An Incomplete Guide to Grilling: Gas or Charcoal?
Grills are unique to almost every other cooking unit because they can utilize all three main types of cooking: radiant, conductive and convection. Radiant cooking is using the ambient heat created by a source to cook food. Conductive cooking is using the heat from direct contact with a hot surface while convection cooking is using the circulation of hot air to cook all surfaces at once. A grill’s fuel source whether it be gas, charcoal or other, will give off heat (radiant) to heat a cooking surface (conductive) while moving the hot air from the source, over the food and out the back (convection). Being able to utilize all three types results in food that is well seared and evenly cooked on the inside and out.
Before we get into the styles of grills, let’s go over grill anatomy. Across all styles there are four main parts: the cook box, the grate, the fire box and the stand. The cook box is the top part of the grill incased by the lid. The grate is the surface that the food sits on and the fire box is the compartment below the grate the holds the heat source. The stand holds the whole thing up.
There are two grill styles that dominate the marketplace, the gas grill and the charcoal grill. Both can be awesome and produce great results, but there is some debate over which style is best. My answer to the question of which is better is…. both.
Gas grills are the easiest to use and generally offer more consistent results with the least amount of time and effort. Fueled by either liquid propane or natural gas, all you usually need to do is turn a knob and push a button and you are on your way. Good gas grills produce even heat across the entire grate while circulating heat up from the fire box, through the cook box, over the meat and out the back. You can pivot from searing meat to slow roasting by just turning a dial to adjust the burners. There are however a lot of supporting parts that need to be cleaned and kept up with or your brand new shiny gas grill will become a disposable rat and rust bucket in no time.
Charcoal grills are a modern staple of humanity. People all over the world have been cooking over wood fueled flames for, well, ever. Usually composed of the four main components, charcoal grills are as close to primitive cooking as you can get. They can produce a lot of heat to cook meat and lots of other things well, but they do take significantly more time and make a different kind of mess compared to their gas counterparts and charcoal is significantly more expensive than propane or natural gas.
There are other variations and styles of grills on the market like ceramic smoker/grill combos and grills that use infrared burners and while they are impressive, they are usually more show than tell.
Ceramic “grills” — as I will refer to them here, but you may know them as a certain colored oblong shape named after a breakfast food — do a really good job of creating insanely hot temperatures to sear meats and can also maintain constant low temperatures to cook larger cuts of meat slowly over time. Their lids are incredibly heavy and thick and retain heat so well that to me, they are just outdoor ovens. To regulate the weight though, the cooking surface has to remain small. The bigger the cooking grate, the heavier the entire thing is going to be and because of their small cooking grates, their dollar to cooking surface ratio is astronomical. But don’t completely write these off, they make incredible smokers and we’ll talk about that in a smoker specific article.
Infrared burners are great for one thing and they do that one thing better than any other heat source. They will put a beautiful sear on any piece of meat you can toss their way. The get insanely hot quickly and supply even heat better than any other burner out there. But they are expensive and one dimensional. They are not great for indirect cooking and are expensive. Some grill manufactures offer them in combo grills which can be nice but they are expensive. Some even come with infrared rotisseries across the back, but that's not grill, that's spit cooking. As an expensive add-on feature they take up valuable real estate in the cook box and some foods can get pushed back under them making them virtually impossible to rescue let alone flip. Did I mention they were expensive?
For everyday grilling, I will only vouch for gas or charcoal fueled grills because they are perfect at what they do. The decision on which to choose will depend on you available budget, space and patience. Does that make the other styles bad, certainly not, but I’d argue they are unnecessary, if you have the means and the love of gadgetry, go for it.
