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Charcoal Vs. Gas Vs. Electric BBQ Grills: Which Is the Best?

I currently own three kinds of BBQ grills, and I have my eye on adding a fourth type.

For much of the world, "charcoal" refers to partly burned bits of wood, not briquettes.

For much of the world, "charcoal" refers to partly burned bits of wood, not briquettes.

Charcoal BBQ Grills: The Old Mainstay

The first briquettes were made in the early days of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, using steam-powered hydraulic presses to form a mixture of coal dust and resin into a more compact and transportable heating fuel for people to carry home. Years later, someone got the idea of adding hardwood chips to the mixture to create a briquette that added wood smoke flavor to foods cooked over it.

Today's charcoal briquettes are often a mixture of anthracite and lignite coal, wood chips, limestone, starch, borax, wheat chaff and paraffin wax. Some charcoal even comes pre-soaked in lighter fluid so that all one has to do is strike a match to it.

As somewhat of a BBQ connoisseur myself, I'm not thrilled about having any of these added ingredients in my food—so when I do buy charcoal, I look for real wood charcoal. This type is made only from bits of half-burned hardwoods such as mesquite. Wood charcoal is still one of the most widely used cooking fuels on earth, and it's just as easy to use as briquettes. I prefer the flavors that I can get from real oak wood and mesquite charcoal. Although the irregular shape of the charcoal chunks can be off-putting to some, the flavor imparted to meat and other foods from real wood charcoal are far superior to that from charcoal briquettes.

What's all this have to do with choosing a pit? The most common type of charcoal BBQ grill features a wide surface area under the grilling surface where you can spread out your coals after they've turned white. A good pit features several adjustable vent holes in the lid and base, so you can more easily regulate combustion. Small hibachi-type grills are nice to have for weekend camping, as they're easy to carry, but they don't have enough space inside them to use anything but a handful of briquettes.

What to Look for in a BBQ Grill

When choosing a charcoal BBQ grill, look for one that features a very sturdy frame and overall heavy construction. Over time, the bottom of cheap BBQ pits will rust out, potentially ruining your next cookout. Sturdy legs, which can withstand being accidentally bumped from the side, are good for safety. Look for a thermally insulated lid handle so that you don't get burned when lifting the lid.

Also, look for pits that have vent holes on opposite sides of the base and lid, as you may have to open or close one set of vents during windy conditions. Charcoal pits with wheels are also handy so that you can move them around when not in use, but make sure the wheels lock in place when in use.

A new twist on old technology is the "egg type" BBQ grills, which feature thick insulated ceramic walls that help keep the heat inside more constant and uniform. While not especially cheap, I'm told they do work quite well, especially for meats such as chicken, which may take longer to cook.

If you want a more versatile charcoal pit that's capable of burning wood as well as charcoal, look for a rugged smoker-type that features a firebox on the side. With these types of pits you can slowly smoke meats from a fire that you build to the side of your cooking area or start a fire there and when it burns down, rake the coals over under your cooking area. This is my own preferred kind of pit when I'm cooking things such as a large beef brisket or chicken quarters, but it does take more time and care.

Pros and Cons of Charcoal BBQ Grills

For me, the main advantage of charcoal BBQ grills over other types, such as propane or electric grills, is the authentic taste that you get from using hardwood briquettes or real wood charcoal. That's the main advantage, along with the simplicity of having no technology and few moving parts to worry about breaking down. A big disadvantage of charcoal grills is the need to clean ashes from the grill before each use, disposing of messy ashes, and the fact that these types of grills stay dangerously hot long after you've cooked your meal. They also tend to rust out more quickly and therefore have a much shorter life span than any other type of BBQ grill.

For many people a gas grill is the easiest kind of BBQ pit to use.

For many people a gas grill is the easiest kind of BBQ pit to use.

Gas Grills

Even though I enjoy cooking with my charcoal/wood pit, I don't always have the time to start a fire and watch over it until it's just right to cook over. A gas BBQ grill, powered by a propane cylinder, is easy to use and always provides the same constant cooking flame. You may find it much easier to cook more delicate foods, such as steaks or fish, to perfection on a gas grill.

