Grilling a Steak: Charcoal versus Gas?
This question is similar to the Grilling versus Barbecue issue we recently wrote about. This one however, albeit an age old question like that of direct versus indirect cooking, may not have quite as clear of an answer. Excuse the pun, but it really is a matter of “taste” or personal preference when grilling a steak. There is, however, evidence that will help shed some light.
The Charcoal “Flavor” Debate
Although debatable, charcoal purists will claim that the use of the common briquette produces better tasting grilled foods most of the time. This is not to say that some things taste any worse, it is just that some claim that things don’t taste any different. Or at least some foods, that is. “Good Housekeeping” magazine recently did a blind taste test and uncovered that most folks could not tell the difference between hamburgers or skinless chicken breasts cooked over gas or charcoal.
However, it was found that people could tell the difference with a steak. The conclusion was that the longer you grill something the more the flavor of the fire gets into the food. The mechanism involved here is the smoke. Charcoal, even though it is just smoldering, produces smoke.
The Ease of Gas Grilling
Gas grills use a clean fuel that does not really produce smoke in and of itself. Although some
Manufacturers will claim that their patented vaporization barriers produce smoke from dripping grease, most folks don’t want the taste of burning grease in their food. The kind of smoke that improves the flavor of food is the kind you get from real smoke, from an intended source.
It’s All About the Smoke – Good Smoke
To get that highly desired smoke flavor, you can add smoker chips in a box to produce smoke. However, in order to pass that flavor to the food you need to saturate the wood chips, (there are numerous species available) in water first in order to produce the desired smoke. Some gas grill manufacturers have designed their grills with a built-in wood smoker box drawer.
Since charcoal produces some smoke and heat the two are mixed together. As the food absorbs the heat it also takes in the flavor of the smoke. So if you are a bit of purist and really like to draw out the full flavor of food, particularly things like a good steak cooked over an open flame, then you need to use charcoal.
However it is important to ensure that the smoke you are getting from the charcoal is “good” smoke. There is some weird and unnatural stuff out there so be careful. Commercial charcoals with special additives for easy lighting and cheap charcoals made from petroleum based sawdust and a binding agent do not exactly have the best flavor producing smoke.
You want to use a good quality charcoal or mix your charcoal with chunks of good hardwood. Or you can buy hardwood lump charcoal that is actually make from real pieces of wood and not just sawdust. It is also very important to maintain a clean grill!. Build-up of ashes, burned up grease and other stuff will make the smoke produced leave a strange and undesirable flavor on foods.
So in this light, if you choose to use cheap self-lighting charcoal in a dirty, rusted grill then we’d suggest going with gas. If however you are serious about the flavor of grilled foods and are willing to put the effort into the art of charcoal cooking, then a good charcoal grill might just be what you need.
What are your thoughts? What Fires YOU Up? We welcome your comments, healthy debate, and the inevitable disagreement. Leave a reply or comment. It’s OK. Bring it on!