Barbecue aficionados pit convenience and accuracy against taste and tradition
It starts with a few fervent whispers then the standoffish gestures and some bickering back and forth and lastly it escalates into a full-on polarized fight. It’s the age-old red-hot summer debate in backyards everywhere — gas versus charcoal which is better?
The problem is it’s a lot like comparing apples to oranges (or strip loins to fish steaks for that matter) — different rules different skills an entirely different game.
There will always be the purists who believe that old King Coal is the only way to go that it’s the tried-and-true method for delivering stable heat and just the right amount of smoke. These traditional patient types believe gas is but a cheap cop-out.
A smaller but equally passionate band of fire-lovers will tell you charcoal is a waste of time and material and a tank full of propane or natural gas and a well-designed grill will give you precision and consistency that you’d never get with a pile of burning briquettes.
No matter what side of the grill you’re on the debate will never be settled. Instead we’ve sized up both gas and charcoal to give you a little know-how so you’ll be ’cue savvy next time you’re in the backyard with your buddies.
Barbecue absolutists swear by the traditional ritual — piling on the charcoal lighting it tending the fire and constantly moving food from hotter to cooler cooking areas. To them it’s a mesmerizing art form that can take a lifetime to master and makes outdoor cooking worth the effort.
Gas lovers say it’s all about convenience. Most gas models feature push-button ignitions a constant heat source that’s ready to go within minutes and precision temperature control; great for quick dinners impromptu soirees or simply when time is of the essence.
“Convenience and control are the biggest benefits” says Ross Mikkelsen of Calgary’s Barbecues Galore. “When your reputation is truly on the line and there are people waiting to be fed and/or impressed the vagaries of charcoal don’t seem so fun. Dependability is a virtue that goes a long way on Christmas Eve when your four nephews are hungry and your mother-in-law has a bellyful of ’weisers.”
There’s something to be said about the distinctive flavour of a charcoal grill; its intense heat sears quickly through steaks and chops giving them a delicate crust and a notable infusion of smoke. Slow-cookers also prefer charcoal for its involved elongated process of drawing out succulence in cuts like ribs.
“There’s nothing like the taste of a rack of ribs or even plain ol’ burgers cooked over charcoal” says James Evans a self-described barbecue aficionado. “It’s a lot more authentic than gas and you get to play with fire.”
However gas makes it easy to grill delicate foods like chicken fish fruit and vegetables which can be overwhelmed by smoke. And in an effort to address the taste issue some manufacturers have added ceramic bars that catch grease drippings and send the smoke back into the food. At the end of the day however the best ceramic still can’t replicate hot coals.
It’s hard to argue the accuracy of a gas grill. Turn the knob and voila you’ve quickly gone from blazing that burger to merely warming the bun. It’s so easy in fact that you can walk away and tend to more important things like your beer. Plus since many models have at least two burners you can have various foods at various stages spread across the grill.
“If you need a low-temperature setting it’s there. If you need to sear a steak you’ve got it” Mikkelsen says. “This of course is assuming you have a decent barbecue on your deck — not some semi-disposable mega-mart import.”
Yet charcoal masters argue that achieving and maintaining even heat is their raison d’etre. Some go as far as building up multiple fires within the brazier and tending closely to the action. They say this is the entire point of barbecue.
The biggest virtue of a gas grill is its flexibility. Wind rain snow — you can be grilling in any season even when the snow is piled knee-high. Many people consider the grill a second (or first) oven and tongs an extension of the hand so no amount of adverse weather is going to stop them. And if needed they can watch from the warmth inside the patio door.
“I’ve been the guy struggling to get the charcoal lit on a windy February day and almost crying every time I lift the lid of the barbecue as I can feel the built-up heat fly away” Mikkelsen says. “Once the ambient temperature dips to the business side of zero give me a gas grill every time.”
With charcoal there certainly are robust people who have no fear of grilling in the dead of winter but the lengthy prep time and careful tending of the fire are not so fun while freezing your ass off.
There’s no doubt that gas grills cost more starting at $150 and going — with extra grill space sinks beer fridges and other bells and whistles — as far as your wallet will open.
On the flip side you can pick up at charcoal grill for around $20 to $30 and a basic Weber charcoal kettle will set you back around $85. If you want there are fancy add-ons for charcoal grills as well with smokers and such. Think for the long run though as sustainable lump charcoal or even briquettes will likely end up costing you more down the road than running propane.
“Barbecuing is a cooking method as old as time so even its costs should be basic” says Evans. “If you’re spending money on a quality cut of meat or enough food for a backyard party the cooking method shouldn’t break the bank.”
Gas takes top honours here. Cleaning the cooking grate means simply turning the knob to high and burning that sucker clean. You do have to brush the grates after as well but no big deal.
Charcoal grilling can be messy work and the grills need regular cleaning to function properly. You’ll have to clean out the ashes often and brush the grates every time you use the grill.
When the time comes to choose regardless of whether you go with charcoal or gas Mikkelsen’s advice is to buy Canadian. He says some of the best barbecues are made right here in Canada — they’re hotter last longer and have better warranties.