Some models are convertible to run on natural gas, which is a very handy feature if your home has a natural gas outlet on your outside porch or deck. That way, you won't have to ever worry about running out of propane in the middle of a cookout. I recommend keeping an extra bottle on hand, as well as turning off the main tank valve after every use.

What to Look for in a Gas BBQ Grill

When choosing a gas BBQ grill, look for one that is made of stainless steel instead of black sheet metal. These will last much longer and also better withstand the weather. Look for models that feature a temperature indicator, as this is an essential item to have. Also, choose a gas grill that features an electric igniter. Some cheaper models feature igniters that operate from pressure only, and while this may save on batteries, they're typically much harder to operate and less reliable than electric start igniters. A typical BBQ grill igniter will require a new AA battery about once a year.

There are gas grills that feature multiple burner zones, and I highly recommend this type of grill. If you have foods that require different cooking times, such as chicken quarters and steaks, for example, you can set the different zones for more or less heat. Also, gas grills featuring a side cooking burner, where you can cook a pot of beans or boil corn on the cob, are nice to have. (These also come in very handy if you have a power outage and can't cook on your kitchen range.)

Good models of gas ranges include those made by Weber, Napoleon, Lynx, Char-Broil and Dyna-Glo. Gas grills come in all shapes and sizes to fit any size of outdoor space, including portable gas grills that you can easily take along on your next camping trip.

Electric BBQ grills are typically smaller, and better suited for a small family or couple since the surface cooking area is usually much smaller than a charcoal or gas grill.

Electric BBQ grills are typically smaller, and better suited for a small family or couple since the surface cooking area is usually much smaller than a charcoal or gas grill.

Electric BBQ Grills

A third option that many people may not consider when choosing a BBQ grill are electric models. An electric BBQ grill requires no gas tank and no messy charcoal or lighter fluid. You can easily carry one with you when you travel, and all you need to cook a delicious grilled meal is an outdoor electrical outlet. Friends of mine who live full-time in their RV swear by their small Weber electric grill and said that after using one for several years, they'd never grill with anything else.

Electric BBQ grills are typically smaller and better suited for a small family or couple since the surface cooking area is usually much smaller than a charcoal or gas grill. You can still cook a lot of food on one; you may just have to do it in stages.

To use an electric BBQ grill, you'll need an outlet that's located outdoors, away from combustible items and an open area, since they still make a bit of smoke when in use. These grills typically draw a lot of power, so make sure they're the only thing using that circuit. Always avoid using extension cords with electric grills, as doing so can possibly result in a fire due to the amount of current they draw.

Good brands of electric BBQ grills include the Weber Q-2400, the Fire Magic Portable Tabletop Grill and the Coyote 18" Portable Electric Grill. Prices for these small grills run into the high $300s, which may seem a bit excessive considering how small they are.

What to Look for in an Electric BBQ Grill

When choosing an electric BBQ grill, you'll want to look for most of the same features as you would when choosing any other kind, such as heavy construction, an insulated lid handle and a built-in thermometer. Models made of 304-grade stainless steel will last for many years and may weigh much less than cast-iron models. A removable drip pan is a nice feature to have, along with an automatic shutoff timer.

Some electric grills even feature an internal temperature probe that you can place into your food to maintain a more accurate cooking temperature. I've used the small Weber Electric Grills, and they're super easy to operate, yet they do weigh a bit more than you would expect from such a small grill.

The Bottom Line

The kind of BBQ grill that's best for you may depend less on your preferences than it does on your current living situation. If you live in a small space, such as an RV or an urban apartment, an electric grill may be your best option. Also, your local apartment or condo rules may prohibit the use of gas or charcoal grills on your deck. For those without such restrictions, it simply is a matter of how you prefer your grilled food to taste. If you must have the smoky wood flavor that only mesquite, hickory or oak can offer, then you may decide to opt for a traditional charcoal grill or pit.

If you're a perfectionist who prefers a more accurate cooking flame to perfect your steak with, then a gas grill may be the way to go. If you're like me and enjoy the advantages that all three of these have to offer, you may find yourself ultimately owning more than one type of grill if you can afford to. For me, the magic number is three, and I wouldn't mind having a fourth in the form of an egg-type charcoal pit for slow-cooking chicken.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Nolen Hart