Charcoal VS Gas Grill: Which Is Better?

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Last Updated on February 18, 2021

A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked, has written widely about the world of barbecue and grilling.

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Outdoor grilling is an exciting part of American culture that happens every summer season. Few things bring people together like the idea of cooking steaks and burgers over an open fire. Add a few frosty cold brews, and you’ve got yourself an ideal summer escape leaving the comfort of your backyard.

If you’re looking to upgrade your grill this season or just want to explore the options that are available to you, take a close look at charcoal and gas grills. Each has its advantages and drawbacks, and it is essential to know what to look for before you make your decision to buy.

Charcoal vs Gas Grill Overview

Charcoal and gas grills are two of the most popular options for grilling. The simplicity of charring meat over these readily-available fuel types is appealing for several different reasons. They’re both extremely cost-effective, both in up-front costs, and for maintenance, they’re convenient to set up and use, and they’re readily available in most stores.

Gas grills generally offer a terrific beginner crash-course in grilling. They work much like a gas stove as they provide easy-to-adjust knobs that control the grilling surface’s temperature. They offer incredibly high heat cooking, so using a gas grill makes it easy to get up to the temperature you need to sear meat, giving you the appealing criss-cross pattern grill marks that every pitmaster loves. 

With a few DIY tutorials and minor adjustments, you can also smoke meat and fish on a  gas grill. Since smoking requires lower temperatures, it’s crucial to find a gas grill that’s good at retaining heat. Most gas grills don’t excel at lower temperatures, so using a gas grill to simmer your food requires patience and creativity, but it’s completely achievable.

Charcoal grills differ from gas in many ways. The fuel is just as easy to find, but getting your flames started can be difficult. Where gas grills often have a push-button starter, charcoal grills require a more lengthy setup, including starting the fire manually and bringing the charcoal briquettes up to the right heat for cooking. You have to stack and plan your briquettes’ placement to optimize the heat in key areas of your grill space. These grills can achieve higher temperatures, but it takes more time to get there, often 15 to 20 minutes.

The only thing that charcoal has over gas is taste. Food that comes off of a grill fueled by charcoal consistently has that smoky barbecue taste that every summer carnivore looks for in their hotdogs and burgers.


Charcoal Grills

Charcoal grills have some significant advantages over other fuel types. If built correctly, they retain heat exceptionally well and provide incredible flavors that other grills just can’t offer. 

Another considerable advantage of charcoal grills is that they are generally much less expensive than other models due to their straightforward construction and operation. You don’t have any moving parts with a charcoal grill to assist with flame control or ignition. They simply work by lighting your fuel, letting it burn for a while to get the grill to the right temperature, and then searing your meats over one area to transfer them to another section of the cooking surface to finish their cooking process.

Advantages

  • Fewer flare-ups - Once the charcoal briquettes are heated, very few flames are needed to maintain the grill’s temperature. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that charcoal grills are safer, it does mean that you won’t be as exposed to open flames using a charcoal grill as you would other fuel types.
  • Portability - More often than not, charcoal grills are much easier to toss into a car or truck than their gas counterparts. Most charcoal grills fold, and you can carry the fuel source separately without worrying about potential safety issues like leaks. When you have a portable grill, the complications you face with grilling on the move are reduced significantly.  
  • High heat source - The charcoal fuel of a charcoal grill often burns at higher temperatures than gas. Higher temperatures mean that searing meat is easy and offers shorter cooking times.
  • Large cooking surfaces - The temperature of your cooking surface needs to be broad on a charcoal grill to distribute the heat evenly, and most manufacturers accommodate that need. Since you don’t have a knob to control your grill’s temperature, you’ll have to pile the briquettes high on one side to sear your protein and then let it cook to perfection over embers.
  • Taste - Undeniably, charcoal grills lock in the charcoal’s smoky flavor. This taste is something that can’t be replicated with a gas grill, and most barbecuers prefer.

Disadvantages

  • Messy - Charcoal grills require a lot of clean up after each use. The ash generally falls onto a tray, box, or plate located under the kettle that the charcoal sits in, and it must be emptied or discarded after each use. You also need to wait until the charcoal cools before emptying and transporting your grill, so if you are in a rush to pack up, a charcoal grill can be cumbersome.
  • Food contamination - If you plan on leaving your grill uncovered while you’re tending to your food, high winds or breezes can blow that ash accumulating under the grilling surface directly onto your food. Be sure to protect your steaks and kabobs with the lid of your grill when using charcoal.
  • What you see is what you get - Part of a charcoal grill’s charm is its simplicity. You won’t find features or add ons that other grill types generally have available. There’s rarely an upgraded version available for a charcoal grill.
  • Starter fluid - Since there’s no ignition to get your flames started, you’ll have to resort to doing it manually. Starting your fire on a charcoal grill may entail using a starter fluid, which can give off an unpleasant smell that can seep into your food.

Gas Grill

One of the best selling points for gas grills is their value for money. They are typically the most affordable grills and offer outstanding versatility for cooking a variety of dishes. They’re fuel-efficient, tanks are easy to find, and you can get around 20 hours of grill time off just one tank. As long as your tank is filled and you have the temperature right on your cooking surface, your meal should be done quickly and with minimal issues.

It may take some time to get to know your gas grill. Once you know how to work the burners and knobs, you’ll be on your way to delicious dinners.

