When it comes to barbecue cooking, the debate over gas versus charcoal grilling is age-old and people often fall firmly into one camp. Is one really better than the other? Does that smokiness only come from proper charcoal, and what is ‘proper’ charcoal anyway? Let us break it down for you.
Why buy a gas barbecue?
Convenient, efficient and ready-in-a-flash. Gas grills get a bad rap but in reality, and for most people who simply want to cook outdoors with relative ease, they do the job, allowing you to get cooking with the flick of a switch (charcoal is a little – but only a little – messier, as we explain below).
The benefits of a gas barbecue
Ease-of-use and speed is the name of the game here, as you’ll be able to get cooking in under 10 minutes (depending on which gas barbecue you choose).
The accuracy of a good gas grill will allow you to set temperatures with precision, allowing better overall control.
The heat is very direct and consistent, usually coming from 2-3 set of burners, allowing you to sear with ease, which is perfect for barbecue staples.
The speed and instant adaptability are great for summer midweek cooking, as well as churning out the goods for larger groups.
The negatives of a gas barbecue
This pinpoint precision has its pitfalls, reducing the overall radiant heat (unless the lid is shut). Because they lack the even blanket of heat of a traditional charcoal barbecue, many gas barbecues try to compensate with added tech (lava rocks and ceramic plates etc). However you’ll still struggle with heat retention and find it difficult to build flavourful crusts on larger cuts.
Further, gas burns cooler than charcoal, restricting the efficiency of the heat.
You will be limited when it comes to indirect cooking and/or smoking. Imparting wood smoke will also be slightly more tricky, with soaked wood chips above the flames being your only real option.
Which gas barbecue is best?
Read our review of the best two-burner gas barbecues. We pick out our favourite models, from budget buys to blowout options. We also explain what to look for when buying a gas barbecue – some key things to consider include build time, storage options, versatility and sturdiness.
Why buy a charcoal barbecue?
A charcoal barbecue is versatile, allowing you to cook super-high or way-down low. However, you’ll need dedication and patience to get the best and most flavourful results.
The benefits of a charcoal barbecue
Getting started is always more of an issue with charcoal but don’t feel like you need to resort to firelighters or lighter fluid (both of which will add an unpleasant petrol taste to your food). Invest in an affordable charcoal chimney, which allows you to light them with just a few sheets of newspaper, funneling oxygen up through the coals. Then it’s simply a case of pouring them onto the grill and you’ll be ready to cook in 20-30 minutes.
Versatility is really the key here with the consistent radiant heat helping you along the way. You can sear really hot and fast (quicker than gas), slow-cook large cuts (briskets, ribs etc) indirectly and place produce directly into the hot coals, though we’d recommend wrapping in foil.
Indirect grilling, which is cooking slowly with the heat source to the side of the produce (the key to smoking), is also more viable thanks to the radiant heat. The simplicity and space of the grill will allow you to play with wood smoke, choosing whole pieces of hardwood, or chunks, as well as the more conventional chips.
The negatives of a charcoal barbecue
Heat control is more of a struggle with live fire and it’ll take some care, intuition and plenty of practice. With time, you’ll be able to cook almost anything thanks to the radiant, high heat that charcoal provides.
The charcoal itself doesn’t actually provide much in the way of extra smokiness (it’s 99% carbon, a fuel source, much like gas – see below) with the flavour in both cases coming from the drippings (oils, sugars, proteins) hitting the heat source and smoking up over the food. However, you could argue that the area of heat is larger with coal, providing more space for dripping.
Charcoal grills can be slightly restrictive in size. They can have smaller cooking areas and often no cooling shelves. Mix this with the slightly lengthier start time and tricky heat regulation (charcoal burns out and needs to be topped up in advance), and you’ll soon notice you’re spending more time managing the cook, rather than relaxing with your guests.
How to use charcoal
Almost as hotly debated as what works better, is the question – does ‘proper’ charcoal really make a difference? As explained above, charcoal barbecues allow you to cook with more versatility, allowing you to build up great flavourful crusts, as well as cooking low-and-slow for hours (or even days).
However, if you aren’t opting to use real wood for burning or smoking, then naturally-lit lumpwood charcoal imparts little to no extra flavour to what you’re coooking.
On the other hand, briquettes, made from compressed biomass including coal dust, leftover charcoal, paper and sawdust, are often laced with additives that help them burn, which can impart an unpleasant chemical hint to your food as it cooks. However, they are convenient, easy-to-find, quick to ignite and provide a long, consistent burn.
With all this in mind, it’s helpful to buy the best quality charcoal you can afford, and to tailor it to your cooking. Cheaper lumpwood will often be smaller and so will burn too quickly for anything other than burgers, whereas more expensive charcoal (look for ‘restaurant grade’) will come in larger chunks and is best for slow-cooks.
Furthermore, there is also an environmental consideration. Many of the larger charcoal producers are sourcing trees and biomass from all over the world often putting cost considerations above quality and ethical, renewable sourcing – this is particularly an issue with briquettes.
There are a number of smaller UK companies making ethically sourced, homegrown charcoal, that is naturally slow-burning and easy to ignite, but expect it to be slightly more expensive.
Which charcoal barbecue is best?
When buying a charcoal barbecue, think about capacity, storage options, build time, longevity and quality of materials. Charcoal barbecues can be cheaper than gas, with small portable charcoal barbecues being especially reasonable. However, larger grills from specialist barbecue brands can be expensive. We reviewed charcoal barbecues under £100 to bring you some pocket-friendly options.
Gas versus charcoal: the verdict
In the end, it really depends on individual preferences. If you’re a super-keen cook who would like to practice and learn how to carefully cook over wood or charcoal, then embrace that, get out there and impress your friends. Try cooking brisket, a beer-can chicken, or some super-smoky charcoal-baked spuds.
However, if you simply want to cook for a crowd, grilling burgers and sausages (and maybe the odd kebab) with minimal prep and planning, or simply want to do some quick outdoor grilling, then invest in a solid gas grill that will last you long-term.
Are you a gas gourmand or a charcoal champion? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below.