Charcoal or gas? This is the first question one asks when considering a new grill. Gas enthusiasts champion the grill’s ease of use and the ability to serve dinner quickly. Briquette-heads counter, saying quickness defeats the purpose of grilling; low and slow is the only way to go, and you can’t beat the added flavor charcoal imparts to the meat. These arguments have been going on since the 1960s, when William Wepfer and Melton Lancaster invented the outdoor gas grill.
What if low and slow was possible on a gas grill and recent technological advances made food cooked on it more tender and juicy? On the other hand, what if food still tasted better cooked over charcoal? Feast Magazine waged a Battle of the Grills to answer these questions.
HOW THE GRILLS WORK
We chose two testing grills that are affordable and widely accessible: the Char-Broil TRU-Infrared Commercial 4-Burner Gas Grill and the Master Forge Steel Charcoal Grill.
Until the patent ran out on the infrared burner in 2000, 99 percent of charcoal and gas grills used either conduction – the direct transfer of heat from the grill grate to the food, resulting in grill marks – or convection – the indirect transfer of heat from dry air (or smoke) hot enough to bring food up to a proper temperature. Infrared technology offers grillers another option. It filters the heat through layers of stainless steel, greatly reducing or eliminating the air flow and the drying effect of convection cooking. More simply, infrared technology allows the grill to reach incredibly high temperatures quickly. Getting an infrared grill to 700°F usually takes only a few minutes. Proponents of infrared cooking say it makes meat juicier and more tender.
The Char-Broil TRU-Infrared Commercial 4-Burner Gas Grill provides 40,000 BTUs of heat from its four stainless-steel burners. Its 580 square inches of primary grilling space are key to low-and-slow cooking, which requires the chamber to be large enough for one side to reach temperatures that will smoke wood and the other side to be cool enough that the meat doesn’t cook too quickly. The grill features a side shelf, a 13,000-BTU side burner – great for heating sauces – that doubles as a second side shelf when not in use, an upper rack that adds another 230 square inches of grilling space and a thermometer over each burner (convenient for indirect cooking), all wrapped up in a sleek stainless-steel design.
The Master Forge Steel Charcoal Grill is a rectangular, box-shaped grill with a smokestack on one side of the lid, sliding porcelain grates and adjustable side vents. The classic design offers some nice bells and whistles. An adjustable charcoal bed for raising and lowering the coals is incredibly useful in achieving the same high temperatures reached by a gas grill. A door on the front of the grill enables you to access the charcoal bed without opening the lid so you can add charcoal and smoke wood without releasing much heat. And the built-in bottle opener is something every grill should have, quite frankly. Its primary grill space is nearly identical to that of the gas grill, with 576 square inches and another 224 square inches of secondary space on an upper rack. The upper rack is a nice feature predominantly found in gas grills, and charcoal grills have recently adopted it. When shopping for a charcoal grill, look for a relatively tight fit on the lid and in the vents to reduce draftiness and temperature loss inside the grill. Adjustable vents are great for controlling the air flow inside the grill, but make sure they close all the way. Also, check that the charcoal bed has plenty of gaps in it to prevent ash buildup, which will stifle the fire.
HOW THE GRILLS COOK
How do the grills stack up when cooking identically prepared dishes? A few local food experts weighed in on typical backyard fare: ribs and steaks. Our Battle of the Grills judges were Mike Emerson, owner of Pappy’s Smokehouse; Matt Borchardt, culinary director at L’Ecole Academy for Culinary Development; and food writer Andrew Mark Veety.
The GrillinFools – Greg Thomas, Tom Jones and I – started by smoking two slabs of baby back ribs on each grill. The ribs were prepared in the same brine, given the same rub and cooked at almost the same temperature. (Identical temperatures couldn’t be achieved because charcoal grill temperatures fluctuate.) To smoke ribs on a charcoal grill, coals and soaked wood chips are placed on one side of the grill and the meat on the other side. To mimic the effect on a gas grill, burners on one side of the grill are turned on with the grates removed. Two to three foil balls, packed with dry wood chips and poked a few times with a knife, are placed directly over the heat source. The meat is set on the grill grates on the cool side.
After the ribs were served to the judges, we cranked up the heat to cook some steaks. It took the gas grill approximately 30 seconds to increase its heat from 300°F to 700°F. The charcoal grill took more than 10 minutes to come to a higher temperature. The steaks were simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and the grills were set up in the two-zone method (heat on one side, no heat on the other side). The steaks were seared on both sides over the heat before being moved to the other side of each grill and baked to medium-rare. The marbling of the steaks caused quite a few flare-ups on the charcoal grill, making it necessary to rotate the steaks to keep them from burning. The infrared grill, by design, prevents flare-ups.
As an avid griller, I will always have both a charcoal grill and an infrared gas grill in my backyard. In a perfect world, I would use a charcoal grill every time. But in the real world, life is high-maintenance. I need a grill that’s not. My gas grill is quick and easy and puts out really great food, and because of that, I find myself using it far more often than my charcoal grill.
- Matt Borchardt: The gas grill created better grill marks on the steak.
