It’s the question that breaks up family reunions, causes neighborly dispustes and has ruined more than one beach cookout: What makes a better grill? Charcoal or propane? Let’s break it down.
The price of charcoal and propane grills depends on the size and features. The most basic charcoal grill can be had for $25, while propane and electric grills start around $125 for low-end models. For comparison’s sake, we’ll look at the average, basic models. The classic Weber® 18-inch Original Kettle™ can be had for $79.99. The Char-Broil® 2 Burner Grill starts at $199.99. If you’re looking for a propane grill with additional features, check out the Weber Gensis EP-310, which retails for $749.
Grill purists will tell you charcoal gives food a distinct flavor advantage over propane, especially if you add flavored wood chips like mesquite and hickory. Charcoal also produces more smoke, which can add a distinct flavor to meats.
Propane grill enthusiast Mark McClusky disagrees. He writes in Wired, “The characteristic flavor of grilled food comes from the drippings, not the fuel. When those drippings hit the heat source below, the oils, sugars, and proteins burst into smoke and flame. That heat creates new complex molecules that rise in the smoke and warm air to coat the food you’re grilling. Nothing in that process relies on charcoal.”
Winner: It’s a toss-up. This category comes down to personal preference.
When it comes to convenience, propane grills win hands-down. They’re easy to start, can heat up in 10 to 15 minutes and offer more temperature control than charcoal. They’re also easier to clean. Then again, lugging a giant propane grill to the park cookout isn’t an option. If you’re looking for portability, go with a smaller charcoal grill.
Charcoal can get hotter than standard propane grills without infrared burners, and heat is what you need for steaks with a crispy outside and medium rare inside. Some less expensive models of propane grills might not reach the 600 degrees required for searing.
Which to Buy?
In the end, there is no definitive winner. It really comes down to personal preference. If you need that smoky flavor, go with charcoal. If it’s ease of use you seek, go with propane. And if you’re a true grill aficionado, you probably already own both.
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Photo courtesy of Flickr user John Liu.