Charcoal vs. Gas: Which Grills the Best?

The charcoal or gas grill debate began the day the first gas grill rolled onto the showroom floor. Both sides have vocal supporters, and both sides have valid arguments. To help you decide which faction to join, here are the pros and cons of each, plus a few tips on what to look for when shopping for your grill.

Charcoal Grills

For some of us, the smell of a charcoal grill takes us right back to childhood summers and those burgers and hot dogs that tasted so much better than anything cooked indoors.

Charcoal Pros

The smoke. The smoke-infused flavor is a big draw for a charcoal grill. To really savor the flavor, skip the lighting fluid — it flavors the meat with petroleum.

2. The Heat. While gas can heat a grill to 500° easily enough, a properly tended charcoal grill can go much higher for those who like meat rare and seared. And if your idea of perfect barbeque involves long, slow, low-temperature cooking, a properly tended charcoal bed can burn all day.

3. The Cost. Charcoal grills cost much less than their gas counterparts, even with all the bells and whistles. And when you factor in the cost of the gas — like the amount you’d need for that all-day grilling — it can really be a money saver.

Charcoal Cons

1. Control: Remember those temperatures we talked about? It takes a lot of practice to get your grill to respond the way you want, and changing temperatures isn't easy. To get more heat, you might need to refill the pit — the belly of the grill — with briquettes.

2. Time: Charcoal grilling takes time. Heating up the coals takes 15 minutes, and heating up the pit takes longer.

3. Clean up: Charcoal grills have to be scrubbed, not heat blasted like you can with gas, and you have to clean the ashes out of the pit.

4. Cold weather: For those who like a grilled steak on New Year's Day, charcoal grills are not easy to keep properly warm in the winter.

5. Air quality: Charcoal grills pollute. That’s why some cities have banned them.

What to look for: High-quality stainless steel construction, a large grilling surface, a cover, and a stainless steel grate make for a good charcoal grill. Some models also have a temperature gauge to help you keep your grill exactly as hot as you like.

Gas Grills

There's nothing like coming home from work in a grilling mood and having food on the table half an hour later. Gas grills allow you to do just that.

Gas Pros

1. Ease of use: Gas grills are easy to light, fast to heat up — usually 10 minutes or so — and easy to maintain at a constant temperature. A gas grill allows you to make grilling a spontaneous event.

2. Control: Since most gas grills come with at least two burners, you can switch from direct to indirect heat and create different temperature zones in your barbeque with the twist of a knob.

3. Clean up: No ashes to clean out; no need for scrubbing. Just heat blast the grate by turning the grill on high, closing the lid, and letting it burn off the juices and food scraps.

4. Extras: Gas grills can come with lots of options, from carts with built-in storage to side burners for boiling up the coffee in the morning. They can also run on either natural gas or propane (you usually have to pick which one you want in advance) so you can hook them right up to your home gas line, or keep them mobile and portable.

Gas Cons

1. No smoke: If you're looking for a smoky taste, you have to buy a smoke box and add some wood shavings to get it, and even then, charcoal purists will tell you it just isn't the same.

2. Cost: Gas grills cost more than charcoal grills, and the more extras and power you want, the more you will spend. Also, a gas grill has lines and valves and burners that that can be costly to replace if they wear out or break down.

What to look for: As with the charcoal grill, sturdy, high-quality stainless steel construction inside and out is the first thing to look for. Make sure the pit has at least two burners so you can create different heat zones, and see what extra features you can get, such as a rotisserie or side burner.

Which One Is Better

This is one debate in which we are going to stay firmly neutral. Charcoal or gas is a personal choice, so we leave it to you to decide. Fortunately, whichever you prefer, there's excellent equipment out there.

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