Charcoal Grill Myths

Lately I've seen a subtle but growing bashing of charcoal grills by makers of indoor rotisserie toaster ovens and gas grills. Charcoal grills are popular, less expensive than gas grills, and tend to be more durable. Companies out to make a quick buck by convincing you that charcoal grilling is too difficult or just too much trouble have been spreading some pretty nasty rumors about charcoal grills that you should not believe. Yes, when deciding between charcoal versus gas you do need to understand that gas is more convenient and generally easier to use. Charcoal, however, has its advantages, particularly when it comes to flavor and the authenticity of the outdoor cooking experience.

1. Gas Grills Produce the Same Flavor as Charcoal Grills

The typical argument says that, "hot juices which drip on the briquettes and vaporize to produce a flavor" (1). These people, typically gas grill manufacturers, tell you that there is no difference in flavor between charcoal and gas. What they say is that the flavor you get from any kind of grill is due to the drippings from the food you are cooking, falling onto a hot surface, burning, and creating smoke. Two problems with this theory. First of all, most gas grills these days don't burn off the grease as much they drain the grease out of the grill. The second problem with this theory is that it is simply not true. Taste tests done by Good Housekeeping, Vanderbilt University, and Cook's Illustrated all prove that there is a taste difference and most people can detect it in most cases. I know I said "most", the exception is that about half the people couldn't tell the difference with burgers or chicken breasts cooked at high temperatures. They certainly could tell the difference with steaks.

2. Charcoal Grills are Harder to Clean

It is true that charcoal is messier than gas, probably because it is charcoal. You are going to get your hands dirty when you use charcoal, but the idea that your charcoal grill is considerably harder to clean than a gas grill simply isn't true. This myth is based on the idea that you don't need to actually clean a gas grill. You know the sales pitch, turn the burners on high for 15 minutes and brush off the grates. Clean, right? No, it isn't clean. Gas grill have to be cleaned out and this process requires removing the grates, the heat tents and maybe the burners. Cleaning out a charcoal grill requires removing the grate, brushing off the surfaces and dumping the ashes. Most good charcoal grills have a way for you to empty out the ashes pretty easily.

3. Charcoal Grills are Slow to Heat Up

This is also true but claims that charcoal grills take up to, "40 minutes to heat up"(2) are utterly ridiculous. The truth is that if you are good about building a fire, and understand how your particular charcoal grill works you can be cooking in 10 to 15 minutes. Compare this to the recommended preheat times for most gas grills, 10 to 15 minutes. Of course lighting a charcoal grill is more complicated and time consuming than lighting a gas grill, but that is the classic trade-off between gas and charcoal. The truth is, however, that lighting a charcoal grill, depending on the type of grill, doesn't take much more time than it does for a gas grill to heat up.

4. Charcoal Grills are Hard to Use

Several years ago the fine people at Ronco ran an infomercial for their indoor rotisserie toaster oven that showed a man trying to light a charcoal grill in a blizzard with wet charcoal and bad lighter fluid. Not only are they trying to say that grilling is too hard, but that most of use simply are not smart enough to do it. Don't believe the marketers who say you are not smart enough to use a charcoal grill. While it might take a little practice, it isn't hard to learn how to use a charcoal grill and you are certainly smart enough to do it. Once the routine is down, lighting and using a charcoal grill is nearly as convenient as using a gas grill.

5. Temperature is Hard to Control on a Charcoal Grill

A gas grill has control valves and typically a hood mounted thermometer. Charcoal grill, those that have lids, come with vents in the bottom and the top and maybe a thermometer. I recommend buying one with a thermometer so you can learn temperature control better. What the gas grill people say is that charcoal grills have to be refueled every hour, which might be true if you have a very hot fire and not enough fuel to start with. The truth is, that most charcoal grills can hit temperatures much higher than many gas grills and can hold temperatures for several hours. The key to temperature control on a gas grill starts with how you build a fire and then it simply becomes a matter of vent adjustment to control the heat. The truth is, with a little practice and a charcoal grill is a precise cooker that is both versatile and powerful.

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