal / wood barbecues, the searing is done by the infrared heat generated by the wood or charcoal.  Gas grills only heat the food indirectly and are therefore ill suited for searing.  There are some high end gas grills that have special sear burners installed but these are typically small and have very limited space (because of limited gas flow).  Without these sear burners, most gas grills simply do not get hot enough to properly sear food.  If you want taste, charcoal / wood grills are king.

Most gas grills do not get hot enough to sear food but will be able to “brown” food.  Browning meats and vegetables starts the “Maillard” reaction where amino acids react with the sugars in the food.  The process starts around 250°F.  Browning usually results in surface dehydration and crispness and causes a difference in texture between the surface and the interior of the food.  This very difference in texture and flavor is absolutely delicious!  Any food heated to the point of achieving the Maillard reaction can also develop savory aromas and earthy flavors in addition to the flavors of caramelization.  Caramelization is a closely related process but results in a similar metamorphoses.  Just think of caramelized unions, Brussels Sprouts, Asparagus or even browned ‘Smores compared to their raw form.  Having a grill that does not get hot enough for searing means that you will not get the proper caramelized and crispy outside texture without overcooking the inside of the food.  This is the taste and texture difference that makes seared food taste so pleasing.  While browning food can be done on either a gas or charcoal grill, only the charcoal grill will sear at 500°F - 800°F temperatures.  To properly sear food, you’ll thus need a charcoal or wood fired grill.

Browning is the grillers secret weapon of flavoring technique but it must be done with care. If the heat is uneven or too high, the food can go straight past golden deliciousness to charred.  (nobody likes charred food and it is unhealthy.)  On the other hand, don’t sear your steak too timid as you will overcook it before the outside has a chance to brown.  The charcoal grill shines when using the higher heat to brown the surface of meats and quickly cook tender cuts such as steaks and chops to perfection without overcooking the inside. Also try the reverse searing method on tougher cuts of meat like a brisket.  Use low heat to gently bring the inside temperature up and keep it from drying out.  Once the inside is at temperature and tender, put it over high heat for searing.  With a little experience you will learn to take browning right to the edge where the most of the flavors is.  

Hey, wait a minute!  Most steak restaurants use gas!  Yes, you are right but they use gas broilers capable of temperatures of 800°F - 1200°F.  This is why the part of the steak facing the broilers has that spectacular edge to edge sear while not overcooking the inside.  This is exactly what we are trying to achieve.  Most consumer gas grills just don’t flow enough gas to produce these kind of temperatures.  Direct permanent gas lines can be better if the increased gas flow is not restricted by the valves or burners.  If you want seared food on a gas grill, make sure your gas grill choice can achieve at least 500°F or higher (800°F ideally).  Gas grills that do so are few and far between so make sure you do your research….  Charcoal grills on the other hand can easily achieve 500°F - 800°F temperatures.

Reverse searing the perfect steak.

The “reverse searing” method is a great way for grilling steaks.  Even thicker cuts can be medium rare on the inside and have a perfect sear on the outside.  Using the reverse sear method makes it easier to control the grilling process as it happens slower.  Also, it is a myth that searing locks in the juices.  This simply is not true.  To get your perfect steak takes practice but here is the basic reverse searing process.  Get the steaks internal temperature where you want it using a thermometer.  Allow for the temperature to still rise during searing and after the steak rests (this is where experience comes in).  As a rule of thumb; if your target temperature is a medium rare 140°F, you need to start searing at 120°F because the temperature will continue to rise another 20°F or so (depending on steak thickness).  Once seared, take the steak off the grill and let it rest at least 5 minutes.  This will get you a perfectly seared steak that is at the exact internal temperature you want, every time.

How to sous-vide then grill the perfect steak.

