I have been getting a lot of questions asking about Charcoal Grills vs Gas Grills…Which is better? Which do I prefer? And Why one or the other?
I decided now is as good of a time as any to finally answer these inquiries. I have touched on the subject here and there, but I thought I should do a bit more elaborate of a break down for all of you out there.
A Brief History of Charcoal Grills
Although humans have been using fire to cook for as far back as one can imagine, the advent of the modern grill that we use here in the United States is much more recent.
Most seem to agree that what we call a barbeque today comes from the word “barbacoa” (although possibly mispronounced by the Spanish) a wooden framed structure used by the Arawak tribe (possibly, more specifically, the sub tribe of the Taino). The Arawak were the native people of some of the Caribbean islands that we now call Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and other areas in parts of South America and the Caribbean.
Apparently the word was picked up by the Spanish invaders sometime in the 16th or 17th centuries. The use of the tribal peoples wooden barbeque structures made its way to north american when some of the natives moved up to Florida (which was a much bigger area of land than it is now).
In the early days, as is popular in many cultures, they would typically cook a whole pig over a long period of time, and then enjoy it as a group. (The slow cooking over a lower temperature is what should truly be called bbq, but today we typically use the term interchangeably when we are actually “grilling” on a barbeque)
As settlers spread across the United States different variations of bbqing began to emerge. Throughout all this time cooking over fire was mainly done for bigger gatherings, as more of a special occasion. At the end of the 1800’s charcoal briquettes were invented, but it isn’t until the 1940’s that the grilling becomes more of a regular backyard event. (The return of the troops from WWII and the spread of Americans into the suburbs is what gave rise to people even having “backyards”)
At this point although people are grilling more often, the manner in which to do so has by no means been perfected. A flat open grill, called the Brazier grill was the standard. This made it very hard to regulate the temperature and often gave way to wind blowing ashes (and don’t forget the occasional hot ember) all over you, your family and friends, the food and your neighbors.
Then in the 1950’s, as I mentioned in my previous post The Best Charcoal Grills, a man named George Stephen changed the face of charcoal grills forever.
George was apparently sick of his grill being ruled by the elements and came up with a seemingly simple, yet obviously genius way to solve his problem. He worked at the Weber Bros factory in Chicago making marine buoys, and decided to cut one in half, attach the top half as a lid, put a grill rack in the center, added a couple air vents and some legs, and there it was… the amazing kettle grill!
So in 1952 when the Weber grill was released to the public everything changed in the world of grilling. Now anybody could happily cook up whatever they wanted in their own backyard without worrying about wind. Plus the dome shaped body and vents allowed people to regulate the heat and flame like never before, delivering the most delicious barbequed hamburgers, hot dogs, and steaks anybody had ever had!
Of course many changes have been made to this original style since then…size, shape, etc., but the basic idea remains the same.
History of Gas Grills
Surprisingly, the invention of the gas grill didn’t come too long after the release of the Weber. Of course the concept of the modern grill (pit, grate, lid, vent, legs) was already there with the charcoal grill, they just changed how it was heated.
I have found some mixed opinions of the facts behind who invented the portable gas grill. However, it seems to be the consensus that large gas grills were invented in the 1940’s. They used gas to heat lava rocks that held heat to mimic the use of hot coals, but due to the size and expense of these, only commercial kitchens used them.
During the mid to late 1950’s the portable, backyard version of a gas grill hit the market. Some say the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co was looking for a way to up their propane sales, but either way it seems Chicago Combustion Company, that is now known as LazyMan, is the company that truly spurred the overwhelming popularity of the gas grill.
By the 1970’s, and possibly earlier, the gas grill had become more popular than the charcoal grill in backyards of the US. This is of course due to the ease of just pushing a button, or turning a knob, and possibly lighting a match, rather than dealing with charcoal.
Pros and Cons of Charcoal Grills
- The wonderful fiery, smokey flavor
- You get to play with fire
- You can create your hot spots
- It smells great
- You don’t have to go fill your propane tank (smelly)
- Makes you feel good to create fire and then cook food (like a caveman)
- Just toss out the old charcoal next time you’re gonna cook and you are ready to go again
- You can tell when you are out of charcoal
- Doesn’t have hoses and regulators to break
- It tastes Awesome!!
- You need to make sure you have charcoal
- You have to dispose of the ashes
- Can get smokey if the wind is blowing the wrong direction
- Can be hard to light if it wet outside (but really only if your charcoal is damp)
Pros and Cons of Gas Grills
- Easy to light (if your grill is operating correctly)
- Can buy your fuel at the gas station
- Don’t have to dump any ashes
- Need to clean more often to keep it looking pretty
- Flame holes can get clogged
- Doesn’t give food that nice natural fired taste
- Don’t always know you are about to run out of propane
- Breakable parts
My Choice (Drum Roll please…)
I know you will all be utterly shocked by this, but my choice in the Charcoal Grill Vs Gas Grill debate is….you guessed it– Charcoal!!!
I literally sat here and thought, then took a break, and really couldn’t come up with hardly any cons for charcoal. Then on the flip side couldn’t come up with hardly any pros for propane. I did quite a bit of research on the subject, and still was not convinced as to why I would ever want to switch from charcoal to gas.
For a while, when I was single and living in an apartment in a town where it was windy and raining a lot, I did own a tiny table top propane grill. I used it for (and I don’t condone this at all) grilling inside…I know, I know, I could have died, but I would set it on a table inside my sliding glass door so that as much of the toxic fumes and carbon monoxide as possible would be sucked outside. I just really still needed to be able to grill up a steak even when it was crummy outside, and I knew I couldn’t have charcoal smoke billowing inside my apartment.
I only did it a few times though, because it really wasn’t hitting the spot. In the end I decided I would rather stand out in the wind and rain and spend an hour waiting for my wet charcoal to light than ruin my steak on that gas grill.
Honestly, if I decided I didn’t want to use a charcoal grill anymore, for whatever reason, and I still wanted to cook outside I would probably just get a flat top grill (which could be run on gas or electricity). At least then the meat and veggies can sizzle and still get a good flavor.
A Side Note
I just wanted to mention that, obviously, this article focuses on modern American charcoal grills vs gas grills. I have not included any information or comparison on all the other ways to cook outdoors. Including, but not limited to, pit cooking, smoking, wood fired bbqs, pellet grills, infrared grills, and other international styles of bbqs and grills.
I hope to do future articles covering some of these techniques and styles, but I did not want any one to feel I am neglecting any other grilling options. I chose to do this particular comparison because of requests from my readers.
I truly hope you have enjoyed this article. As always, if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or would like to share any grill stories, feel free to join the discussion below.