The Ultimate Guide to Grilling: Gas vs. Charcoal

gas vs charcoal grill

From backyard barbecues to family dinners on a warm summer night, grilling brings a whole new experience to the way you enjoy the food. Among the most popular fuel choices for grills are gas and charcoal. Each of these imparts a different flavor on the food and has unique advantages and challenges. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at how to choose the perfect grill, as well as what you need to know about each for a pleasurable grilling experience.

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Gas Grills

Gas Grills

Gas grills are valued for their convenience. There is no messy handling of charcoal and they warm up much faster. This makes them a good choice for people who head out to their patio or backyard when they want to cook family dinners. Here is what you need to know about gas grills.

Gas Grills Under $500

Gas Grills Under $300 

Gas Grills Under $200

Advantages of Using a Gas Grill

  • Heats up faster- Once the propane is connected, it only takes about 10 minutes for a gas grill to come up to temperature.
  • Better temperature control- Once you have mastered the perfect temperature, it is easy to maintain it. Most grills have more than one burner and each can be adjusted separately, letting you create hot, warm, and cool areas of the grill. You can also turn the temperature up or down easily, depending on your needs.
  • It is easier to set up propane than charcoal- To set up propane, all you must do is connect the tank to the grill. You do not have to handle it as you would charcoal. 
  • Easier clean-up than charcoal- Most gas grills do not burn food directly because it creates exposure to propane gas. Instead, metal plates, ceramic, or lava rocks absorb the heat from the burners and radiate it to cook the food. When drippings fall from meat and other foods you are grilling, it is usually vaporized instead of sticking to the grill and leaving behind a residue.
  • More accessories- Gas grills commonly come with accessories like a side burner that is useful when you are making a side that should be cooked on the stovetop. There are also accessories that turn the grill into a rotisserie. Or have a built in gas grill into your patio.

Disadvantages of Using a Gas Grill

  • Inaccurate temperature control- You will need to adjust the temperature you are using based on factors like windiness and outside temperature. Additionally, most temperature gauges are located on the lid and not near the grill grate, which is where the food is being cooked.
  • Higher cost of cooking- Not only is gas typically more expensive than charcoal, but most gas grills also cost more than the equivalent charcoal model. The cost increases as you add on accessories.
  • More maintenance- Gas grills have more parts than the average charcoal grill. These pieces will need cleaned, maintained, and replaced.
  • Cannot always adjust meat temperatures- Gas grills fall short when it comes to cooking meat like steak or lamb when you do not always want the middle to be well done. This is because it does not achieve the same high temperatures as a charcoal grill. 

How to Use a Gas Grill: The Basic Steps

Step 1: Get the Propane Ready

The first step in using a gas grill is connecting the propane. Most use a screw-top connection where you screw the gas line to the propane. Once it is tightly secured, twist the knob that turns the propane ‘on’.

Step 2: Igniting the Grill

With most gas grills, igniting the burners is as simple as turning on the stove. Turn to the ‘ignite’ setting (this usually clicks) until you hear the ‘whoosh’ sound of the flame lighting. Then, turn up or down to adjust the level of flame and heat.

Step 3: Cooking on the Grill

When you are using a small gas grill, the cooking process is fairly easy. Turn the grill down if the food is burning instead of cooking through and turn it up to achieve a char on the outside. You can also create a 2-zone or 3-zone cooking area, with one of the burners on a high temperature, the second on a medium temperature, and the third on a low temperature to keep food warm once it has cooked through. Here are a couple tips:

Always make sure you have enough propane to finish grilling. Monitor your gauge closely to know when to pick more up. It also isn’t a bad idea to keep a second propane tank on hand in case you run out.

Try to avoid lifting the lid too many times while you are cooking. While it can be tempting to monitor your food and fiddle with the grill, the indirect heat used to cook on a gas grill quickly depletes when the lid is opened and all the cool air rushes in.

How to Clean a Gas Grill

Some of the most common problems that happen when a gas grill is not cleaned properly include gunk build-up in the burners that stop your grill from lighting, rust accumulation on the gas burners, and build-up of grease and cooking gunk that can cause flare-ups. You should clean your grill at least every few months of grilling season, depending on how often you use it and how dirty it gets. All you need is warm soapy water (and more for rinsing), an old sponge and rag, and a grill brush.

Start with the grill grates, using the grill brush to remove any gunk. If needed, you can use hot, soapy water to make cleaning easier. Don’t forget to remove the grill and clean the underside as well. Next, remove the burner protectors and give them time to soak in the warm, soapy water. Remove as much build-up as you can with the sponge and set to the side. Then, use the sponge to clean the burners, either by removing them or cleaning them in the grill.

To deep clean your grill, keep going and take out the plates. Soak these in hot, soapy water. Scrub the plates clean and then remove the tray from the bottom of the grill and clean that too. Finally, wipe the inside and outside of the grill using a soapy rag. Wipe with a dry rag and it should be clean again. Once you are done and the different parts are dry, you can reassemble your grill.

Gas Grill Maintenance

Gas lines and connections may need to be replaced over time, as you notice wear and tear. Some other parts that you may need to replace include the flavor briquettes, grill grates, ignitor collector box, and ignition as needed. You can significantly reduce upkeep by keeping the grill covered when not in use.

Charcoal Grills

 Charcoal Grills

Charcoal is known for the smoky flavor that it imparts on food, but it also requires more maintenance than a gas grill. This happens because of the release of ashes and smoke residue as the coals are burned. Here’s what you need to know.

