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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.

              1. I used propane gas for years so when I bought my Kamado grill (which can use either gas or charcoal), I bought the optional propane gas burner. But when the grill came, and after using charcoal the first few times (I use lump or Kamado's brand) I have only used the gas burner to light a pile of charcoal. To me, the taste just can't compare.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Jimmy Buffet

                  Before I bought the BGE I really liked gas. Lets just say I'm a complete convert and I've owned a very nice high end gas grill. Heat up time was 20 minutes on a calm day. Any wind or lower temps and heat up times were much longer. The BGE is ready in 10-15 minutes and works well even in extreme winds (not that I suggest this but I did test) that my gas grill would just not typically operate in.
                  I agree with renov8r about air flow but I have to dissagree with his stance that a gas grill can burn hotter than charcoal in a home enviornment. In fact I find that to be just the opposite even with the new high end high BTU gas grills that have infrared elements. The ceramic type charcoal grills can easilly hit 1,000 degrees at the grate. I personally have yet to see a home gas grill get any where near that temperature so it's a matter of practical application.
                  I used to use wood chips on my gas grill and think I was doing really well until I bought a BGE. The moisture retention is amazing and I can smoke pork butts for over 20 hours low n slow without ever opening the grill.
                  If I sound like I'm blathering on about the ceramic cooker, well I am. I love it.

                2. if you have the room, go with both. I have a gas grill, charcoal and also a smoker. All three serve diffferent purposes. Coal is nice, but gas is great for speed/flexibility. If you just want to cook a single burger, for example, do you really want to fire up a bunch of charcoal? I sometimes use them in combination... smoke ribs for a few hours at low heat, then throw on some sauce and caramalize them in the gas Q.

                  1. Taste aside, the old-school Weber kettle gets my vote for durability.All my gas-grill mates went through rounds of repairs and replacements during my kettle's 15yrs of hard use and borderline neglect.

                    1. What flavor from gas?

                      I've been an outdoor cooker as long as I can remember. I own a Weber gas grill, two Weber charcoal grills, a Weber Smokey Mountain cooker, a vertical smoking cabinet, and a horizontal offset smoker.

                      Long story short, if you need speed go with gas. Works great for weenies and such.

                      If you love the taste of food, go with a charcoal grill and use hardwood charcoal. Even Kingsford tastes better than gas.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: bkhuna

                        There's nothing like a Weber kettle grill... infinitely tastier than any gas grill I've used, and the heat is quite easy to control with the top and bottom vents. Takes a little while to get started, but well worth it. Hickory or mesquite smoked chicken wings, mmm!

                      2. i just converted from gas to a weber kettle -- had cooked on a big ducane grill that we'd been given many years ago as a handmedown from inlaws. the grill parts were rusting out and it was falling apart. after purchasing an RV a few years ago, we started using a little tiny portable charcoal grill on the trips. i like it so much that i took it out of the RV and started using it on our deck as our main grill, then it's grates started to rust and that's when i decided on trying to find a new and bigger charcoal grill -- settled on a little portable kettle from thermos ($18 from target) for the RV and the weber kettle silver for the deck.

                        i'm very happy with everything i've cooked so far. yes, it takes more time and effort than the gas grill - and it gets very smokey and you smell like smoke (i use soaked oak branches from our yard for smoke) - but hey, that's part of the fun of grilling out -- sitting outside with a beer (or four) and enjoying nature while you're making some delicious food on the grill.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: hitachino

                          Amen, hitachino! Not to mention that for pyromaniacs like me, only charcoal provides the occasional flames and colors that make life worth living...

                        2. Just to throw a few chips on the fire...

                          You can get gas grills that have (in place of or in addition to the regular burners) ceramic radiant burners. These "searing" burners run HOT, dump energy like a good bed of charcoal, and basically break all the rules of gas grills in a good way. They are great.

                          The charcoal vs. standard gas grill argument is fairly simple... give me charcoal... but when you introduce searing burners the question becomes a lot more interesting. You may want to check them out. I've seen them in everything from portable grills (at about $130 for a stainless grill... $30 more than a normal burner) to heavy duty built-ins.