Now that the barbecue season is in full swing and I’ve had a chance to grill everything from hamburgers to chicken to brats to smoked salmon during the past several months, becoming grill-active again brought back memories of barbecuing on propane gas vs. charcoal grills over the years.
For half of my life, I used a standard backyard charcoal grill and was never good at it. I used too little or too much charcoal and could never start a charcoal fire that would last. As a result, I ended up having to soak the charcoal with streams of starter fluid every five minutes. I singed my facial hair more than once when adding starter fluid to a struggling fire.
But once those charcoals finally started, you could melt steel beams in that fire, plus it would take hours before the charcoals turned to ash and for the fire to totally extinguish. It was difficult not to burn meat or to cook anything rare or medium-rare in such heat — pieces of raw meat and poultry either ended up seared but raw or burnt and well done....nothing in between.
Things changed dramatically when I acquired my first home in the early 1980s because the purchase included a small gas grill with an electric starter. It was anchored into concrete on a metal pole just outside the back door.
It took some time getting used to it and during my 10 years at that house, the burners had to be replaced several times because they rusted out. But at least the gas grill no longer required buying bags of charcoal, cans of lighter fluid and boxes of matches. Most important, I was able to maintain a consistent heat that could be easily controlled.
The next home I moved into did not have a gas grill so I returned to using a standard charcoal grill for about 10 years. During this time, I experienced the same old charcoal grilling problems I had in the past.
Today, I have a middle-of-the-road, portable, aluminum gas grill with two heat zones and four individually controlled burners and an electric starter. About 15 to 20 minutes after starting, the grill reaches 350° F using two burners set on ‘high’. Although far from state-of-the-art, it cooks meat and poultry products consistently time after time.
But friends and acquaintances of mine who are experienced and good at charcoal barbecuing sneer at the thought of using gas grills, but gas grills allow folks like me to consistently control cooking the meat. Equally important, the grill goes cold just 15-20 minutes after turning it off and there are no smoldering ashes to deal with.
I’ll be the first to admit you don’t get that charcoal-cooked flavor using gas grills, but the use of water-soaked wood chips or cedar planks yield a natural smoky flavor within minutes — and marinades and other topical sauces help flavor profiles in some cases, too.
Taste is in the mouth of the beholder. One study I found online on the topic of gas vs. charcoal grilling claims survey participants couldn’t tell the difference between hamburgers cooked on a gas grill vs. charcoal grill but could with steaks.
I’ve also found a gas grill does a far better job of roasting meat, such as beer can chicken or a whole turkey, than a charcoal grill since I can better control the indirect heating.
Call me wimpy but I’m happiest and most confident using grills fueled by propane. What’s more, seeing that my grill is used on a wooden deck, I don’t worry as much about burning the deck or house down.
I’m far from being a grill-master and I am always searching for tips on how to better prepare meat or poultry on a propane grill. So, if anyone has any tips he or she would like to share in this area I’m all ears. In the meantime, happy and safe grilling.
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