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Outdoor grills... charcoal vs. gas?

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(I hope there hasn't already been a thread on this topic... I did a cursory search and didn't find one!)

My husband and I are on the market for our first grill (it's the first time we've actually had a patio/yard!). We can't afford to spend a lot of money, and we're on the fence as to whether we want gas or charcoal. My feeling is that gas is way more convenient-- I like the idea of being able to fire it up quickly and with no fuss for a weeknight dinner. But in my limited experience, I do feel like charcoal tastes better.

Right now, based on previous Chowhound conversations, we're leaning toward either the Weber One-Touch Platinum (that's the one with the easy ash disposal) or the Weber Performer (which has a propane igniter).

But I'd love feedback on other easy, convenient, but not-too-pricey options that we should consider, as well as others' opinions about whether we should opt for gas or charcoal. I just know that if it's time-consuming to use and to keep clean, we'll end up not using it as often as we'd like.

I'm also curious to know which would end up being more expensive, in terms of buying coals or propane. And, when you want to use flavored wood chips, can you still do this in a charcoal grill, and if so, how?

Thanks for helping us with this-- in our minds, it's our most important purchase for our new house!!

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  1. I'll jump in! As a grill enthusist, I have or have had many of the choices you are considering. First, charcoal for flavor and overall cooking nirvana, propane for convenience only. I too was lured into the idea of Webers with the bells and whistles, but the one I use more than all the others is simply the kettle grill mounted into a cart with a work shelf on it. Forgo the propane lighters, as they will cease to function down the road anyway. Just get a charcoal chimney lighter, simple, cheap, foolproof.

    1 Reply
    1. re: mattrapp

      All that. Plus get the Weber chimney. I first got another one and it didn't have the capacity to cover the grill with coals.

      While you're at it, look for Weber's Real Grilling book at Lowe's or Home Depot or where ever you're getting a grill.

      Did I mention, you can cook a 20 pound bird on the Weber kettle for Thanksgiving?

    2. I agree with mattrapp - charcoal is the way to go and forget the bells and whistles of the propane starter - just invest in the weber chimney starter your coals will be ready to go in 15-20 minutes -

      The Weber one Touch is an excellent first grill - you will have great results - and the ash catcher makes clean up a breeze -

      In terms of fuel I do prefer the chunk charcoal over briquets - and to use flavored wood chips (I assume you mean different wood for the smoke) just soak them an hour before you want to use and put them on the coals - this will impart the smoke flavor you are looking for -

      Happy grilling -

      1. Charcoal grilling is much yummier. It also requires a lot more lead time and a lot more cleanup. Given your stated concerns about cleanup and the general hassle involved, it sounds to me like you'd get a lot more use out of a gas grill at this moment in your life, especially on weekdays.

        1. We have both charcoal and gas grills. We probably use the gas grill about 3-4 times as much as the charcoal one, mostly for speed and convenience. When you want to grill some salmon filets for dinner, are you going to fire up the charcoal and wait 30 minutes, or light the gas grill and be done in 5?

          We use charcoal when we have more time to prepare meals, and we think the smoky taste charcoal gives is really important to the dish.

          Sorry I don't have specifics on gas grills, that's DH's domain.

          1 Reply
          1. re: cheryl_h

            I've gotten into the habit of going outside and lighting a chimney starter full of lump charcoal (which takes about 15-20 minutes to be ready) the very first thing. That way, by the time I'm done with the mise en place, the charcoal's all set to go!

            Actually, just the other day, my wife had an exceedingly clever idea that saved even more time! When I was done grilling the salmon, zucchini and corn on the cob, I threw some soaked hickory chips over the coals, placed an extra salmon filet on the other side of the grill, put the lid down and went inside to eat dinner. 20 minutes later, I went out to collect a perfect piece of hot-smoked salmon that ended up in chunks on top of a large green salad for dinner two nights later!

          2. We have a Weber gas grill and love the convenience but do miss the taste of the charcoal. I'm glad we bought the gas one, we work and there is nothing like being able to come home and with a flick of a switch have the grill ready in 5 minutes.
            And buying the propane is an easy matter, not expensive at all.

            But we are seriously considering purchasing a small charcoal grill for weekends - not for large family cookouts, just for our own personal pleasure.

            1. IMHO, lump charcoal is the way to go. It's undoubtedly messier, slightly less convinient and probably more expensive but the results are superior, due mainly to the extra flavour and more intense and drier heat.

