Charcoal or gas? Which barbecue is best for you?
Go to a soft furnishings store with a female and there is a strong possibility that she will spend an unimaginable amount of time choosing between cushions that appear to be almost identical. Visit the barbecue section of a store and you’ll see groups of men doing something quite similar, scratching their chins, pretending to flip burgers and generally weighing up every minute detail of those on offer. “Just pick one!”, your companion will say, but little do they know that buying that perfect meat grilling machine is extremely important, for it is you who will be judged without mercy by your friends come the day of its first outing. Apart from size and looks, the main question that presents itself is whether to go for a gas-powered or more traditional charcoal machine. Many purists would argue that to barbecue is to use charcoal, end of discussion, but maybe there are some of you who are more open minded? To that end, we pitch gas and charcoal against each other using a variety of criteria to help you make your mind up on what may suit you best.
Whether it’s chucking in a bag of coals or turning on the gas valve, neither barbecue type will challenge you mentally. However, about 40 minutes are needed in order for the initial flames of charcoal to die down, leaving you with the white cinders necessary for your first burger. Gas is instant, requires no real warm-up time (ten minutes may be useful to get the griddle nice and hot if you want to though) and you won’t be going through a whole box of matches trying to light the thing on a windy day.
Messy coals that need to be cleaned up afterwards lead many to consider gas the cleaner option. However, more intricate gas barbecues have tricky areas to scrub just like those pesky kitchen gas hobs you hate cleaning.
Although both types can utilise a higher shelf for lower temperatures, gas barbecues have true variable heat control. Gas is therefore much more food friendly, as you can adjust the heat to your own needs and not overcook things. Therefore more complicated or fragile items can usually be cooked with ease on gas. In addition, larger gas barbecues have more and more burners, separate the overall cooking area into separately controllable regions. However, there are often several “dead” areas on cheaper models, so uneven cooking can be a problem. With charcoal, you are the boss, and can spread the coals out for even cooking, but piled up areas for different heat is just too tricky to bother. One final consideration is convenience – if you have many people arriving in staggered shifts you can always stop and start gas barbecues with ease, whereas charcoal if more difficult to keep going or restart.
Gas barbecues rely on heat distributing materials which act to vaporise drippings and create a flavoursome smoke. Gas enthusiasts will tell you that this creates a flavour just as good as charcoal, but then it doesn’t explain why people make a lot of money selling packs that you can burn on a gas barbecue to create a more “woody” flavour. There are animated and conflicting opinions on whether you can tell the difference between meat cooked on gas or charcoal, but it is always a question of whether gas tastes as good as charcoal, not the other way around. As the debate rages on, it is clear that it is the natural smokiness found in charcoal cooking that all barbecues aspire to.
The initial outlay on a gas barbecue is generally much more than with charcoal. However, the cost of each bag of charcoal is actually significantly more than the amount of gas you will use in comparison. Therefore it really is a balance between the frequency of barbecuing and the size you need. Moderate amounts of people every now and then? Go charcoal. Lots of people regularly? Gas may save you more in the long run.
Overall, gas wins the contest 2-1, but the pros and cons fall in such different areas that you may still find your choice difficult. Try and stop thinking too much, and ask yourself what you really need. If the simplicity and versatility of gas is the most appealing feature, then maybe you don’t even need a barbecue, and the good old kitchen grill will do the same job for no extra cost. On the other hand, if you are set on that outdoor grilling machine then there you have to picture yourself manning the station. Do you want to fire it up quickly, have minute heat control to obtain that perfectly cooked steak, and not have to faff with coals? Go gas. However, I bet many of you are picturing the watery eyes, the white hot smoky coals and the strangely delicious over-done meat that only charcoal will provide. If you enjoy the usual picture of a group of (usually) males huddling around and arguing over the best time to start cooking, then gas will just be no fun. Finally, if you just looking for a quick blast every now and then and don’t really care too much then a cheap, small charcoal barbecue will save you a lot of trouble, and no one will shout at you when you leave it out all winter to go rusty.