Ask Chef Emily: Gas or Charcoal?

But which is better, you ask? The best answer: Both.

Summer Solstice Potluck

Dear Chef Emily, There’s a debate among my foodie friends and I was hoping you could weigh in. When it comes to grilling, which do you prefer: gas or charcoal? – Alice, Port Washington

Dear Alice,

Indeed the grilling season is upon us and anyone with some outdoor space can enjoy the delicious flavors that come off  a Smokey Joe or any number of brand-name gas grills.

But which is better, you ask? The best answer: Both. If you are serious about your grill game ( I am, and it sounds like you are) have one of each.

In my yard, I have a gas grill that I bought off Craigslist from a guy who had upgraded to the newest model. So lovingly had he taken care of this grill that when we picked it up, he handed us a file folder full of the history of maintenance and replaced parts. He teared up when he handed us the folder and said, “They all know me by name there, just tell them who you are.” His wife, on the other hand was happy to see his project go to a pregnant chef and her husband.

I also have a large, portable charcoal grill that I can fire up in the backyard, or I can put it in a large contractor bag, throw it in the back of our car and take it camping, to the beach, a friend’s house or wherever.

There are pros and cons for each: charcoal grills are inexpensive, infuse real smoke to whatever you are cooking, and I get a real primal tingle when I cook over a fire I built. On the down side, charcoal can be messy to work with, it takes a while to be ready to cook over (no flames, all ashen) and the spent ashes need to be safely disposed. But the fire gets much hotter, and I can control the zones by piling up all the hot coals on one side of the grill before putting on the cooking grate.

Gas grills are really convenient. One click and you’ve got fire. Cook your meal, turn it off, close the lid and you are done until next time. There are a layer of metal bars between the grill and the flame intended to catch fat that drips and create smoke to mimic the charcoal experience, I’m still on the fence about whether this works as a flavor element or just helps prevent grease fires. Also gas grills are expensive and if you are buying new, on the low end, you’ll get what you pay for.

If you’ve got the cash, splurge on a good gas grill. Buy two tanks of propane so that one is always at the ready and enjoy grilling all year long. Add a charcoal grill to your collection when you want a more leisurely experience in exchange for more flavorful food.

A word on charcoal: I always opt for hardwood lump. Briquettes are only partially charcoal and the balance of materials include wax, borax and sodium nitrate, which aren’t terrible, but if what you are going for is wood smoke flavor, then use hardwood charcoal. Invest in a charcoal chimney and the fire starting procedure will be simple.

Happy grilling!

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Emily Peterson is a food writer, culinary instructor, and Executive Chef at Astor Center in New York City. Emily is a professor of food studies at NYU and Montclair State University. Her work has been featured on Martha Stewart, Robb Report, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Time Out NY, Huffington Post, CBS, NBC, FOX, Food Network and Vegetarian Times. Chef Emily hosts the weekly call-in radio show Sharp & Hot on HeritageRadioNetwork.org. She lives on a 250-year old family farm with her husband, son, cat named Oyster, a flock of chickens and a dog named Rooster.