Gas vs. Charcoal Grilling: Where Do You Stand?


It’s summertime and the grilling is easy. It also means it’s grilling season in the food media. In the New York Times over the weekend there was an almost whimsical story about the evolution of the backyard grill.

Apparently the consumer gas grill was developed in 1960 by a fellow named Walter Kozoil. In the ensuing 47 years, gas grills have come to outsell the charcoal variety by roughly 30 percent (10,137,500 gas vs. 6,845,000 charcoal in 2006). The issue that seems to be too hot for any of the magazines or newspapers to touch is the age-old argument about which is better, a gas or a charcoal grill, though the Times piece does mention that many upscale grills now allow you to use both charcoal and gas.

Weigh in and read on about the Battle of the Fuel Sources.

Me, I’m afraid I just use a Weber Kettle Grill (invented in 1952 by Weber employee George Stephen) that I replace when it falls apart, usually every four or five years. Smart man, that Mr. Stephen.

I use hardwood charcoal that I put in a simple chimney starter. I like the taste the charcoal imparts, and I don’t grill enough in the course of a year to worry about the potentially carcinogenic effects of eating meat grilled over charcoal. I have also on occasion used with great success a Big Green Egg, but the model I cooked with had a relatively small grilling surface. It is, however, a great tool to make backyard or rooftop barbecue. My friends and neighbors Kathy and her husband, Roy, have invited me over for killer ribs, brisket, and pork shoulder she makes on her Big Green Egg, which she is slavishly devoted to.

A note about the the health dangers of eating charcoal-grilled food: In the Times piece mentioned above, David Schardt, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says, "We looked at the research a few years ago. There is an inexact risk about consuming meat that has been overly cooked." Apparently, the article went on, "There is some concern about barbecuing: When the food is charred or burned, it forms compounds that are potentially carcinogenic. But someone apparently would have to eat a lot of charred meat for this to become a concern."

Now back to the debate. Steven Raichlen in The Barbecue Bible lists his grilling fuel preferences as wood, hardwood charcoal, and gas, in that order, though he admits he often fires up one of his many gas grills for the the sake of convenience.

Bobby Flay in Boy Meets Grill expresses his preference for his gas grills, because, he says, "the real flavor boost (from grilling) comes from marinades and seasonings, and from quick searing directly over a very hot fire—which a good gas grill does as well as charcoal."

So with chefs, experts, and food media types split like a butterflied chicken on the subject, I’d like to ask the Serious Eats community: Gas or charcoal for grilling and why?