              However, as a charcoal griller who's owned a Weber for close to a decade, I would recommend you not get one. Nor would Jeffrey Steingarten, as I was happy to note a couple of years ago when I got around to reading *It Must Have Been Something I Ate*. JS feels the rotisserie attachment is the Weber grill's only redeeming feature.

              Weber grills are well made. Protected only by a vinyl cover, mine sits on a deck exposed year-round to the rigours of a northern climate and is hardly worse for the wear. Fit and finish are first rate.

              However nice a frill, the ignition system is just that, a frill; a chimney works as well. The ash catcher works exactly as advertised, a Good Thing. Although the lid holder is a fine idea, the lid still gets in the way; I often just remove it.

              My issues with Weber grills are twofold. First, they're designed to be used with briquettes, and I strongly prefer charcoal or wood. This means, among other things, that the side baskets for indirect cooking are nearly useless. Second, and by far the bigger problem, the grill height is fixed. If you have too hot a fire going or are grillng a particularly flammable piece of meat (duck, say), you can't raise the grill. If your coals are dying and your meat has another ten minutes to go, you can't move the grill closer to the heat source. There are work-arounds, of course: in the first case, move the coals to the side and/or spray them with water from a plant mister (a great way to tame flare-ups); in the second case, finish the cooking in the oven.

              By the way, Weber claims the fixed-height grill is a feature, not a bug, and prescribes adopting the unorthhodox approach of always keeping the lid on except when turning or basting: "Keep a lid on it! Your Weber grill was designed to cook foods with the lid down. Keeping the lid on allows heat to circulate, cooking food evenly and without flare-ups" says www.weber.com . I beg to differ. Keeping the lid down dampens the coals and tends to impart a sooty taste to whatever you're grilling. Also, I like to fuss over what's on the grill, to see what's happening, to deal with flare-ups as soon as they occur. And I often grill things that require constant attention (bread, vegetables, seafood) -- for those the Weber approach is impractical.

              So, the next time around I probably won't buy a Weber. However, given the quality of construction of my current kettle, I don't expect the next time around to roll around for another decade or so...

              Edit: My next grill will probably be one with an offset firebox, since they let you smoke as well as grill.

              5 Replies
              1. re: carswell

                I assume the applies to a Weber charcoal, not gas, right?

                1. re: sivyaleah

                  Not sure I understand the question sivyaleah.

                  1. re: carswell

                    Weber also manufactures gas grills, but I don't believe they are kettle style, either just open grills, or lidded grills.

                2. re: carswell

                  My Weber Kettle has been going strong for 35 years.

                  1. re: carswell

                    There are parts of this position that I agree with, but for the most part, I repsectfully disagree. I have been using a Weber grill with lump charcoal and wood chunks for years -- including using the baskets -- and have had no problems whatsoever. You can totally use lump and wood chunks in a Weber kettle.

                    As for the fixed-height grill, I've used adjustable-height grills in the past and discovered that I never bothered to adjust them. Proper charcoal maintenance and fire layout gives you a grill with different temperature zones (which means you'll never need to adjust the height of the grill), and using the lid properly allows you to further regulate the temperature.

                    As to using the lid versus not, I agree that there are some things that it's impractical to cook with the lid on, such as when you're toasting bread or cooking delicate vegetables or seafood. In all other instances, however, cooking with the lid on and both the top and bottom vents fully open not only doesn't "dampen" the coals, I've found it actually keeps the grill running both hotter and longer. (Makes sense: after all, when the lid's off, all your heat is dissipating out into the open air!)

                    I've recently started watching Steven Reichlen's Barbecue University in reruns on cable, and I saw a show a while back that gave what I thought was a good rule: if the food is thinner than your palm, cook it with the lid off, but if it's as thick as your palm or thicker, cook it with the lid on. There are obvious exceptions -- I do zucchini by indirect grilling with the lid on, followed by a brief time over the coals with the lid off -- but overall, that's a good rule of thumb, I think.

                  2. We have a Weber kettle charcoal grill and a chimney to get the coals started. It does take more lead time, but that's not a big deal as we can use that time to prep the food.

                    For me, the great thing about grilling is the flavor the charcoal and smoke add. Gas grills are more convenient, but because they don't provide that flavor, I'd just as soon cook on the stove. If what you want is to cook and spend time in your yard, a gas grill would probably be a really nice addition. We live in San Francisco, where the nights are almost always too cold to sit outside, and so the whole weeknight-grilling-outside thing remains a fantasy :)