Chow Town

When it comes to grills, is gas or charcoal best?

Craig Jones with his grillfriends
Craig Jones with his grillfriends Special to The Star

I get asked all the time “What grill should I buy?” or “What’s the best grill?”

That sort of question reminds me of the days when I used to work at BrandsMart and people would ask, “What’s the best speaker to buy?” My mentor at the time, Jim, would always quip back, “What’s the best car?”

I understood what he was trying to teach me. If there was one universal answer for everything, we wouldn’t have the diversity of brands that we have. That being said, however, there are some guidelines that we can follow.

I’m going to walk you through the path that I took over the years, and what drove my decisions to cook on what I currently own today. And I’m going to focus solely on the question of charcoal versus gas.

That’s really the first choice that you have make before you move on to other options with outdoor cooking. I feel that I’m qualified to talk about this since I’ve lived on both sides of that fence.

I started out with a charcoal grill many years ago. It was quite basic. OK, it was cheap. I chose it because it was the cheapest charcoal grill I could find at the time (not recommended). And what I hated about that grill was lighting it.

I would use the charcoal chimney, as recommended in my Grilling Must Haves column, but I couldn’t always get the charcoal to light. I would light newspaper underneath the charcoal in the chimney, only to come back in 20 minutes to find perfectly unlit briquettes staring back at me. What the heck? So I would have to do it all over again and wait another 20 minutes. Not very convenient.

Nowadays, I have a foolproof method to light the chimney, thanks to Alton Brown and my friend Matt Watkins: Take two paper towels (paper towels burn with less residue than newspapers) and put about two to three teaspoons of vegetable oil on them. Wad up the towels, place them in the bottom of the chimney, light them and you’re good to go. Works every time.

Anyway, because I was so frustrated by lighting the charcoal and the quality of my grill, I decided that I wanted the convenience of a gas grill. In my mind, a nice, new, shiny, stainless steel gas grill was going to solve all of my cooking woes and make me a master chef at the same time.

“Highly illogical,” as Mr. Spock would say, but I bought into that belief. So I got my first gas grill. It was shimmering and convenient. And I cooked outside on that grill for many years. In fact, that gas grill started my passion for outdoor cooking. It was fun and the food was good. But to be honest, nothing really blew me away.

Then I came to a crossroad in my outside cooking obsession.

There was a time in our lives when my wife, Gay, and I had dinner at a couple’s house every Friday night. The one consistent detail that I noticed was that their meat always tasted better. It didn’t matter what they cooked, steaks, burgers, brats, and ribeye roast, everything just tasted better at their house.

At first I thought maybe my friend was a better cook than I was. So I duplicated the recipes at home. That wasn’t it. Then I thought it might be the meat. So I bought the same exact cut of meat from the same place. That wasn’t it either. Finally, the only factor that I could figure was that they were cooking on a charcoal grill and I was cooking on a gas grill. So that had to be it. I needed to get a charcoal grill.

But first, research was needed.

I’m known for being a very methodical person, especially when I’m evaluating a product to purchase. I use all of the data points I can find, I put everything that I deem pertinent in a spreadsheet. I’ll use a ranking system to help make an informed decision. Yeah, I pretty much drive my wife crazy with that sort of stuff.

Using this process, I narrowed my choices to a few different grills within a specific price range that I wanted to investigate. Although certain grills might have looked better than others on paper, I knew that the true test was to actually cook on them. So I arranged for a real live cooking test.

I badgered a few of my friends, borrowed some grills, even bought a huge grill at a membership club and staged a cook-off on the back deck. Imagine my back deck filled with six different grills smoking away while I’m cooking filets on each. If I were to redo the test, I would use ribeye. It was certainly a sight to behold. I’m sure my neighbors thought that I was wacko.

Here’s how it worked: Each steak was seasoned with the same weighed amounts of salt and pepper, cooked to the same internal temperature, rested and then sliced. Only I knew which steak was cooked on which grill. Then, I served them up to my taste-testers and let them tell me what they thought. Also, I was noting any ergonomic advantages and disadvantages, as well as any operational pros and cons.

Six steaks; five taste-testers. Everyone took their job very seriously. It was kind of funny to see how focused everyone was during this experiment.

One by one the votes came in: No. 3, No. 3, No. 3, No. 3, No. 6. Just like in those darn dentists’ surveys, 4 out of 5 choose … wait for it ... the Weber Kettle grill.

I guess to some people that would not be a surprise, but here’s the funny thing: At that time I didn’t know anyone who had a standard Weber grill, so I had to borrow my mom’s rusty little Smokey Joe for the cook-off. Yes, that same $29 grill that you see at the hardware store. That petite unit gave results that beat out grills in the $100 to $250 range. To be honest, I was shocked.

When I asked my testers why they made that choice, the No. 1 response was the flavor and tenderness of the steak. It just tasted like outdoor cooking should ... slightly smoky, evenly cooked and tender.

Now I can’t tell you exactly why the Weber grill fared better. Maybe it was the kettle design that affected the airflow, smoke, convection and radiant cooking dynamics. I really don’t know. And this is not meant to be a Weber commercial. I’m just telling you what happened to me.

But I did have to agree with everyone else. There was something about steak No. 3 that was just better, and flavor was my priority. Decision made.

That was how I made the switch from charcoal to gas and then back to charcoal again. After that side-by-side comparison, I bought a Weber Performer and haven’t looked back. Over time, I’ve added other charcoal grills and smokers to my collection. My newest is a Big Green Egg, which I absolutely love. Each grill has its own strengths and “personality.” I use them all.

Please don’t let charcoal scare you. There are so many shortcuts that I’ve learned over the years that my charcoal grill is just as convenient as any gas grill. I highly recommend that you reference these blog posts for some good tips (Grilling Must Haves and Grilling Nice to Haves).

So whichever way you end up going on the gas versus charcoal debate is fine with me. No matter what you choose, please listen to this advice: Do not try to “save money” by skimping on a cheaper brand or model. I’ve done that so many times. Each time ended in regret, mainly because of the breakdown of the grill or parts of the grill. Sometimes I ended up spending more money on continually buying replacement parts every season. Now I understand the wisdom in my dad’s statement when he said “Nobody regrets buying the best.”

What I really care about is that you just embrace cooking outside. If you cook on a grill that you love, you’ll start to love cooking even more. Like I always say “cooking outside tastes better and it’s a heck of a lot more fun.” Get out there and enjoy.

Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.