Question of the season: Charcoal or gas? | Chef Dez

By Chef Dez | May 14, 2014

Depending on the climate in the area you live in, your outdoor cooking season has just started, you have already been doing it for a while now, or you have never stopped.

Although many home chefs have been utilizing propane or natural gas as their main fuel to satisfy their outdoor grilling needs, charcoal is making a significant comeback.

Now before I go any further, “grilling” is to cook with gas/propane, while “barbecue” is to cook with charcoal/wood.

I have to admit that I now own both: a propane grill and a charcoal barbecue. I believe that there is a time and a place for both, but if you are in the market for a new outdoor cooker as your main source of grilled/barbecued food, which do you choose?

Before I get into the differences of your two obvious choices, I must stress that the quality of equipment should be your first concern.

I hear of so many people purchasing equipment at big box stores just because the price is right. Your outdoor cooking appliance is a significant purchase and should not be looked upon differently than the purchase of a new oven/stove for your kitchen.

If anything, quality in an outdoor grill/barbecue should be of higher importance that your indoor oven/stove because it will be subjected to the elements; even with a cover over it the environment is more humid and wet than anything you use indoors.

A grill or barbecue should not be considered a disposable fixture. You should not have to replace it every 4-6 years. You would never dream of doing that with your indoor oven/stove, so why do you expect to do that with your grill or barbecue?

Do your homework by researching all the brands before making your purchasing decision. It is not a matter of just coming across one at the store and saying "look at this one! Let's just buy it!"

A gas/propane grill and its components should be made of high grade stainless steel so it resists rusting. Just because you purchased a stainless steel grill, it does not mean that it won't rust.

There are different grades of stainless steel that you need to be aware of.

Where was it made? How easy is it to get replacement parts like burners, etc.? What is the warranty? Where is the company located? Call their customer service center and ask questions.

Also search online for unbiased opinions by researching grilling blogs; it is as simple as typing "reviews on a ______ grill" in a search engine with the brand name (with or without the model number).

Ceramic charcoal barbecues are the best choice if you choose to go with charcoal. Their thick ceramic walls help to retain the heat and cook more evenly and consistently – but they are not all made the same.

Just because it is ceramic, does not necessarily mean quality. Again, do your research. There are definitely less parts to a charcoal barbecue, but you still want to make sure that you are buying one that will last a lifetime – yes, I did say a lifetime.

With a high quality ceramic barbecue, this is not out of the question. Think of how much money you have spent on outdoor cookers in your lifetime, and then decide on what's appropriate to spend on a high quality purchase.

Ease of use will obviously go to a gas grill – it's instant on, and instant off, but flavor of food will always go to charcoal. However, after cooking with propane my whole adult life, I just recently purchased my first charcoal barbecue and the learning curve of using it was actually very small.

Both need to be cleaned out regularly: one of food residue and one of ash; and both require to be preheated before cooking.

Temperature on a grill is obviously controlled by knobs which increase/decrease the gas flow, while temperature on a ceramic charcoal barbecue is controlled by air vents: the more air flow, the hotter the temperature.

Unlike our parent's Hibatchis of the past, however, you can save the leftover unused charcoal for your next cookout by closing the air vents and eventually snuffing out the charcoal.

Whichever outdoor cooking appliance you go with, I stress the words of your parents that haunted you for all of your childhood school days: "Do your homework!"

Chef Dez is a food columnist, culinary instructor and cookbook author. Visit him at Send your food/cooking questions to or P.O. Box 2674, Abbotsford, BC V2T 6R4.

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