There is an endless number of articles, forum postings, and full on RANTS debating the merits of gas grills vs. charcoal. But none of them really tackle ALL the different aspects of the debate.
So to settle the argument once and for all, I put together the most comprehensive, thoroughly researched, ultimate showdown review ever. It’s pretty epic.
EVERY single concern from both sides of the fence is addressed in detail. NO biases, NO grill showmanship, just a fact by fact comparison of charcoal vs gas.
When you get right down to it, these grills are two different beasts that have long been lumped into one overbroad category.
The comparison is like putting a puma and a lion in cage together and then picking apart their differences. They are similar, but clearly adapted to thrive in different environments with distinct strengths and weaknesses.
This post weighs in on 5 different categories, pulling evidence from each side of the aisle.
The five categories we’re taking a look at are: taste, control, convenience, cost and versatility. This is a massive beast of a post. If you don’t have the time to devote to reading the article in its entirety, I recommend first taking a look at the sections that are most relevant to your grilling needs.
Or you can read the whole shebang, her out with me and become a gas vs. charcoal expert too. Totally your call.
If you don’t own a grill yet, you are about to dive headfirst into the most comprehensive post on this subject on the web. By the end, you will know exactly which grill best fits your lifestyle.
If you already own a grill, by the end you will be equipped to make an intelligent decision on all future grill purchases and totally STOMP anyone in a gas vs. charcoal debate.
If you grill as much as I do, you’re going to get sucked into this heated discussion. It is a touchy subject and grill masters everywhere generally gravitate to one side or the other. Most posts about this topic are ramblings by passionate grill men who have a pretty clear bias, not to mention what goes on in the message boards. The slop flung around on those things is damn near juvenile.
I have cooked with both gas and charcoal regularly and I am keeping this post neutral. I look at some real world studies, facts and figures to find a winner in each of the different categories.
Welcome to my thoroughly researched, 5,500+ word, carefully documented beast post! Let’s end the debate once and for all.
Taste the most important section in this article by far and also the longest. After reading through it, you’re going to know probably more than you ever wanted to, BUT taste is WHY we grill in the first place. Grilling makes every meal taste 10 times better.
All meats and veggies and even certain fruit (if you haven’t tried grilled peaches yet, you need to) are taken to the next level when cooked on a grill.
So let’s get to it. Who takes the taste showdown?
Common Concern: Gas does not taste as good as charcoal!
Instead of stating opinions, we want to look at some hard data. Several respectable institutions have conducted scientific studies comparing the taste of gas and charcoal. They found some interesting results.
Good Housekeeping Study
In 1998, The Good Housekeeping Institute found that tasters could not perceive a difference between hamburgers, hotdogs and chicken breasts cooked on both types of grills. BUT they could taste a difference in how sirloin steaks were cooked and preferred charcoal grilled steaks over the gas grilled versions.
The theory is that meat cooked for a shorter period of time won’t allow the smokey flavor to penetrate, making the benefit of charcoal irrelevant. Steaks are generally cooked longer and have more time to absorb the charcoal smokiness.
Vanderbilt University Study
Vanderbilt University conducted another study that found that meat grilled on charcoal had a plumper, juicier texture. The theory is that the flame coagulates the meat’s surface proteins, sealing in the juices.
In laymen’s terms, this is most likely due to the caramelization of the meat, which we’re going to explore in greater detail soon.
They also found that the wood smoke that rises off the charcoal does penetrate the meat and infuses the food with a smoky flavor.
Now, here is the kicker:
They also studied gas and found that heat from a gas grill contains moisture, which “steam distills” the meat. This opens up the pores and releases the juices, giving the meat a “floppier” texture.
Cooks Illustrated Study
In 2004, Cooks Illustrated conducted another study and found that charcoal produced better browning and searing than gas. They also tasted a smoky favor in foods that were cooked over charcoal, concluding results similar to the Vanderbilt Study.
It is pretty clear that there are 2 characteristics that make your grilled food taste better: caramelization and smokiness.
Let’s take a closer look at both, so you can understand exactly what’s happening when your meat is grilling.
