Gas vs Charcoal vs Wood
We all evolve through time as pitmasters. You know someone’s on the verge of breaking out and stepping up when he starts asking questions and growing interests towards concepts such as gas vs charcoal vs wood. This question is paramount in your grilling evolution and will often prove to be one of the tipping points for beginners to move to greener pastures (aka charcoal grilling). There’s a multitude of differences between gas and charcoal, and some additionally fun nuances between charcoal and wood when it’s thrown into the mix. Here’s what you should know and consider whenever you’re about to slap some meat over fire.
Gas has been a staple in the BBQ industry for decades on one very simple fact: convenience. No one can argue over the fact that there is nothing more convenient than a gas grill when you want to enjoy your backyard. If BBQ brings the world together, gas is still to this day the cornerstone that powers most neighborhood parties.
Gas grill will allow just about anyone to look good cooking as flare-ups tickle your burgers and you flip over some asparagus. Gas grills start family traditions and will always prove to be reliable so long as you’ve got an extra full tank of gas standing by. If convenience draws you in the gas grill department, might as well make sure you have the tools and equipment to get good charred crusts and fat dripping roasts on-the-ready.
To get the most of gas grills, you should invest in a BBQ with infrared burners for optimal searing performances, rear-burners and rotisseries capabilities. Napoleon and Blaze both have models with such options. While gas grills will allow you to cook most things, one must be honest and admit it only scratches the surface on what BBQ can and should be. If you’re new to the BBQ world, gas grills can prove to be a good way to ease in the learning curve but for any intermediate to expert pitmasters, once you go charcoal, you do go back.
Full disclosure, I’m a charcoal guy. Scratch that. I’m a Kamado Joe guy. That being said, charcoal cooking can start easy and affordable with what is known to be the most sold BBQ on Earth, the good old Kettle. There are just so many reasons as to why charcoal won me over but the first will obviously be the flavor profile.
To debunk a myth early on, charcoal does not intend to “smoke” your meat. Charcoal is used as a combustible to cook your meat while preserving optimal moisture. You’re cooking for texture and flavor. This is achieved through radiance, as opposed to directional heat when compared to gas grills. Cooking with charcoal will brighten up flavors, making for a more flavorful bite, every single time.
Why is that?
Cooking over charcoal breaks down fat and sugars in very different ways then gas can do. The chemistry behind it generates different aromas, including a very specific one called “Guaiacol”, which taste a bit like bacon. Running blind taste tests with steaks, chicken or pork, you can tell 10 times out of 10 which were cooked on charcoal just by this additional aroma.
Another major upside to cooking with charcoal is that it is the most flexible combustible currently on the market. You can bake, grill, roast, smoke and do pretty much anything with it. Add a few wood chunks on top and you have yourself thousands of flavor profiles to play with. It will give you the best sears, and the moistest of meat throughout low and slow cookouts.
Cooking with hardwood is a funny thing. One day you’ll love it, the next day you’ll hate it. Either way, you’ll come back for more. With so many variables to factor in, cooking with hardwood and logs takes a certain level of fire mastery.
Purists will often solely swear by offset BBQs as they represent what traditional smoking BBQ has been for decades and bring out the best of what smoke can give, if done right. For the few downsides of working with wood, if you can work around them, the end product does make up for them.
While charcoal will work with a combination of radiance and smoke, partial or continuous, smoking with wood logs cooks solely through clean smoke, from end to end, giving way to bold flavors and succulent barks. It’s often said that we eat with our eyes first. If true, offset smokers will fill you right up. There’s just something about cracking open an offset smoker to feast in.
One of the main hurdles of cooking with wood is getting good quality wood on a recurring basis. Be advised that, depending on your locations, you may be limited to a short range of wood grain and profiles. As chicken and pork will require a lighter smoke profile than beef or lamb require, having access to various types is important to fully leverage your offset smoker. Barbecuing is not always just about what you put on your plate. It’s something bigger than that. It’s a process. It’s therapy. Working with wood brings out this whole different dimension to your BBQ love as it requires complete dedication and attention to detail. Working with wood makes you earn your plate and full credit in the outcome for a fulfilling experience.
In retrospect, for every meal its technique, for every technique it’s optimal fuel. Whether you choose to work with gas, charcoal or wood, what matters is that you are enjoying the outdoors and barbecuing. Just enjoy the process, the rest will work itself out.