The Differences Between Gas and Charcoal Grills

And how to choose the right grill for your home.

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A T-bone steak on a grill with flames flaring up.
You'll get flavorful flare-ups no matter what heat source you use. Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt

Gas versus charcoal. Every year there are dozens of articles on the same subject. Gas is so convenient! Charcoal gives you smoke flavor! Gas grills are more expensive! Charcoal doesn't cook as long! Yadda yadda yadda. In the past, I'd tune it all out. I had only enough space and money for one grill, and that was a charcoal-fueled Weber kettle. The decision was already made for me, not that I would have had it any other way.

I understand where the charcoal snobs are coming from. Really, I do. I used to be one. I was one of those folks who swore up and down that I'd never get a gas grill. That I might as well be cooking indoors if I started cooking on gas. That the price of a gas grill compared to a charcoal grill made it an absolute no-brainer.

It must have been my destiny to eventually fall to the dark side, because I have fallen, and I've fallen hard. With a new yard and a little bit more space now that I've moved out to the suburbs, earlier this summer I finally did the unthinkable and got myself a gas grill. With the blessing of our friends at AmazingRibs.com, I took the advice of our own Guide to the Best Gas Grills and picked up a Broil King Baron.

At first I thought it might just be the thrill of breaking in a new toy. But it's been well over two months now, past the honeymoon stage and into the stage of a normal-use routine. I still use my gas grill at least twice as often as I use my charcoal grill. It's particularly useful on weeknights, when I want dinner on the table fast and with minimal fuss.

And before you ask why I'm writing an article about gas versus charcoal grills at the end of the summer, it's because that's how long it took me to cook my way through all the tests I wanted to perform to really squash my skepticism and get to the truth about the differences between the two options. Turns out that much of what has been written on the subject is true. No deep myth-busting here today—just good, solid, evidence-based support.

Let's get down to brass tacks.

Gas vs. Charcoal, at a Glance

  Gas  Charcoal 
Price  $500+ for a good one  $99 and up 
Flavor  Good for fast-cooking foods  Superior for slow cooks 
Smoking  Difficult to trap smoke  Made for smoking 
Temperature Range  Around 225°F to 600°F (with no infrared sear zone)  As low as you want to 1200°F and up 
Temperature Control  Very easy to set and maintain  Requires practice and constant attention 
Fire-Up/Cool-Down Time  5 to 10 minutes  About 30 minutes 
Clean-Up  Occasionally emptying grease trap and cleaning bars  Regularly disposing of ash and cleaning bars 

Price

You can get yourself a basic Weber kettle grill for around $120, or $175 if you want the one with the bells and whistles. You could pay more if you want something larger or more stylish, but even the $120 version is gonna last you for years and years. (See our guide to The Best Charcoal Grills Under $500, again courtesy of our friends from AmazingRibs.com.) There's really no reason to spend more than that.

A gas grill, on the other hand, has more moving parts and is going to cost you more. Sure, you can pick up the $99 models from the parking lot in front of the big-box stores, but then you're getting a grill that's going to last you a couple of seasons at best before it starts to rust and collapse. Take a good look at those grills on display and count how many of them are bent, buckled, dented, or dinged. A good bet says it's over 50%. For a solid grill that's going to last you many years, you can expect to drop at least a few hundred dollars, and up to thousands for a top-of-the-line model.

Point: Charcoal

Flavor

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All things being equal, the flavor in quick-cooking foods, like steaks or burgers, cooked on gas is indistinguishable from the flavor of foods cooked on charcoal.

It's easy to imagine that a live, solid fuel source, like hardwood or lump charcoal, would produce more smoke and therefore a more "grill-flavored" finished product, but side-by-side testing shows that this is not necessarily the case.

Propane or natural gas burns relatively clean. The by-products of their combustion are mostly just water vapor and carbon dioxide. Charcoal, on the other hand, produces a whole host of other molecules, some of which can indeed land on your food and flavor it. At the same time, there's a competing source of flavor: vaporized drippings from your food. The little sizzles, pops, and flare-ups you get as your burger drips juices (mostly fat, water, and dissolved proteins) onto the hot grill burner bars or coals. As those proteins and fats burn up, they create new aromatic compounds that get deposited right back onto your meat as it cooks. This happens regardless, whether your heat source is charcoal or gas.

So the question is: Is the flavor of the aromatic compounds produced by the charcoal itself strong enough to be noticeable through the compounds created by sizzling drippings?

For short-cooking, high-heat foods, like steaks, burgers, pork chops, fish, or vegetables, the answer is no. Given the same heat output and cooking time, you won't be able to tell the difference between a burger cooked on gas versus one cooked on charcoal.

For long-cooking foods cooked via indirect heat, like ribs, brisket, and other types of barbecue, you get a noticeably smokier flavor in foods cooked over charcoal. This makes sense: With indirect cooking, there's very little vaporization of drippings, so any and all smoky flavor is coming from the charcoal itself, deposited on the meat gradually throughout the long cooking process.