Caramelization and browning are two different things. They are often used interchangeably among grill rookies, but we should know the difference.
Caramelization takes place only at really high temperatures (around and above 400F) when a chemical reaction takes place on the sugars in the meat. This causes them to take on a dark brown, hardened crust and a characteristic carmel flavor. Surprise, there is some sugar in your meat, it is not all protein!
For caramelization to happen, there also needs to be zero moisture. This is why it is a good idea to dry your steaks before throwing them on the grill.
The grill will evaporate the surface moisture and then the steak will start to caramelize and create that delicious crust. If you dry them, you are helping minimize the time the grill needs to evaporate the surface moisture.
The grill surface also cools down drastically the second you add your meat. If your grill temp is 400F when you begin cooking your meat, it is going to take more time for the surface temperature to rise enough for the meat to start caramelizing. To combat this, you need a much hotter grill surface before you add the meat, so when the surface temperature cools down, it is still above the 400F mark and the meat starts to caramelize.
Browning is totally different.
Browning is caused by the Maillard chemical reaction. This is just a fancy term named after the scientist who discovered the process.
Not to get too science-heavy, but browning is the chemical reaction of the protein WITH the sugars in the meat. This process occurs at much lower temperatures than caramelization (around and above 300F). This is why you can bake your steak and it turns brown, but will not have a crust.
In restaurants, it is common for chefs to sear the steak at high temperatures to get that tasty crust and then cook it in the oven to finish browning the meat.
When grilling, we want both the caramelization and browning.
The charcoal grill beats the gas grill here 95% of the time. A charcoal grill can easily reach 700F, no problem. You don’t need anything fancy to get to that temp.
Gas grills often max out at 500-550F, but it all depends on the quality of your grill. If you have the money and can buy a Weber Summit ($1500+) you might get up to 650F, if you leave the lid closed on a hot day with zero wind factor.
To combat this, some of the really high-end gas grills will come with a sear station. These high-performance burners can get the grill as hot as 800F. This is easily hot enough to achieve top-notch caramelization.
A sear station is your best friend if you’re a steak lover. They are designed to achieve a caramelized crust, before moving the meat over to the main burners to finish cooking at lower temperatures.
BUT these high-end gas grills are pricey. The least expensive Weber gas grill with a sear station will run you around $800, AND that is only for a 3-burner setup.
On the flip side, a basic high-quality Weber Kettle charcoal grill will set you back $99. This $99 beast will get you great caramelization of your meat for 1/8th of the price. It’s no frills so don’t expect fold out side tables, a thermometer and a push button start, but it gets the job done.
Word of caution: Do NOT buy a budget, low-quality gas grill. You will be extremely disappointed.
My brother has a cheap Char-Broil gas grill and he just can’t achieve much of any caramelization. He has gone to extreme lengths and put lava rocks under his burners to try and get more heat to the grills. It works…kind of.
The LAST thing you want is a rubbery steak that failed to sear and caramelize. You might as well save your money and just bake it in the oven.
So who wins? Well, it depends on how much money you are willing to invest. A high-end gas grill will get you solid caramelization, BUT a basic charcoal grill will also achieve good caramelization.
Due to the huge cost difference, I think it’s pretty clear that charcoal walks away the victor!
So now that that is settled, let’s move on to smokiness.
A smoky flavor is what really sets charcoal grills apart from gas grills.
According to the Good Housekeeping Study, tasters could not tell the difference between gas and charcoal for hotdogs, hamburgers and skinless chicken breast.
On the contrary, the Vanderbilt and the Cooks Illustrated Study tasters COULD pick up the smokiness and enjoyed the flavor more.
Based on those two studies and my personal experience, I have to conclude that smokiness from charcoal is not a myth and is a tasty benefit of using charcoal that adds a flavor most people prefer.
However, all charcoal is not created equal. Hardwood charcoal is always superior to the standard briquettes. Some briquettes have petroleum additives… not cool. Hardwood will give you a better, smokier flavor. If you’re not already using hardwood, try it out and see if you like it, you might be surprised.
Gas grills do not add any kind of smokey flavor to the meat, since you are obviously not cooking with charcoal. There is no wood smoke given off while the gas fuel is burning.