Advantages of Using a Charcoal Grill

  • Hotter temperatures- When you bring the charcoal to temperature before cooking, it burns hotter than the average gas grill. The high heat is ideal for cooking things like lamb and steak when you are trying to achieve a pink or red inside and crisp outside. Typically, charcoal grills reach around 500F. The temperature can be raised to around 700F if the charcoal is positioned closer to the grill grate.
  • Smoky flavor- Charcoal imparts a smoke-like flavor on foods. Many grill masters swear by cooking at low-temp over charcoal to achieve this flavor for ribs, whole pork loins, and other meats.
  • Charcoal is more affordable-Generally speaking, higher-end charcoal grills are more affordable than gas grills. They do not require the same technology or connections to run, so they are more affordable to manufacture.

Disadvantages of Using a Charcoal Grill

  • Less temperature control- On a charcoal grill, your options for lowering the temp include letting the charcoal burn down naturally or moving the food or charcoal around to change the distance and heat exposure. To raise the heat, you need to move the food/charcoal or add more charcoal, which can be a hassle since you have to wait for charcoal to burn before it is safe to cook on it.
  • Charcoal is dirty- It can be messy to handle charcoal, as it is covered in a black soot-like material. However, you can significantly reduce the dirtiness by using gloves, tongs, or a shovel to handle the raw coals.
  • Charcoal is not as convenient as gas- When you are cooking with charcoal, you have to wait for the charcoal to burn down so you are not sticking your food over chemical-heavy smoke. This takes about 15 minutes longer than gas.
  • More Clean-Up- Cooking over charcoal creates ash, whereas cooking with gas does not. This ash and soot from burning the charcoal accumulates on the grill grate and needs more cleaning. There is also more ash underneath, however, there are grills with removable ashtrays that make clean-up easier.
  • Less Cooking Options- As it is harder to regulate temperature using charcoal and you typically have to let it burn off before foods, it is not always practical to use charcoal for a slow-roasting method. It is also hard to find rotisserie-style charcoal grills for this reason. 

How to Use a Charcoal Grill: The Basic Steps

Step 1: Getting Set Up

Charcoal can be started using a chimney, charcoal fire starter, or lighter fluid. The chimney option is ideal for people who want a natural method of lighting their charcoal because it uses paper. This is said to impart a more natural flavor than petroleum-based lighter fluid or fire starter.

You will also need to choose charcoal. Briquettes should be used when you want the coals to burn hot for a longer period of time, like when you are cooking a roast or a whole chicken. The ideal choice for ceramic grills is natural lump charcoal, which produces the least ash. The other most common option is hardwood lump charcoal, which creates the smokiest flavor on the food.

Step 2: Lighting the Grill

If you are using a chimney, you will put newspaper inside the chimney and place the charcoal on the grate on top. Light the newspaper and as it burns, the charcoal will catch on fire. To use lighter fluid or fire starter, you position the charcoal, add the lighter fluid or fire starter, and then light it. Keep in mind that the type of charcoal you use affects how quickly the grill is ready to be used—some require you to let the charcoal burn until white, so it is safer for cooking. 

Step 3: Create a 2-Zone Cooking Environment and Start Grilling!

One of the best ways to use a charcoal grill is creating a 2-zone cooking environment, which is also called indirect grilling. This means that you position the coals near one side of the grill. If the food starts to cause flare-ups or it is burning instead of cooking all the way through, you move it to the other side where there is less heat exposure and it cooks at a lower temperature. This lets one side of the grill be used for searing and the other side to complete the cooking process. Here are a couple tips:

Beware of flare-ups when using charcoal, which happens when the fat from meat drips down and causes a burst of fire on the grill. Keep a squirt gun of water handy to stop your food from burning if you have a flare-up.

indirect grilling 2 zone

Adjust vent holes to kill or increase oxygen exposure. Oxygen increases the temperature of the fire, so you should open them when you want hotter coals and close vents when you are trying to decrease the temperature.

How to Clean a Charcoal Grill

prevent grill from rusting

Nobody wants to eat food from a dirty grill and you don’t need much to clean it—just a bucket of warm, soapy water, some water for rinsing, a grill brush, an old sponge, and a steel wool sponge.

Start with the old sponge and wipe down the lid, which usually accumulates grease and smoke from the cooking process. Then, use the grill brush and some muscle power to give clear out the gunk that has accumulated on the top and bottom of the grill grates. You can use soapy water if you need to but be sure to rinse the grates well if you do. After the grates are removed and cleaned, use the steel wool to scrub the inner bowl of the charcoal grill, where ash, grease, and dripping tends to build up. Use the sponge to wipe away any remaining gunk. Finally, dispose of any ashes left behind in the ash pan and use a rag to wipe down the entire grill.

If soap and water won’t do the job, as happens when it has been a while since the last clean, you can use baking soda and water to safely clean your grill. A combination of lemon juice and baking soda can also be used.

Charcoal Grill Maintenance

Charcoal grills typically do not have any connections or wires that needed to be replaced over time, unless you use a model with a gas ignition that helps light the charcoal. The grill grate should be replaced every 1-2 years, depending on its condition. You can make it last longer by keeping the grill properly covered when you are not using it.

Whether you prefer the smoky flavor imparted on food by a charcoal goal or value the convenience of a gas grill, proper maintenance, cleaning, and usage can improve your grilling experience. It also doesn’t hurt to check out tasty recipes for advice from the experts on grilling!  

Hybrid Grills

These are the best of both worlds. You get one half gas grill and one half charcoal grill, these are also know as combo grills.