Many steak restaurants use a sous vide to get steaks tender and up to the right internal temperature.  The temperature of choice seems to be 136°F.  You can sous vide your steak for just a few hours and taste a noticeable difference.  You will find the steaks to be softer and more tender once they come out of the sous vide.  So to get the perfect, tender stake with the perfect sear, you just might have to get a sous vide machine as well as a charcoal grill!  For a great sear, pat your steak dry after you take it out of the sous vide.  Then put it on the grill of at least 500°F.  Hotter is definitely better!  Sear the steak at 500°F for just 1 minute or so per side but don’t over do it!  Remember, it is just the very outside layer we want to caramelize and sear as the meat is already medium rare on the inside from the sous vide!  Having the grill hotter gives a better sear in less time and better results.

The taste of grilled food with added delicious smokey flavor;

Smoke adds  flavor of your food unlike anything else.  Smoke is produced when there is not enough oxygen to completely burn the available fuel, in our case charcoal or wood.  In a 100% complete burn, only water and carbon dioxide are left. With an incomplete burn, smoke results in the form of tiny unburned particles.  This is what you see and smell.  So when you get too much smoke, there actually is a lack of oxygen for the fire to burn completely.  Smoke comes from the food drippings like marinade, sauces or juices that fall onto the charcoal and from any wood we add.  The longer you leave your food on the grill, the longer it has a chance to absorb the smoke flavor.  You will also find that porous foods like bread, quickly absorb lots of smokey flavors.  Experimenting with various wood kinds that produce different smoke flavor profiles is a charcoal grill advantage.  Wood plays a key role in creating the flavors we know and love.  Whereas hickory is great for giving a bold and rich flavor to steaks, alder is the wood of choice for salmon.  The building block of wood is lignin which gives wood its unique characteristics.  Then there are many other building blocks that slightly differ for each type of wood.  It is these components that give each type its unique smoke characteristic. 

Charcoal is 99% carbon and by itself does not produce much smoke at all.  The smoke of the grill actually comes from the drippings (oils, grease, sauce, proteins) that drip onto the charcoal.  To make specific flavors of smoke, wood or wood chunks can be added to the charcoal.  This will produce more smoke for the food to absorb.  It is difficult to add wood or wood chunks to a gas grill so we have to forfeit this flavor benefit for gas grills.  It is possible to use a “smoke box” but even then, the lid often does not seal well enough to trap the smoke long enough to induce much flavor in the food.  To help you in your quest for achieving the perfect smoke flavor, here are the most common types of wood and what they are recommended for;

Wood types best for grilling

Applewood: sweet and somewhat fruity in flavor, this is great for beef, pork, lamb, poultry and some seafoods.

Alder: this is often the go-to wood sort as it is generally well liked by everyone.  It is sweet, delicate and has an overall great taste.  Great for seafood or vegetables.  Good overall wood choice that is sure to please everyone.

Cherry: mild and fruity in flavor that pairs well with all meats and won’t overpower the taste of seafoods.

Hickory: sweet, strong and distinct flavor, almost bacon like. Because of this, it is the go to for many grillers.  Great for pairing with pork or chicken.

Maple: sweet, light and very mild in flavor.  Great for poultry.

Mesquite: very distinct strong earthy flavor that pairs well with dark meats like brisket.

Oak: Medium strong, classic smoke flavor, works well with just about every type of meat.

Pecan: Sweet, rich and nutty, similar to what hickory tastes like.  Also great for poultry.

Walnut: strong, intense heavy some flavor that can push being bitter tasting, good for wild game.

Temperature control of your charcoal vs gas grill

Ease of temperature control of charcoal vs gas grills is often a consideration.  Realize though that gas controls are not as accurate as you might think.  Setting your gas dial to a temperature that results in 250°F one day may give you very different results another day.  Setting your dial to the exact same position will result in completely different temperatures on a 85°F sunny afternoon then it will on a windy, rainy winter evening.  The dial setting that gave you 250°F on a 70°F Sunday morning might only give you 200°F on a cool, windy, rainy evening but 300°F on a that 85°F bright sunny afternoon.  With experience, you will learn to allow for this.

Most food can be perfectly cooked between 250°F and 350°F.   Having your grill much hotter than that tends to overcook and dry out food more than grill it to perfection.  Controlling the temperature on a gas grill can be easier than doing so on a charcoal grill.  With a thermometer and good dials, setting up a gas grill is quick.  Getting the temperature right on a charcoal grill will take more practice.