But that's obviously not the whole story. For quick-cooking foods, there's the question of thermal output in charcoal versus gas (is one hotter than the other?); for low-and-slow foods, we need to address temperature control and our ability to add smoke separately. Let's take a look at those questions one at a time.

Point: Charcoal

Smoking

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The mechanics of smoking go something like this: As wood smolders, it releases a slew of water-soluble compounds that make their way into the atmosphere via water vapor, which is created during the combustion process. As that smoke-filled vapor makes its way over to the meat, it condenses on the relatively cool surface, forming teeny-tiny droplets of water still packed with those flavorful compounds. Over time, that water will evaporate once again, this time leaving behind the smoky flavor and a dark, brownish residue.

To smoke on a charcoal grill, all you have to do is toss chunks of wood directly on the coals. With a gas grill, you'll need to put the wood in a foil packet and place it below the burners, close to the flames. (I cheat and just put the naked wood directly on the fuel bar deflectors. I'm pretty sure that voids my warranty.)

To allow smoke to really work its magic, you need to keep your meat and your smoke source in a chamber that's open enough to allow combustion of the wood (since combustion requires an oxygen source), yet closed enough that the smoke is trapped together with the food long enough to condense. This is where one of the big differences between charcoal and gas grills comes into play.

Most charcoal grills, like your standard Weber kettle, can seal up pretty tightly. Close the bottom and top vents, put on the lid, and you've created an environment that, while not quite hermetically sealed, will greatly restrict the movement of air (or smoke) in and out. In fact, close up those vents all the way, and eventually you'll starve the coals of oxygen and they'll stop burning completely.

A gas grill, on the other hand, doesn't seal particularly well. This is by design and is intended as a safety measure. A gas grill's burners will spit out gas whether they're actually burning the fuel or not—so what would happen if you were to completely seal a gas grill? Eventually, all the oxygen inside would be used up and the flames would die out, but gas would keep on pumping, filling the entire grill with highly combustible fuel. All it would take then is a tiny spark, and BOOM.

Because of this, getting smoke flavor into your meat—even with long-cooking foods and a whole bundle of wood chunks—is difficult with a gas grill.

Point: Charcoal

Temperature Extremes

Now we're getting to the real meat of the matter: maximum and minimum temperatures. Coal beats out gas at both extremes. It's easy to fall into the trap of measuring heat by the temperature at a given area in your grill, but temperature is not really the most important factor if you're trying to figure out how fast something will brown or cook. What actually matters, as Meathead over at AmazingRibs.com will tell you, is a measure called heat flux. That's the amount of energy (measured in British thermal units, or BTU) that a grill puts out, divided by the area of the cooking surface. What this gives you is an accurate depiction of how quickly food will sear when placed on the grill.

For instance, a Broil-Mate 165154 LP Gas Grill (one of our recommended gas grills under $500) has burners that can put out 40,000 BTU of heat. Divide that by the 400-square-inch cooking area, and you get heat flux of 100 BTU/square inch, a very respectable heat output. A larger grill with the same BTU rating will have lower heat flux, while a smaller one will have higher. Get it?

A charcoal grill's heat flux depends on how much coal you ignite and how you arrange it. Coal produces around 10,000 BTU per pound, and I'll typically burn around two pounds of coal for a short cooking session. That's a total of 20,000 BTU, which, if spread out over an entire 20-inch Weber kettle grill, is only about 64 BTU/square inch. However, pile that all up under half of the grill or less, and you're in 130 BTU/square inch–plus territory. The maximum is limited only by the amount of coal you can fit under the grill.

Simply put, charcoal sears faster and hotter than gas. But it's important to note that searing isn't everything. Most of the stuff you do on a grill doesn't require those ridiculously high temperatures.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, charcoal also beats out gas. The low end of the range for a gas grill is limited by the size of flame that can be safely created without risk of it blowing out and leaking un-combusted fuel into the grill box. Even at the very lowest setting, your gas grill is producing a fair amount of heat energy. With charcoal, there is no limit to how slowly you can combust fuel and heat your box. Again, though, as with the high temperatures, the times when you'll want to go below the limit of a decent gas grill are few and far between.

Point: Charcoal

Heat Management: The Lids Ain't the Same

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Gas grills do much more of their heating through conduction via the grill bars than charcoal grills, which cook mostly via radiation.

One thing that folks who cook regularly on both gas and charcoal may notice: Optimal lid configuration for cooking differs depending on the heat source. With a charcoal grill, closing the lid will cut oxygen flow, effectively stifling the flame and lowering your heat flux, while leaving it open will maximize oxygen flow to your fuel and thus get it to burn hotter. With a gas grill, the exact opposite happens: Closing the lid will not affect the rate at which your gas flame burns, but it will prevent excess heat from escaping into the atmosphere, making the grill hotter. For this reason, gas grills with stainless steel construction and internal heat deflectors also work more efficiently than single-walled grills with aluminum construction.

This makes a big difference when you're trying to sear a piece of meat. For the best sear on a charcoal grill, after preheating, remove the lid and let the coals really get going before you place your meat over them. With a gas grill, close the cover and let the air and grill bars get ripping hot until just before you add your meat.