Yes, there is a way to infuse some smokiness into your meat using a gas grill. Gas grill manufactures have been working really hard and have come a long way to make sure you get the most flavor with the most convenience.
So what is this voodoo magic of adding smokiness to your meat with a gas grill, you ask? It’s pretty easy, all you have to do is purchase a smoker box, add wood chips, and place it in your gas grill.
Does this work?
Well, it depends on how long you are planning on cooking your meat. I call this indirect smoke.
In a charcoal grill, the charcoal fuel ignites and produces smoke. This is direct smoke to the food.
In a gas grill it is indirect. The gas fuel ignites, heating up the grill, which heats up the wood chips, which produces smoke. It is just not nearly as efficient.
It is also very localized. When you place the smoker box on the grill, it is usually to one side or the other. This means that meat closer to the smoker box has a better chance of absorbing the glorious smokiness.
If you’re slow-cooking a turkey, you have plenty of time for the wood chips to give off smoke and penetrate the meat, with hamburgers and hot dogs you probably won’t be able to tell any difference.
If you have the cash to spend, some of the higher-end gas grills come with a built-in smoker box, so you don’t even have to get a separate one to throw on the grill.
A note of caution: the wood chips and the smoker box do take away from the convenience of the gas grill. Isn’t this why we buy gas grills to begin with?
It is recommended that you soak the wood chips for 30 minutes to an hour before firing up the grill. This will give off more smoke while cooking, BUT is an extra step and requires extra time and prep.
So who wins? I think it’s pretty clear that charcoal wins this one. With a charcoal grill you will always get that smokey flavor. On a gas grill, you usually have to spend extra money and extra time to get it done.
It’s pretty clear who takes the overall top spot in this category:
Charcoal triumphs in both taste divisions: caramelization and smokiness! Hands down charcoal is the better fuel for optimal tastiness.
But, don’t give up on gas grills just yet, they can get pretty close to replicating the taste of charcoal, if you have a decent budget for a higher-end gas grill and know how to use it.
Control is a touchy subject. Most seasoned charcoal grillers will tell you that there is no benefit in terms of control with a gas grill. By control, I mean the ability to fine-tune how your meat is being cooked.
This is true if you have a lot of experience and know what you’re doing. Having some extra equipment can also help significantly with control if you’re not a pitmaster and are still learning the ropes.
Temperature control it is much easier to achieve on a gas grill. You simply adjust the knobs and more gas or less gas travels to the burners. Simple. Awesome.
Temperature control with a charcoal grill is more of a challenge. A lot of it is based on how much charcoal you add to the grill.
Once the charcoal is burning, you can adjust the intake damper and the exhaust damper. The intake damper is the main temperature control. It is on the bottom of the grill near the fire. The more you open the intake, the more oxygen travels to the fire and the hotter the fire burns.
The exhaust damper is on the lid. The more you open the exhaust, the more smoke is allowed to escape. This creates lower pressure inside. The low pressure sucks more oxygen into the intake damper and causes the fire to burn hotter.
You can also control the temperature by moving your food to different locations on the grill. If it is directly over the coals, it is going to cook at hotter temperatures. If it is indirectly over the coals, it is going to cook at a lower temperature.
Temperature control on a charcoal grill it is more of an art than a science. Is it difficult? Not really, it just takes a little bit more finesse and some practice.
Indirect heat control allows you to slow-cook larger meat, like a whole turkey. On a gas grill it is easy, you turn on one burner to the right and one burner to the left and leave the middle burner off. Boom, you have indirect heat to your mega bird.
With a charcoal grill, you can either push the coals to the right or left side and place the bird on the other side. This is a less precise approach, but it works. However, it is better to use some Weber Charcoal Briquet Holders to gain more control over the indirect heating process.
So who wins? It’s pretty clear that gas grills are easier to control and win this category.
This is going to be a pretty short category. Do I even need to explain why gas grills win in this category? Probably not, but let’s compare in detail so you know exactly why gas is the favorite here.