What to Look For In a Grill
For gas grills, the possibilities are seemingly endless. Ranging from $50 to $5,000, gas grills are a shining example that if something costs too much or too little, it’s probably not worth it. When shopping for a gas grill there are a few key things to look for, starting with every grill salesman’s favorite talking point, the British Thermal Unit (BTU). BTUs are a measure of heat output. The higher the BTUs, the more heat is generated and while I admit, while I love some high BTUs, I don’t need 6-digits to grill a good burger. What I care more about is the retention of heat and his comes from the material and thickness of the cook and fire boxes. Like I mentioned above with the ceramic grills, the thicker the walls, the more heat you can retain and the better your grill will be at radiant and convection cooking.
Next, take a peak at the back of the grill. How many vents are there? Is there more than one? If yes, pick a new grill. More vents means that the heat has more opportunity to escape which means your grill will have to work harder for longer to cook your food. Ideally, you will have one long vent that runs across the entire back of the grill usually in the form of a space where the lid is attached to the fire box. A 1”-1.5” opening will be perfect.
Open the lid and look at the cooking grate. You want a grate that is heavy with thick bars. The heavier bars, the more heat they will retain and be able to apply to your food during searing. They come in a variety of materials but the biggest bang for the buck will be stainless steel. Also, notice how the bars are spaced. You want bars that are close enough together to maximize surface contact but will also allow for heat and air to flow through them. I think ideal spacing is 1/2”-1”, any wider and you start to risk smaller foods to fall through. As for the right size for you needs, use the Burger Matrix, or how many 4” burgers can you cook at once. It's a pretty effective method for judging how much space you need based on how many people you generally cook for. You can eyeball it or I have seen some folks take a cutout circle to the store. You do You.
Notice the direction of the burners. are they running from front to back, side to side or in a U-shape? Best case, they are running side to side. This will allow you to turn the back burners off, the front burners up and move the food to the back portion of the grill for the best convection cooking scenario. The heat from the front burners will be pulled by your one long vent in the back, over the food and out. Front to back running burners seem to be the new standard though. My best guess is because being able to turn off one side of the grill gives you a more versatile square-shaped cooking area as opposed to the longer, narrower rectangle shape from the side to side burners. U-shaped and other wonky shaped burners tend to give off uneven heat and should be avoided.
Now the most overlooked part of a gas grill, the flame-tamers or flavor-waves. Yes, the names are silly but they play a vital role in the effectiveness of your grill. They are pieces of metal that sit on top of your burners to distribute heat evenly across the cooking surface. They also protect the burners from clogging and help to mitigate flareups. They come in a variety of styles but the inverted V shape is as tried and true as this new innovation can be. Best case, you’ll have a row of flame tamers across the entire width of your fire box to catch all the drippings from your meat that get incinerated from the extreme heat, turn to smoke and apply that smoky barbecue flavor that makes grilling worth it. Some fancier grills will come with lava rocks or other types of materials for heat distribution. What ever your grill has, make sure it has good coverage and is easy to clean.
Side Note: It’s important to know if your gas grill heats evenly and if not, where the hot spots are. To test, preheat your grill for 15 mins and place standard white bread across the entire surface. Cook for 1 min. As you remove the now toast, notice which pieces were darker and which pieces were lighter. The darker the toast, the hotter the spot. Ideally, each piece will be nice and golden brown with little variation between the pieces. Then you can eat the toast or find some ducks.
Lastly, inspect the stand. You will want sturdy legs and heavy duty wheels with as little plastic as possible. For two-wheeled models, larger is better. For ones with fours wheels, look for locking caster-style. A lot of grills are now standard with cabinets and doors that hide the propane tank and offer “storage” for you grilling equipment. While this isn't a deal breaker, be sure that the latches and hinges are quality and if you can avoid them altogether I think you are better off. The more dark corners there are, the more furry friends you could be inviting.
If you are in the market, the best gas grill in terms of quality and value is the Weber Spirit Series. It comes in 2 and 3 burner models for smaller or larger spaces and with and without doors, though I think all the newer models (as of 2019) are sans doors. They meet pretty much all of the criteria listed above.
