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Outdoor Grilling - Natural Gas vs. Charcoal?

I have been a happy charcoal griller for 25 years. However I have a natural gas hookup outside and am tempted by converting to a high BTU natural gas grill with its many advantages.

However, I have seen more than a few posts that suggest I may not be happy with the flavor from gas.

Has anybody made this switch? What are the issues?

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  1. Main differences are:

    1. Burning gas gives off moisture, so it's not the same dry heat you get with charcoal.

    2. No burning of dripping fluids unless you use rocks (which still aren't the same, but help).

    3. Often doesn't burn as hot as charcoal, particularly if you use rocks.

    Of course the huge benefits are no setup, no clean up, instant heat on, and full heat adjustment.

    3 Replies
    1. re: peekpoke

      Not necessarily true about instant heat on. You still need to preheat a gas grill for a good 15-20 min.

      If you have room for both, both is a good option.

      Personally, I think that a gas grill and some wood chips is a good tradeoff between gas convenience and charcoal taste.

      1. re: jzerocsk

        jzerocsk, I wonder if you are still out there. Anyway I am impressed at your knowledge here. You must be a chemist, or physicist. I'm in the market for a new grill and I'm wondering what BTU output I should look for. Can you comment? Anyone else?

      2. re: peekpoke

        Respectfully, I must disagree with your points.

        1. Just about every form of hydrocarbon combustion includes CO2 & H20 as products. Wood /charcoal is no different, from a combustion products/chemical analysis standpoint, than natural gas or propane. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combustion .You can't get more moisture from either...

        2. I personally use both my charcoal burning Weber kettle and any of my various gas grills. All of them can and do vaporize/flare/burn dripping fluids and none of them use "rocks". Some rely on metal bars while others have radiant burners. The charred flavor that such fats/fluids imparts is largely dependent on how much air moves around the food.

        3. While is possible to smelt iron with charcoal ( in a forced air situation charcoal can burn at 2012 F -- http://www.fweb.org.uk/Dean/deanhist/... ) that is considerably lower than the max combustion temp of methane {natural gas} of 2148 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methane , which is in turn lower than that of propane , 2385 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propane. Of course setup in crucial, but I have no doubt that any properly set up gas grill will burn HOTTER than a charcoal grill. The issue of HEAT is different , and if one were to load a grill full of an enormous quantity of charcoal it would have to be compared to a gas grill consuming a large volume of gas.

        It seems that you may have encountered only some sort of archaic low output gas grill(s). The majority of mid to upper priced gas grills currently sold at both specialty stores and big box retailers are fully capable of low moisture, high temperature operation without the use of "rocks" and will impart a char grilled flavor to all manner of foods. FURTHER I agree that they will require less pre-heating, be more quickly adjustable, and need less cleanup/no ash disposal.

        When I do choose to use charcoal it is often for foods cooked for longer periods of time/lower temperatures. In my experience such situations allow the food to be more subtlely flavored by the smoke from the burning charcoal and/or smoldering wood. While charcoal grilling always adds to the aroma for the cook, in my experience when the resulting food has been quickly cooked at high temperature with good air circulation there is minimal flavor difference between a high output/high temperature gas grill and a similar fire of charcoal.

      3. What great options! If you have both, why not do both, and see what works best in any given situation. We were charcoal grillers as well, but recently purchased gas (propane) and found it extended our grilling season. If weather permits we will possibly add a simple charcoal grill as well, but with a gas hookup I would not hesitate to give it a try.

        1. You're probably aware of this already, but a propane grill is not suitable for natural gas. Natural gas has fewer BTUs than propane by volume, so gas-grill holes have to be larger than those of a propane grill. Put gas into a propane grill and you'll get...warm.

          I, too prefer the convenience of gas to the fuss of charcoal, but the gas grills I've had experience with just won't give the sear of a nice hot charcoal fire. I make do with soaked wood chips for my flavor.

          2 Replies
          1. re: MikeLM

            That's all true, but most grills (and gas appliances generally) can be set up for either natural or LP gas by adjusting the pressure regulator and changing the orifice(s), which is simple and cheap. While natural gas does have less BTU per volume, it also has a higher adiabatic flame temperature, so when the grill is properly converted the BTU output of the burner will actually increase by approximately 10% vs. LP gas.

            1. re: FlyFish

              Could you explain in simpler terms why the BTU output of the burner will increase when natural gas is used? I had to look up the word "adiabatic", which m-w.com says means "occurring without loss or gain of heat". I don't understand the concept of a flame that doesn't lose or gain heat.

              Thanks!

          2. We're in your boat; we have a natural gas hookup outside, but have a charcoal grill. Mr OCAnn prefers charcoal grilling.

            1. We had a natural gas-fired grill at our house - former owners had it installed - but we took it out and disconnected it. The house already had an oven inside. OTOH, I have four different stick-burners, and use them all the time.