FORT WAYNE – It’s as old of a debate as hot dogs or hamburgers? Coke or Pepsi? Williams or DiMaggio? Ginger or Mary Ann?
Since the introduction of gas-controlled fire, those outdoor Emerils and Rachaels who sear the meat and shish-ka-bob have memberships in one camp or another.
What’s your preference: Charcoal grill or gas grill?
Plumes of backyard smoke rise from either propane-controlled devices or grills fueled by charcoal briquettes that mostly require lighter fluid and a direct flame to ignite.
The cooking purists say charcoal. The food tastes better, and isn’t that the point?
The practical say gas; it’s cleaner and quicker, and heat can be regulated more accurately. And can you really taste the difference?
I prefer charcoal, says Jeff Bunting, a chef who teaches in Ivy Tech Community College’s culinary arts department. It gives the food a nice, smoky flavor. I actually prefer not the briquettes, but the natural, hardwood charcoal. It doesn’t have as many harsh chemicals in it.
Bunting says he uses both at home.
When I’m in a hurry, or I need to get something done quickly, I use the gas grill. If it’s my day off and I’m doing something special and I’ve got the time, I use the charcoal grill, he says.
Gas is definitely convenient, that’s for sure. All you have to do is go out and light it and wait for about 10 minutes to heat up and you’re ready to cook. Whereas with charcoal, you have to buy lighter fluid or you have to have a chimney starter, and you have to light it and wait for it to get hot. Then once it is ready to go – and a lot of people don’t understand when it’s ready – which is usually 20 to 30 minutes later, then you’re ready to cook.
Which grill to use?
Bunting says it’s OK to use the gas grill for something quick, such as a steak or a burger. Use high heat to sear the meat on both sides, then turn down the flame for the rest of the cooking duration.
For items that take longer to cook – ribs, a pork shoulder, a whole chicken, Bunting opts for indirect cooking with charcoal.
If you’re slow cooking something, you can tell a lot of difference between charcoal and gas, he says. Especially slow cooking, you get a lot more flavor with charcoal.
Avoid common mistakes
Bunting says don’t be in a hurry. Lousy timing is the most common mistake.
A lot of times people will light their charcoal with lighter fluid, then once the flame goes out, they start cooking, and that can lead to food tasting like lighter fluid, he says. Even if the charcoal isn’t lit all the way or if it’s not ashed over and ready to cook, that can really taint the flavor of the food. So making sure your coals are ashed over is pretty important.
As far as gas grilling, I think a lot of times people have the heat too high, or they’ll have the heat too low. It’s hard to get a balance.
While Bunting admits the Internet provides a wealth of possible recipes, he still recommends a cookbook from a professional chef. He suggests Steven Raichlen from the TV show Barbecue University.