There was a day when grilling dinner was simply a matter of slapping a burger on a charcoal grill. Fast forward to the new millennium. You now have to make a choice between a gas grill or an old-fashioned charcoal-fired apparatus. That gas grill might sound like a no-brainer, but now you have another choice to make. Are you going to go with propane or do you want to fire it up from your home’s gas line?
The bottom line is that your choice has to be right for your preferences and needs. Maybe an exquisite meal is less important to you than a grill that’s just plain easy to use and maintain. Maybe you’re highly health-conscious, or your budget is your top consideration. In any case, it can pay to compare so you don’t end up wasting your money.
If Cost Is Your Priority
A super-deluxe charcoal grill probably won't set you back more than a couple hundred dollars. You might get away with spending as little as $25 if you’re willing to settle for a small bare-bones grill. Upper-end charcoal grills run in the neighborhood of $150. Your minimum expenditure on a gas grill will probably be from $130 or so to $300 or more. A four- to six-burner gas grill could cost you in the neighborhood of $1,000 or more.
Then there’s the cost of firing up your grill for that weekend dinner. You won’t have to come immediately out of pocket if your grill is designed for gas hookup to your home’s line. The increase in gas usage will be reflected in your monthly bill, and it should be at least half the cost of propane. Charcoal and a lighting agent will cost you cash out of pocket, and propane might be the most expensive option of all.
But propane will last you longer. A 20-pound cylinder should give you about 25 meals for a cost of about $15, whereas a 20-pound bag of charcoal might net you three meals and that bag will probably cost you about $10.
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The Convenience Factor
You can simply flip the ignition switch on a gas grill and it will be ready to cook your food at 600 degrees Fahrenheit in about 10 minutes. That's the recommended temperature if you want to sear your meat. That charcoal grill is going to require more time until grilling. First, you have to place the charcoal, ignite it and watch over it for maybe as long as 30 minutes before it hits that 600-degree mark. But that charcoal can reach a higher temperature than a gas-fueled grill if that's your priority.
Now it’s cooking time. You can control and adjust the heat of your gas grill with a simple turn of a knob. You probably won’t have to add fuel if you’re cooking a mega-meal for a party of 10 that requires that your grill must keep churning out heat for hours. You’ll probably have to add more charcoal to your non-gas grill in this case.
Maintenance and Cleaning Factors
And all that burned charcoal has to go somewhere when you’ve finished cooking. You’ll have to dedicate some time to removing and disposing of all those ashes (and the food drippings and particles that fell down in there) before you can clean it up in preparation for your next meal. As for the gas grill, propane burns much more cleanly. Just turn your grill off, go back to it after it’s cooled down and wipe down the grates.
Gas grills do require another little maintenance step or two, however. Many come with drip pans and flavor bars that must be cleaned, too. But gas tends to vaporize food drippings, something charcoal can’t do. And checking your propane tank for how much gas you have left can be a bit more of a challenge than opening a bag of charcoal and peering inside to see how many coals are left in there.
Health and Safety Considerations
Gas is a naturally clean fuel. Breathing in the fumes of lighter fluid can be hazardous for some people. According to Bob Vila, gas grills generate about 5.6 pounds of carbon monoxide per hour, while charcoal produces about twice that – 11 pounds per hour. Natural charcoal briquettes are available for purchase, but getting them started still involves a bit more work than flipping a switch and placing that steak on the grill.
And cooking with gas necessitates other precautions. You have to make sure your propane tank isn’t leaking before you use it to cook. This can be a health hazard, too. And it’s recommended that you keep this type of grill at least 10 feet away from your home and deck, just in case. Open flame gas grills can be prone to flare-ups while you’re cooking, and, of course, you’ll want to be absolutely, positively sure to turn your gas grill off after using it.
Maybe It’s About the Food
Maybe all these factors don’t matter all that much to you. Maybe your primary concern is how your meals are going to taste.
The direct heat provided by lump charcoal is the preferable choice for searing food, and charcoal lends that old-fashioned, smoky taste. Food drippings hit those hot coals and turn into smoke that rises back to your food. But there’s the possibility that those ashes can find their way up into your entrée, too.
Gas tends to let the natural flavor of your food remain front and center. This can be an important consideration with more delicate items like vegetables, fish or special flavorings. Gas produces steam, not smoke, which tenderizes. You’ll have more control over meal preparation because you can so easily control the temperature at which your food is cooking.
And you can purchase a smoke box for your gas grill to lend a little charcoal flavor if you really want to capture that. But that’s more money out of pocket.
Other Options and Variations
Maybe neither of these options is thrilling you. You might prefer a gas grill in one respect, and a charcoal grill in another. But you’re not limited to just these two choices.
You might consider adding a smoker to your backyard arsenal for some cuts of beef if you prefer the gas grill in most respects, but you’ll miss that distinctive smoky taste. And some grills are able to operate on both charcoal and gas, but they tend to be quite expensive.
Or you might want to bypass charcoal and gas entirely. Electric grills are available, too, and they can often be used indoors if a rain forecast is about to spoil your party. They're often permissible on apartment decks even if management outlaws gas and charcoal grills there. Of course, you’re still giving up that smoky flavor.
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Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.