With spring slowly making its way into summer, grilling season is about to blast off. So brush off your grates, scrub under the hood and sweep out last year’s ashes from the cabinet.
Will you set the season off by cooking with wood, charcoal or gas? Here’s how cooking with each impacts and affects the finished product:
What’s hot: Charcoal gets a bad rap from wood-burning enthusiasts, but there’s are plenty of reasons that this became the iconic medium for outdoor cooking. For starters, charcoal gets hot. And then it stays hot. This combo makes it possible to achieve beautiful sears and crusts on meat that you can’t often achieve with other heat sources.
What’s not: Charcoal is kind of like that friend we all have that is an absolute riot to go out with for the night – non-stop laughs, drinks, accidental karaoke, even. But a few hours later, you’re left thinking to yourself, “What a mess…” Cleaning up a charcoal cookout is an ashy, messy affair that often leaves you wondering why you bothered in the first place. Charcoal grills also take quite a long time to heat up to an optimal temperature, and can be difficult to maintain evenly once you get there.
Also worth considering: Charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal? Briquettes may be easier to control, but it’s lump charcoal that burns hotter, making those iconic summertime sears possible.
What’s hot: Wood smoke imparts a robust, layered flavor to practically anything you cook over it. Even charcoal and gas enthusiasts will admit that when it comes to flavor, wood grilling just can’t be beat.
What’s not: When grilling with wood, you’re quite literally cooking with fire. And fire can be difficult to manage and manipulate. Wood fires can be challenging to start, especially if there’s anything stronger than a small breeze whipping through the air. And the old adage “Everything in moderation” can apply to wood smoke. If you aren’t careful, you can easily over-smoke, and thus over-flavor your meats.
Also worth considering: Wood is a wide, wide umbrella full of options that aren’t universally available across all regions. Softwoods like pine and spruce may be cheap and easy to find, but they can ruin a good piece of meat. Fruitwoods (apple, cherry), nutwoods (pecan) and hardwoods (mesquite, hickory) will impart much more desirable flavors, but these can be expensive.
What’s hot: Gas grilling is the ultimate when it comes to both control and usability, the two things that are going to transform you from a once-a-year to a weekly griller. Modern gas grills, usually propane, have push-button starters, and temperature dials just like your indoor oven. Cleanups are a breeze, compared to charcoal and wood grills, with removable drip pans, and even dishwasher safe grilling racks. Pricier models often include add-ons like rotisserie roasters, steamers, and side burners for cooking side dishes at milder temperatures.
What’s not: A second opinion about those temperature dials: they’re not all created equally. The consistent, even 350 degree temperature put out by your kitchen oven are what your gas grill aspires to, but it often misses the mark. Gas grills have a tendency to overheat, and therefore overcook if dishes aren’t monitored closely. Even the most expensive models of gas grills can quickly overwhelm more delicate grilling fodder, like fish or vegetables. Plus, gas grills are by far the most expensive.
Also worth considering: If you’re buying a standalone gas grill, it will likely be fueled by propane tanks. But if you’re buying a house with a built-in grill outside, methane may be what the fuel line is pumping in.