The other side effect of this is that with a charcoal grill, the most intense heat comes via radiation and convection directly from the coals; the grill bars are really just there to keep your meat from falling into the fire. With a gas grill, on the other hand, most of the heat that gets into your meat comes from conduction through the heavier grill grates. There's very little infrared or convection heat when compared with charcoal grills. The result is that meat cooked on a coal grill will brown much more evenly, and the spaces in between the grill grates will most likely brown and crisp more heavily than those parts in direct contact with the grill grates. With a gas grill, it's the opposite: You'll get heavy grill marks from the grills themselves, while the areas that don't come into direct contact with metal will stay relatively pale.

Beyond cosmetics, why does this matter ? With more areas exposed to high heat, you get more browning and crusting on a charcoal grill, which in turn leads to better flavor and texture. However, some modern gas grills do have "infrared" cooking zones, which are designed to behave more like a coal grill's radiant heat. Your mileage on their effectiveness will vary by brand.

Long story short:

  • With a charcoal grill, closing the lid will lower the heat.
  • With a gas grill, closing the lid will raise the heat.

Point: Charcoal

Temperature Control

So far, four points for charcoal and none for gas. But this article is supposed to be about how I love my gas grill, right? Don't worry. There are a couple of points coming for gas, and they're big ones. First: temperature control.

Controlling the temperature on a charcoal grill is notoriously difficult—there are just so many moving parts. First, there's the fuel source. Charcoal briquettes are relatively consistent, but the way you stack them or arrange them isn't. Lump hardwood is terribly inconsistent, with some large pieces that burn moderately fast, small pieces that burn really fast, and tiny, dusty pieces that can actually smother and dampen a flame. Then there's oxygen supply. Top vents and bottom vents, relative orientation, how much the lid is cracked, how windy the day is—all of this affects the efficiency of the burn, and thus the temperature inside the grill. And, for prolonged cooks (say, a six- to 10-hour brisket), the coal will need regular topping-up and monitoring.

A gas grill has none of these problems. Get your burners set to the right level, check that your temperature is holding steady, then walk away. It'll stay there, completely consistent, until you come back or the fuel runs out (whichever comes first). That kind of set-it-and-forget-it convenience is fantastic for ribs and brisket, giving you more free time to work in the kitchen or just hang around and kick back a few beers.

Point: Gas

Fire-Up and Cool-Down Time

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Charcoal takes more time to preheat.

This is where gas really shines, and, to be honest, it's the single reason why the majority of my grilling sessions have been gas-based ever since I got myself a gas grill. Even with a charcoal chimney (and you do use a chimney to light your fuel, right?), a charcoal grill takes at least half an hour from the time you ignite the coals until the time you're ready to cook. Not only that, but once you light those coals, you're on a countdown timer. Did you realize that you forgot an essential ingredient in your sauce and now you have to remake it? Too bad: The coals wait for no one.

Turning a gas grill on is as simple as turning on your stovetop. Turn a knob or two, let it ignite, and that's it. Close the lid to let it preheat, and you're ready to cook in 10 minutes or less. What's more, the gas grill will wait for you if you need extra time.

On the flip side, gas is also easier after you're done cooking. Turn the knob—flames go out. Charcoal has to burn out naturally or be stifled by suffocation with the lid. Because of this, I always feel like I'm wasting fuel if I don't continue cooking until the charcoal has no heat left to give. Whether I'm cooking a couple of burgers and hot dogs or grill-roasting a dozen chicken legs for a party, I start with the same amount of coal. Not a very efficient way to go about it.

Point: Gas

Clean-Up

This is a no-brainer. Charcoal grills leave ash to contend with. The ash collection tray in the cheapest Weber kettles will leave your deck or yard scattered with dusty ashes at the slightest breeze. The internal collection on the premium grills does better, but it's still not mess-free. Gas grills have deflectors or rocks that are designed to prevent flare-ups and to channel any grease or drippings into collection trays. Clean-up is as simple as emptying out that tray whenever it gets full. Of course, with both charcoal and gas grills, you'll also have to occasionally scrub down the cooking grates and the internal grates as crud builds up over time.

Point: Gas

The Final Countdown

At the end of the day, the real measure comes down to this: Which one do I get the most utility and pleasure out of? Certainly, there's something ritualistic about lighting a live charcoal fire and taming the flames with careful control of ventilation and placement, not to mention tending a long-cooking piece of meat throughout the afternoon or night. Then again, the joy I get from being able to step outside my kitchen door, turn a knob, cook, then shut the gas grill right off when I'm done cooking—well, it's difficult to place a value on that, but it's high. Grilling used to be a special occasion that occurred maybe once or twice a week. Now it's something I can do any time, any night, with no real forethought.

Gas, you may never completely replace coal in my heart, but luckily, as far as I know, there are currently no California laws against poly-grill-ory. Let's hope that we continue to be as open-minded and enlightened into the future.