Advantages

  • Efficient at high temperatures - Gas grills excel at the highest temperatures needed for grilling; some can reach over 550°F.
  • Inexpensive - No matter your budget, you’ll be able to find a gas grill to fit your needs. Higher-end grills may come with more advanced features or add-ons like side burners or extra cooking surfaces and storage, but the lower-end grills work just as well without breaking your bank account.
  • Easy to use - Most gas grills feature a push-button ignition to get your cooking surface hot. That cuts down on having to fuss with lighter fluid or building briquettes. You can easily adjust your cooking surface temperatures with knobs just like you would on a gas stove.
  • Speed - Gas grills only take a few minutes to heat up, cutting down the amount of time until dinner is ready. They heat up in roughly 10 minutes versus the longer 15- to 20-minute wait time for charcoal grills.
  • No mess - Gas burns with no residual fuel mess to clean up. Extra high cooking temperatures also mean that it is less likely that there will be any caramelized meat left on the grill top, making it easier to clean after use.

Disadvantages

  • Heat retention - Due to the nature of the fuel used in a gas grill, they need adequate ventilation. Even with the best quality steel or aluminum used in the manufacturing process, their heat retention just doesn’t compare to other grill models. Because of their need for ventilation, gas grills are not recommended for smoking meat.
  • Flavor - Just as natural gas has no odor, it has no taste. By choosing to use gas to barbecue your favorite foods, you won’t be adding anything extra to your palette sourced from the grill itself.
  • Safety - Gas grills need a lot of space to operate safely. Using a gas grill in a confined space like a garage poses significant fire and smoke inhalation risks. If not appropriately maintained, gas tanks are also prone to leaks.
  • Must get a feel for it - Like with a gas stove, it may take you a few tries to know how to control the flames with the knobs. You may need to practice with the controls to get the heat just right. But eventually, you’ll get to know your grill and the heat settings, so in the end, it is easier to operate than any other grill.

Charcoal and Gas Grills Go Head to Head 

Gas and charcoal grills are both excellent options for new grillmasters. They’re easy to find, relatively inexpensive to buy, their fuel is cheaper than most other options, and they excel at cooking with higher temperatures. Despite their similarities, they have some critical differences in their cooking methods to consider when grilling poolside or on your patio.

Ease of Use

Gas and charcoal grills are the most well-loved grill types because they are simple to set up and easy to use. Gas grills use a push-button ignition to start right up, almost on their own. Charcoal requires a bit more patience. You may need to incorporate lighter fluid and matches, which requires more equipment than you’d need with a gas grill.

Clean-up for gas and charcoal grills are also relatively easy for both models. Gas grills use a clean-burning fuel, meaning no ash to empty or clean up following meal prep. That reduces clean up for the cooking surfaces and removing any drippings that may fall from the meat onto the grill burners. However, drippings need to be scrubbed to prevent any build-up that could affect the grill’s function.

It’s essential to clean the ash from the dish or box under the kettle with charcoal grills after each use. You’ll want to ensure any grill plates are thoroughly scrubbed before and after every use to prevent a build-up of soot or ash, which could taint the meat.

Temperature Range and Control

Controlling the temperature of your cooking surface is extremely important with outdoor cooking. Higher-end gas grills can hit a searing temperature of 700°F without much effort. Once ignited, the flames can reach cooking temps in approximately 10 to 15 minutes faster than their charcoal counterparts. 

Unlike gas grills, charcoal grills are primarily outdoor ovens that can flame broil. Controlling the temperature is best left for knowledgeable pitmasters who know how to divide charcoal to increase heat for searing on one side of the grill while reducing the number of briquettes on the other side of the temperature. These grills must stay closed unless your meat is being flame-seared. Leaving a charcoal grill open invites heat loss, which will directly affect how quickly and how thoroughly your food is cooked.

Add-ons and Extras

When you buy a gas grill, you may find yourself merely purchasing the centerpiece to turn into an outdoor kitchen. Many gas grills are straightforward appliances but can feature additional side burners, rotisseries, and storage options purchased to turn them into dazzling outdoor galleys. Some higher-end gas grills will feature illuminated knobs or internal lights so you can quickly cook into the evening.

Charcoal grills, by contrast, are most often structured like large boxes or drums. They are simple and lack the visual appeal of a gas grill. However, this simplicity is part of a charcoal grill’s charm for many barbeque enthusiasts as they have few moving parts to clean or potentially repair. 

Affordability 

While both grill types are less expensive than most other grills, due to the simplicity of the design and the lack of additional features, charcoal grills are typically more affordable than gas grills. However, when it comes to fuel sources, gas grills are cheaper to operate long-term. A propane tank may cost more initially, but gas is up to three times less expensive than charcoal briquettes in cost per grilling session.

Jim Bob

Wrapping It Up

Both gas and charcoal grills are worth their weight in gold for summertime fun. You don’t need to break the bank to buy either of them, but upgrades are available if you’re willing to invest a few extra dollars

They’re easy to learn to use but could have some drawbacks if not operated or maintained correctly. If you’re looking to infuse a grill-like flavor into your food, be on the lookout for an excellent kettle charcoal grill. If you want a grill with easy-to-use controls, invest in a gas grill instead. Either way, your summer weekends just got a bit tastier.