With a gas grill, you can simply turn the knob, push the igniter button, and like magic fire is heating the grill. Wait ten minutes to pre-heat and you have a HOT grill ready for you to throw on your food. It really doesn’t get easier than that.
Charcoal, on the other hand, is not as easy. You have to get your coals started.
What’s the best most efficient way to do this?
You could douse your charcoal in lighter fluid and ignite it, BUT this is not a great option. It can and does leave a synthetic gasoline-y taste to your food. It’s much better to ditch the lighter fluid and use a chimney starter.
If you don’t know what that is, Google it. It is the only way to go when starting a charcoal grill.
After you start the charcoal, it takes about 20 minutes for it to become ashed over and ready to throw your meat on the grill.
It is not hard to start a charcoal grill, but does require a few extra steps and some time.
With a gas grill, you just turn off the knobs and you’re done. Easy.
With charcoal, there are a few more steps. If you have a good quality charcoal grill, you may be able to save some of the partially-used charcoal.
To do this, put the lid on, close all the vents and the lack of oxygen will snuff the fire. They can stay hot for up to 24 hours, so make sure your grill is located in a safe place that won’t get tipped over and start a fire.
Let’s face it, a charcoal grill is messier that a gas grill. With a gas grill, all you have to clean up is the grease from the food. With higher quality grills, you can just remove the grease-catcher every so often and either clean or replace it. That’s pretty much it. My Weber works this way and I love it.
With charcoal grills, you have the charcoal ash to deal with. You have to wait for it to cool down and then remove it from the ash-catcher, then you have to dispose of the ash. If you are using hardwood charcoal, you can throw some of it into your compost. If you are using briquettes, it is better to just toss it in the trash since most of them have some synthetic chemicals that you won’t want in your garden.
You will also need to scrub the inside of your lid occasionally. A carbon layer will form on the underside of the lid and needs to be cleaned up every so often.
Is cleaning your charcoal grill a big deal? Not really. Is it more work that gas grill? Yes.
With both gas and charcoal grills, you will have to clean the cooking grates. This is very easy to do before you throw your meat on the grill. Once it is hot, use a wire grill brush to remove any burned food particles from the last time you grilled. I have a favorite posted on my Top Tools Guide that I swear by.
So who wins? This section clearly goes to the gas grill.
This is a beastly section, but probably the one you are most interested to read.
There is SO much more to discuss than just the initial cost of the grill. I also think it is important to factor in the cost of fuel and understand the replacement cost of the grill, both long-term factors that every griller should keep in mind.
Cost varies widely based on the grill you are operating and what fuel you prefer to work with.
I am going to have to make a few assumptions to illustrate my point, so keep in mind you may need to tweak it a little bit to fit your own grilling style.
At the end, I will give you a formula that I designed, so you can really determine, financially, what the best grill is for you.
A word of caution: this is for the budget nerds and I have probably gone overboard on this one. But, you’ll thank me later.
For charcoal, the initial cost of a basic quality Weber 22.5” Classic Kettle is only $99. A higher-end charcoal grill can cost up to $400.
For gas, a basic quality grill will cost around $400. On the high-end it can be $3,000+, if you want to get crazy.
Hands down, charcoal grills win in an initial cost comparison.
Gas grills can run on either natural gas, propane, or both. Gas grills that are equipped to handle natural gas in addition to propane are usually more expensive than their propane-only equivalents.
If you are going to hook up to natural gas, it is often going to be cheaper and you will have the added benefit of never needing to refill a propane tank. The cost of natural gas varies based on where you live and your provider’s rates. For the rest of this discussion, due to the wide cost variance, we’re going to focus on grills that use propane, just keep in mind that natural gas is an option.
Once you have purchased your 20 pound propane tank, a refill on gas is about 20 bucks at your local hardware store. So, this means it is $1 per pound of propane fuel.
A rough rule of thumb is that one pound of propane fuel equates to one hour of cook time.
This rule of thumb varies a lot based on what grill you use, if you are running a two burner grill, you will use less, if you run a six burner grill, you will obviously use more. Pretty simply, the more gas you burn, the more expensive it is going to be per cooking session.
