Charcoal vs Natural Gas vs Propane – Which is best for your BBQ?

There are pros and cons to buying one type of grill over another. Those often revolve around convenience in use and clean up, cost and other factors. But the more passionate debates circle around the question of which one cooks the best. To that question there may be no correct answer.

Traditional charcoal grills add a distinctive flavor that, so far, no other grill has been able to duplicate. The briquettes themselves range from the standard black charcoal to flavored styles. Adding cherry or other natural woods to the mix enhances a barbeque like nothing else can. Though adding smoking woods is sometimes possible with other grills, depending on the design.

As the briquettes burn, they add flavor by smoking, which infuses into the meat. But cooking with charcoal can be tricky, since it can be hard to judge when any starter fluid has been completely burned away. If the meat is put on too soon, the fumes from the lighter fluid make their way into the meal. That imparts a very unpleasant aftertaste.

Charcoal grills have another potential disadvantage – the temperature is hard to control. Once the coals glow they reach a temperature determined by the chemical composition of the briquette. To reduce the heat, you have to reduce the number of briquettes or separate them and even that has a limited effect. When flare-ups occur, such as from grease drippings, high flames can be produced that scorch the meat unevenly.

Natural gas, propane and electric grills don’t suffer from that potential downside. But each has its advocates and critics for other reasons.

Natural gas produces a very high heat and overcooking is something to watch for. Most fine barbeque is accomplished by slow cooking. That’s possible, even easy, with natural gas since all you have to do is turn down the flame. But there is a temptation with grills to set it at maximum and ignore it.

Propane burns a little less hot, but some can certainly sear a steak with no problem. Drippings aren’t usually a problem, since splashing grease doesn’t cause add-on ceramic briquettes to produce a high, scorching flame.

The most common drawback to propane grills isn’t inherent in this type, but comes from selecting the wrong model. Many propane models are simply too underpowered to do the job of cooking more than a hot dog or hamburger. To cook a large chicken piece or a regular (much less a thick) steak, you need significant heat. Some smaller propane models simply can’t supply it.

Electrics can suffer from the same inadequacy, if the model you select doesn’t permit raising the temperature above 400F (204C). Selecting a larger model will allow you to cook just as you would with an indoor oven. But then, that may be the biggest drawback of all to electrics. It’s hard to feel you are barbecuing unless you see a flame of some kind.

When it comes right down to it, everyone will have his preferred style and no one is likely to be converted. Vive la difference!