As winter came to a close and the first signs of spring began to show, the one thing besides starting my garden that came to my mind was the timeless ritual of backyard grilling. My fiancée and I are renting a house with a wonderful, large backyard, and it would be madness not to have a grill to spend yet even more time outside. So we set out to buy a grill. We arrived at the store, went to the grill section and I reached for Weber kettle-style grill with built-in thermometer, ash catcher and chimney. Not so fast. My fiancée asked, “I thought we were getting a gas grill?” It had not even crossed my mind that in the five years we have been together, that Dre might be a gas grill-lover. We left without a grill. The debate had begun.
The debate over using charcoal or gas to fuel your backyard grill has been raging since the 1960s. In this decade, a new type of grill hit the scene, the propane gas grill. This is where the debate begins.
When it comes down to it, it is really about three things: taste, convenience and temperature, with other arguments really falling under either one of these categories.
The taste provided by a charcoal grill is usually the top argument for charcoal supporters. Nothing can replace that natural smoky flavor that is provided by various notes of different wood flavor profiles. The majority of the flavor is actually the smoke produced from the fat, oil, marinades, and seasoning that is on the food itself. The drippings hit the heat source, charcoal or gas flame, and vaporize creating the flavorful smoke. Numerous studies have been done for the taste debate and the vast majority of people cannot tell the difference between charcoal and gas grilled foods.
Of course taste is a matter of...well, taste. Everyone is unique in that aspect. And much like wine or coffee, the subtle differences in flavor can be nearly impossible to detect unless you have trained yourself to notice those subtleties. Personally, I can taste the subtle propane taste. Really it’s a kind of chemical taste that is ever so slightly there. Kind of like having conventional eggs all your life, then eating farm-fresh, nutrient-dense eggs and never being able to eat conventional eggs again because the flavor is lacking something that you just can’t put your finger on. That’s how I feel about the taste of gas flames.
The convenience of a gas grill is almost always what wins thedebate. This is especially true in our modern fast-paced world. I mean, we can’t even wait to get home to read our email anymore or even be bothered to write a letter, how are we ever supposed to wait for the charcoal to get to the right temperature?! Seriously though, it is understandable in a society where we force so much into our days that we don’t always have the luxury to take hours to prepare and cook a meal. I personally think we should make time for our meals, but that is yet another debate. Turn a few knobs and create a spark and you have a cooking surface ready to use. Gas certainly wins the debate in terms of convenience.
Temperature is another major factor of this debate. Charcoal grills easily win out the heat competition. Gas grills are limited in how much heat they can produce but they are much easier to control then charcoal. You can’t very well dial down the heat on charcoal. Usually you have to open the lid and wait it out. This is also where the debate over which fuel is “healthier” comes in.
Which is better for us
Besides taste and convenience, people want to know which fuel is better for them. Neither really wins this debate, although gas is the lesser of the two evils according to most studies. Charcoal-grilled meat contains more carcinogens (cancer-causing molecules) called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) than meat heated with propane. This is due to fat dripping onto the heat source and created PAH-infused smoke, which coats whatever you are cooking. Charcoal creates more smoke and therefore, more PAH-infused smoke. Also, charcoal flames are hotter, which chars meat and creates heterocyclic amines (HCAs), another carcinogen. Propane still produces PAHs and HCAs, but because charcoal can get much hotter, it can also produce more of these nasties. Leaner meat or no meat at all can provide a much healthier solution all around. Also, soaking meat in vinegar or lemon juice reduces HCAs by 90%!
These unhealthy carcinogens can also be produced on your kitchen stovetop or oven, so don’t think that this is isolated to your backyard grill. Any fat that reaches its smoking point is creating PAHs and any food that is charred or blackened is producing HCAs.
In terms of environmental impact, again, gas wins out. Either fuel is releasing carbon and other volatile chemicals into the air, but most conventional charcoal has quite a mix of nasty chemicals. If you’re a charcoal fan, make sure it is lump charcoal with no additives like lighter fluid and wood-by products. Both fuels are a better choice than starting your car and driving to a restaurant that most likely sourced its food from far away.
Like any long-standing debate, there are so many opinions out there with so many different spins on the data. Some people take this debate extremely seriously and have pages upon pages of analysis that breakdown wind speed, outside temperature and other variables. For me, it comes down to personal preference. Even with most everything stacked against it, I still am a charcoal man. I’m nostalgic by nature and cherish the rituals of times past. For me, nothing beats a good quality lump charcoal (like Kickapoo John’s from the Co-op) that I have to nurture to flame and wait until it reaches the perfect temperature. It forces me to slow down and enjoy the ritual, enjoy my time with family and friends, take in the great outdoors, and give thanks for such a wonderful meal and all the things for which I’m grateful. And it just tastes better.