The Burning Question: Charcoal or Propane?

Setting meat (or, once in a blue moon on a diet, vegetables) over an open fire has got to be the oldest form of cooking on earth – short of the animal of your choice getting fortuitously struck by lightning.

The time-honored technique, which acquired its modern name “barbecue” when European started learning from the local Indians in the Caribbean in the 1600s, gets especially popular this time of year. And an essential part, not least because grillers tend to be male, is
arguing about which kind of heat source is better – charcoal or propane.

Most backyard grills are designed around one or the other, though increasing numbers of hardcore grillers own and use one grill of each type. That is because, logically enough, each is better than the other for some things.

Let’s start with the easy, obvious wins. A propane grill is quicker and easier than a charcoal grill. It not only doesn’t require charcoal but reaches a solid cooking temperature in a small fraction of the time required for preheating charcoal – and charcoal zealots are about nothing as vehemently as preheating. Sometimes it seems like they’ll never let you cook at all. Finally, while dedicated charcoal grillers perfect many, often-secret techniques for controlling the heat, a propane grill with a graduated-heat knob and its very own built-in thermometer is hard to resist.

So what’s so good about charcoal? As a method, it’s older and therefore more traditional than propane – something that counts for a lot with some grillers. It’s also more basic, more rustic, less high-tech, other things that count with the same crowd.  It’s cuisine for survivalists, essentially. And there is the continued belief that foods simply “taste better” cooked over charcoal than they do over propane. Since we’re all about making foods taste better, that claim bears some looking into.

Let’s get as simple as it gets here. What we’re talking about is grilling, not making barbecue or, in the usually misused American phrase, barbecuing. Grilling is cooking over intense “direct heat,” with the food placed right above the heat source. True barbecue, as it’s revered in Texas but also in other barbecue destinations like Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis and the Carolinas, is cooked by “indirect heat.” Low and slow, you’ll hear time and again. The mediums typically are heat from a fire box for the cooking and smoke for the signature flavor.

What a backyard grill does is, well, grill. It doesn’t barbecue, no matter what the fuel of your choice happens to be.

By this logic, the more committed the cook is to applying a smoke flavor to foods, the more charcoal’s claims make a certain sense. It’s still not a smoker, of course – the equipment, plain or fancy, that barbecue zealots dream of buying, or at least crafting out of an old-abandoned oil drum. This becomes even truer when the cook soaks wood chips, tosses them atop the glowing mound of charcoal and closes the lid to let the smoke magic happen. If this is you, then charcoal is your fuel, and you may well tend toward beef brisket, ham, whole birds or sausage as your meat. You’re basically wishing you had a smoker.

On the other hand, if smoke plays little or no role in your backyard cooking – as, most profoundly, in the case of steak – then the advantages of charcoal fade behind its disadvantages. The primary flavors we seek in a good steak are, of course, the beef itself, along with whatever happens when the fat in said meat encounters flames and flare-ups from the heat directly below. Obviously, we season our steaks more than a little, but this we’d do no matter how we were cooking the things. Thus, even with true barbecue, the hotter, quicker heat of mesquite wood is typically preferred for cooking steak over the oak, pecan or hickory reserved for slower smoking.

Therefore, meats that have their own flavor profiles (smoked foods, after all, taste mostly like smoke), should not only be cooked on any grill rather than any smoker but are best cooked over the intense, highly controllable fire than comes with a gas grill. When the preferred method edges closer to low and slow, you might well choose charcoal.

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