The most important thing to consider is how big do you need. Quality charcoal is expensive — a topic we will cover in the future — and the larger the grill, the more fuel you will need (the Burger Matrix comes in handy here). I’m not saying that a Weber kettle grill is the only charcoal grill you should consider but what I am saying is that any others you look at will be inspired somehow by Weber. They are relatively cheap and if taken care of will last a very long time. Regardless of brand, be sure that you have an adjustable top and a bottom vent to manipulate air-flow for heat generation and convection cooking.
If you are a charcoal user, a chimney charcoal starter is indispensable. The tall metal cylinders have a grate at the bottom and a long handle on the side. You fill the chamber up with charcoal and set in on top of newspaper or other tinder and the natural tendency of heat to rise will have you charcoal lit in 10-15 mins without the use of lighter fluid or other hazardous chemicals that are either dangerous to have around or can make your food taste like chemicals. The match-light style of charcoal claims to eliminate the need for liquid starter or a chimney but they are especially bad for your final product. They are soaked in lighter fluid and other additives that run throughout the the briquette and unlike traditional lighter fluid that does eventually burn off, the chemical fumes remain throughout the duration of the burn. Just get a chimney and you won’t have to worry about any of that. Tip: instead of balling up the newspaper and stuffing it under the chimney, roll it up and bend it into a circle and place it under the chimney so there is a gap in the middle. This will encourage more airflow and you charcoal will light faster because science.
The most regrettable piece of grilling equipment to not have at the ready is a light source. Without practice, I promise you will underestimate the time it takes to finishing grilling and you will inevitably find your self in the dark. The single best light source for grilling is a head lamp. Hands-free spot lighting is invaluable.
The most important thing is to keep it clean. With build-up of drippings and other residue, your grill can quickly become a weapon of meat destruction. Before and after every grilling session, brush and oil your cooking grate. Brushing and oiling before will ensure that you have a non-stick surface that will release your meat when it's ready without having to loose a chunk of your burger to the fire. When you are done, scrape off all the new residue and oil it back-up, not only to make your next session easier to start, but the layer of oil will protect the grate from rusting. Perform both when the grill is hot. I have found that a dedicated grill grate towel stored in a container works best. Hold it with your tongs while you brush the grate down.
You should perform a thorough cleaning of your grill once every three or four sessions, more or less depending on how much use it gets. Remove the grate and give it a good scrub. For gas grills, remove the flame-tamers and scrub them with a scouring pad in warm, soapy water. Having some residue on the surface is not a bad thing for flavor, but having too much will cause flare-ups and the reside will eventually make it's way to the burners, clogging them right up. Next, with the flame-tamers removed, turn on the grill and look for even flame height across the entire burner. If you have even height across but a couple of bare spots, use a toothpick to open them up. If you have diminishing height from one end of the burner to the other, remove the burner AFTER YOU TURN THE GAS OFF AND DISCONNECT THE TANK and scrape out any buildup using a brush or coat hanger. For charcoal grills, you need to focus on keeping the grate clean and oiled and the ashes cleaned out of the fire box. A good rule of thumb is that if your grill gives off thick smoke when preheating, it's too dirty.
If you don’t live in Southern California and you actually experience seasons, you will want to perform a deep cleaning of your grill before you pack it up for the winter. Do all of the above but also scrub down the inside and outside of the fire and cook box as well as clean out any grease or residue that has made its way to the stand or other surfaces. Rodents love greasy residue, I shouldn’t have to say much more. If you are storing your grill outside it's always smart to use a cover. It is important to buy a cover that has some sort of venting holes or mesh to let any moisture that does collect under the cover a chance to escape so your grill doesn't rust when you aren’t looking.
Now you’ve got you grill, go get some meat. Buy Ranch Direct offers several types of meat boxes that will get you stocked up all summer long.
Leave any questions you might have in the comments and suggestions for any grilling or other meat and cooking related topics you’d like to see covered.