Again, making a big assumption here, let’s say you always grill for a 45 min session. This means every session you are spending 75 cents on fuel. This is rough and everyone’s grill habits are different, but this is a fair starting point for the average griller like me.
Ok, let’s see how charcoal does. So far, 75 cents on the gas grill doesn’t look too bad!
The cost of charcoal varies much more than gas. You can use hardwood charcoal, briquettes, easy-start briquettes with lighter fluid infused, brand name products, off brand products; the list of options is extensive. I’m going to make a few key assumptions with charcoal.
A basic charcoal grill uses about 6 quarts of charcoal, this is roughly 6 pounds of briquettes. A chimney starter, which makes it easy to start your charcoal grill without lighter fluid, holds 6 quarts.
40 pounds of Kingsford charcoal briquettes run about $20 at Home Depot. Let’s assume one use requires 6 lbs of charcoal. This is will fill up a standard Weber Kettle grill and last about 45 – 60 minutes before you will want to add more charcoal.
6lb / 40lb = 0.15 or 15% of the 40 pounds of charcoal
$20 x .15 = $3 per use
If you prefer to use hardwood lump charcoal, it is going to be a bit more expensive.
A 17.6lb bag of Royal Oak lump hardwood charcoal runs around $13 at Home Depot. Let’s assume you use 6 pounds of hardwood charcoal again.
6lb / 17.6lb = 0.34 or 34% of the 17.6 pound bag of charcoal
$13 x .34 = $4.42 per use
Important Note: If you know what you are doing, you can potentially save some of the unused charcoal for your next cooking session. This will reduce some of the cost.
You may use less or more charcoal depending on what grill you are using and what you are cooking, keep in mind this is a rough estimate based on an assumed scenario.
Charcoal is a huge topic on its own and should be the subject of another EPIC post. There are pluses and minuses to both hardwood and the briquettes. The general consensus is that hardwood lump charcoal is the superior option. As I mentioned earlier, it gets hotter, is not heavily processed, does not have chemical additives that could be harmful and the best part is that it ACTUALLY looks like wood.
If you want to feel like you’re cooking over a authentic wood fire, lump charcoal is the way to go. If your on a budget the cheaper briquettes will pad your wallet.
Both charcoal options are much more expensive than the .75 cent cost for propane fuel. We will look at how this all comes together with the initial cost factored in after we discuss replacement cost a bit.
Throwing replacement cost in makes nailing down a winner even trickier, but I think it is important to at least mention it.
Charcoal grills last longer than gas grills.
My dad has been using the same Weber Kettle grill for the past 15 years and it is STILL going strong. The charcoal grills just don’t have as many parts and as many places where they can fail and need repair.
A poll by About.com found that 47% of 4,000+ gas grill owners expected their gas grill to last between 3 and 7 years.
According to The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, the average gas grill lasts for about 4 years and the average charcoal grill lasts about 5 years before requiring replacement.
To be fair, there are a lot of factors you have to consider that determine when your grill will need to be replaced:
You could buy a really cheap gas grill and it might only last you a year, or you could buy a more expensive, quality grill and it will last you 10+ years. Just remember that gas grills are initially more expensive and also are replaced more frequently than charcoal grills.
The total cost category brings initial cost together with the operating cost. Gas is cheaper than charcoal by $2.25 for briquettes and $4.65 for lump charcoal.
I designed this handy formula so you can figure out if purchasing a gas grill is going to save you in the long run. The $99 is what you would have spent for a Weber 22.5in Kettle grill. The $2.25 is the amount you save by using gas instead of charcoal. It is multiplied by every time you use the grill, basically every time you use it you are saving $2.25.
[Cost of Gas Grill] – $99 – ([Number of Uses] x $2.25)
Let’s assume you buy a quality, $400 gas grill and plug it into the formula.
According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, the average household barbecues 20 times during “the season.”
$400 – $99 – (20 x $2.25) = $256
This means that for the first year of ownership, the gas grill cost $256 more to own than the charcoal grill. If your grill breaks down or you just permanently stop using it, it would have been more economical to get a charcoal grill.