- Mike Emerson: Cross marks on the steak cooked over gas were more subtle. Marks from the charcoal grill looked perfect.
- Andrew Mark Veety: The gas grill made nice grill marks and an attractive-looking steak. The charcoal grill created better grill marks, however, and a steak that looked like a perfectly cooked piece of beef. Where the gas grill produced a lighter product between the marks, the charcoal grill steak was darker and more visually appealing.
- MB: The charcoal grill provided much better flavor.
- ME: The charcoal grill showed its true colors here. The biggest difference in the dishes we tasted was found in the steak. Charcoal definitely provides a better flavor.
- AMV: Gas grills get hot and put a great sear on a steak, but they don’t contribute to the final product beyond heating. Beef always seems to have a “beefier” flavor when it’s cooked over fire. Gas grill manufacturers may try to replicate a charcoal grill with “flavor plates,” but these manufacturers can’t achieve the result of rendered beef fat and juice hitting the coals and providing an additional burst of flavor.
Tenderness and Juiciness
- MB: Not much difference.
- ME: Similar in tenderness and in holding moisture.
- AMV: You can’t go wrong with prime beef, so this steak had a lot going for it from the get-go. For both tenderness and juiciness, the end product has everything to do with knowing how to use the tools at hand and resting the steak once you pull it off the heat. Both steaks were tender and juicy.
- MB: The taste difference in the steak cooked on the charcoal grill was unmistakable, so much better flavor. Going in, I knew this would be the case. When you grill red meat for a short time, you pick up the most and best flavors from a charcoal grill.
- ME: I would definitely choose the charcoal grill over the gas grill.
- AMV: For beef, I’d take charcoal over gas every day of the week. It was a no-brainer.
- MB: Ribs prepared on the gas grill appeared to be dry. Ribs prepared on the charcoal grill appeared much juicier and more natural-looking. Charcoal won by appearance.
- ME: Ribs prepared on the gas grill had less of the smoke ring that’s usually seen. Ribs prepared on the charcoal grill had more of a traditional smoked appearance, a good smoke ring.
- AMV: There was nice evidence of bark from the rub. Although the bark was destroyed by wrapping the ribs in foil to keep them warm. Ribs prepared on the charcoal grill had an evident smoke ring from the exposure to wood smoke. This was missing on the ribs prepared on the gas grill.
- MB: Surprisingly, the ribs prepared on the gas grill had great flavor. They didn’t have a smoky flavor, however. Instead, they tasted like high-quality pork ribs. The ribs prepared on the charcoal grill were very smoky, and the smokiness almost masked the pork flavor. I’m surprised, but I liked the flavor of the ribs prepared on the gas grill better.
- ME: The texture of the ribs prepared on the gas grill was solid. They had good pull. These had an oven-baked flavor, however. The ribs prepared on the charcoal grill had considerable smoke flavor, although it wasn’t overpowering. They had a slightly better texture. I preferred the ribs prepared on charcoal for the traditional flavors.
- AMV: With the ribs prepared on the gas grill, the flavors of the pork and the additions were forward on the palate and distinctly layered. First, you could taste the salt of the rub and then the sweetness of the cider brine and pork. The final product was a rib that I would expect from an oven rather than a grill. With the ribs prepared on the charcoal grill, time in wood smoke rounded and softened the flavor of the pork. It was a stark contrast to the flavor of the ribs from the gas grill, which was defined and distinct.
Tenderness and Juiciness
- MB: I found the ribs prepared on the gas grill to be more tender. The ribs prepared on the charcoal grill were juicier.
- ME: Tenderness was excellent on both grills. Both sets of ribs held moisture very well, but the ribs prepared on the gas grill were probably slightly juicier.
- AMV: Both ribs were tender but not overcooked. The bone didn’t pull easily from the meat on either rack. Placing a rib between two fingers and pressing lightly produced clear pork juice that moved from inside the rib meat and ran down the rib. Great stuff. Personally, I felt that both sets of ribs were equally tender and juicy.
- MB: Much to my surprise, I preferred the flavor and texture of the ribs prepared on the gas grill because you could identify the pork flavor.
- ME: I preferred the ribs prepared on the charcoal grill. I would cook on either grill, however, and feel confident in the outcome.
- AMV: I looked at the gas grill as buying insurance when cooking. It ran evenly and in a predictable manner. So there was less for the cook to worry about. At the same time, it produced a product similar to what I could produce in my own kitchen, which begged the question: Why? If you’re going to be outside, why not use a method that you can't use inside? Playing with fire and using a charcoal grill, however, means the cook is spending more time maintaining temperatures and being a more proactive cook. Some people want to take a more active role, and others want to fire up the grill and go. In the end, the gas grill produced flavorful ribs that highlighted the skill of the cook. The ribs cooked over charcoal had flavors that melded together, and they had visual appeal, with a nicely defined smoke ring. I’d take the charcoal grill.
WIN A GRILL!
It's prime time for outdoor cooking, and we’re giving away the grills featured in our competition. How to enter: Follow FEAST on Facebook at facebook.com/feaststl throughout June, and share any of our weekly giveaway posts to be automatically entered.