Most charcoal and gas grills have temperature probes mounted on the lid.  These will give you an average temperature of the space above your food, not on the surface that is grilling the food.  These thermometers will not tell you which side of your grill is hotter, they just give an average. This makes these thermometers quite useless unless.  It is imperative to have a good thermometer so you can properly measure your food temperature and / or the actual grilling surface.  Probe thermometers are best for getting accurate internal food temperatures while an infrared thermometer is best to quickly measure cooktop temperature.

Cleaning and maintaining your grill

Cleaning charcoal vs gas grills seems like a no-brainer but consider this.  Gas grills can have carbon and grease build up under the burners that needs to be scraped off or otherwise removed every couple of months. If this isn’t done, this grease can catch on fire and is very difficult to put out!  A fire extinguisher might even be needed!!!  Another maintenance issue is keeping the gas jets and ventures open. Spiders, mice, wasps and other uninvited guests just love to hide down under or in the tubes…. Charcoal grills just have some ashes to be scooped out.  No burners or dials to maintain.

One last thing to consider in your charcoal vs gas decision is that gas actually produces moisture when it burns.  Natural gas is mostly methane.  When one part of methane burns, it releases two parts of water.  This water / steam blankets your food while it grills and keeps it from drying out.  If you grill mostly vegetables and are not interested in charring meats, this might be an important consideration for you.

How does Arteflame tie into the charcoal vs gas dilemma?  So glad you asked!  

Grilling Arteflame style combines the conventional grill grate with a plancha griddle cooktop.  So on Arteflame cooktops, food gets seared in its entirety as the cooktops are flat and solid steel.  Because of this flat solid steel cooktop, you can also sear foods like Brussel Sprouts, Asparagus, Corn, etc. besides the best steaks ever.  This is simply not possible on any traditional charcoal or gas barbecue unless you are using an Arteflame grill insert.  Using the replacement grill grate inserts or burger pucks allow you to sear your food on any grill, charcoal or gas.  With an Arteflame, you are using the entire solid steel cooktop as a griddle.  It grills like a plancha, like a mongolean grill.  This means that it grills all food in its own juices, sauces or marinades.  No juice is lost because it drips away into the fire.  This also means that there is no exposure to direct radiant heat as the steel cooktop absorbs this heat instead.  It in turn transfers it to your food in a much more even manner so there are far fewer hot spots.  This makes grilling easier and produces significantly better tasting food.  Smoke flows all around the cooktop allowing the food to absorb the flavor as it grills to perfection.  If  direct high heat is wanted for searing, use the center grill grate of the Arteflame (charcoal grill sonly).  This center grate can easily heat up to over 800°F. as it sits directly above the heat source and into scorching hot airflow.

 

Here are the pros and cons of charcoal vs gas grills;

 

Pros of gas grills

Easy and convenient

Easy to light, simply push the button

Easy to keep at constant temperature

Quick to heat up, around 10 minutes

Even, predictable heat

Permanent gas hookup gives endless fuel

Water vapor helps keep food moist, good for veggies

No ashes to clean out

 

Cons of gas grills

No smoke flavor

Not able to properly sear food; no seared food taste

More complex, more maintenance

Uncontrollable flare ups can be very hazardous

Plumed in gas lines can’t easily be moved

Gas bottles are very inconvenient and empty at the worst time

 

Pros of charcoal grills

Able to burn wood for great smoke flavor

Great for searing food

Simple, virtually maintenance free designs

More portable

 

Cons of charcoal grills

Takes practice to light and keep at perfect temperature 

Longer heat up time, around 20 minutes

More work to move around the charcoal for even heat

Flare ups burn food

Food can be dry as moisture drips away

Ashes need to be cleaned out

 

In conclusion, charcoal vs gas, which one is best for you?  Getting down to it, if you want the best tasting food then a charcoal grills is the one for you.  If you want pure convenience, then a gas grill will be your best choice.  If you want the most versatile grill that also looks awesome; Arteflame is the one for you!

Arteflame Grill