Of course, this varies widely based on what grill you buy and how many times you plan to use it. I grill a lot, usually 2-3 times a week, even in the winter, so my number of uses is going to be a lot higher than the 20 we assumed. That’s why it is best to plug your own numbers into the formula.
Let’s take this one step further and add in the years of use. This makes it a little more complicated, but provides a clearer picture of the total cost of ownership.
[Cost of Gas Grill] – $99 – ([number of uses per year] x [number of years in use] x $2.25)
Lets run our calculation again, assuming your grill lasts 4 years.
$400 – $99 – (20 x 4 x $2.25) = $121
At this point, cooking on it only 20 times a year for 4 years, the gas grill is still going to cost $121 more to operate.
Honestly, if you only get 80 uses before it needs to be replaced, you probably bought a poorly-built grill in the $100 to $200 range.
Let’s plug my personal grilling habits into the formula.
$400 – $99 – (90 x 4 x $2.25) = -$509
In my case, I am saving $509 over 4 years by using gas. I also expect my Weber grill to last longer than 4 years.
So who wins?
I am calling this a tie.
YOUR total cost of ownership depends on your grilling habits, what fuel you use, and the initial cost of your grill.
Use the the formula above to decide which is more economically smart for your needs.
A good rule of thumb is if you don’t grill very often, charcoal is likely cheaper, if you grill all the time, a gas grill is going to save you big money.
Common concern: Charcoal grills are not as versatile as gas!
Now, here’s where it gets weird. You would think that gas grills would be the most versatile, but that is not necessarily the case. You can attach a whole barrage of upgrades to either grill and pretty much trick them out to any specification.
I decided to list everything I could find that you can attach onto both gas and charcoal grills and see who has the most bells and whistles.
You probably don’t realize how versatile your grill is.
Keep in mind, at the end of the day, this is probably the least important category. A grill is designed primarily to well, GRILL. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
Both Gas and Charcoal Grills
Only Gas Grills
Only Charcoal Grills
Yes, you can really turn your charcoal grill into a wood fire pizza oven if you want to shell out $150. It’s definitely nice to know about if you are a hard-core pizza lover.
So who wins?
The gas grill takes the win in the versatility category. While you can do almost everything with the charcoal grill than you can do with gas, it is a lot harder and almost always more expensive.
It is much easier and cheaper to use accessories on a gas grill. For example, the Weber rotisserie for the charcoal grill is $150 while the Weber rotisserie for the gas grill is around $80.
The convenience of added versatility is also worth considering. Using a griddle on a charcoal grill is not easy. It is much easier to cook eggs and bacon on a gas grill where you can easily control the temperature.
The side burner option on a gas grill also is more versatile. You can cook water and make soups or sauces without skipping a beat. No longer do you have to cook something in your kitchen at the same time you’re grilling. Gas grills can really be equipped to do it all and turn your backyard into an outdoor kitchen.
Cost: Tie (use the formula to get your result)
I am leaving it up to you to decide what to do with these results. If all of the categories have equal weight for you, then a gas grill is the obvious choice. If taste is 3 times as important to you as the other categories and you don’t care about versatility, then a charcoal grill is the clear winner for you.
You now have all the information to make a very informed grill decision.
Times have changed. According to The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, in 1985, 7.9 million charcoal grills were shipped to North America. Only 3.2 million gas grills were shipped that year.
In 2013, only 5.6 million charcoal grills were shipped, while 8.1 million gas grills were shipped. Total grills shipped rose in the last 29 years, with a preference for gas grills. In 1985 there was a clear preference for charcoal.
You can chalk this up to both better gas grill technology and better marketing by gas grill manufacturers.
Wow! If you made it to the end of this, you are a badass. You’re a serious grill enthusiast – welcome you to the club!
This was a beast to write and I would love to hear your feedback or any questions you have. If you think I missed something or have anything to add, post it below. Thanks and grill on!
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I am a grill freak! It's hard to pick my favorite thing to grill, but if I had to choose... it is still a tie between pork ribs and a juicy beef burger. I am currently grilling on a Weber S210(I live in a small space) but my dream grill is definitely a summit. Those things are bad ass. Anyways I would love to hear from you, leave a comment or question below!