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The Great Grill Debate: Charcoal vs. Gas

To help you pick the perfect grill for your needs, we'll explore the charcoal vs. gas grill debate, look at cost and other variables.
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The outdoor cookout season is just about here; we can almost taste the flame-broiledness! But, if the warm spring has you drooling to buy a new grill, you may want to hold off just a bit longer as the best grill deals begin in June, and really start smoking in July.

Ideally though you should start doing your research now, so when the hottest grill deals do start rolling in, you'll be ready to pounce. To help you pick the perfect grill for your outdoor cooking needs, we'll explore the charcoal vs. gas grill debate, look at the cost of both, and weigh a number of other grilling variables.

Grill Cost

There's little doubt that a charcoal grill — which can be as simple as a cooking grate and a receptacle to hold the bricks — is an inexpensive outdoor grill. Of course, a high-end charcoal grill can cost upwards of $400, while the cheapest gas grills generally start at $100. But for the sake of comparison, we'll stick to typical, basic models for each; the timeless Weber 22.5" One-Touch Silver Charcoal Kettle Grill will cost you $99.00 (with in-store pick-up, a low by $20) while the basic Grill King 4-Burner Gas Grill with Side Burner is instead $169 (with free shipping). The Grill King arguably offers a more advanced setup, but it is fairly standard for a gas grill nonetheless.

Advantage: Charcoal Grill

Operating Cost

Gas grills run on either natural gas or propane canisters. A BernzOmatic 20-lb. Propane Tank will set you back $29.99 (with free in-store pickup, a low by $3), but you'll have to get it filled up at your local Home Depot, Lowe's, Costco, or the like. A good rule of thumb to calculate your propane usage is to relate one hour of continuous cooking time to each pound the canister holds. Therefore, after the initial canister purchase (which we figure should be factored into the grill cost), cooking gas will cost about $1 per hour of grilling.

Meanwhile, the chimney starter in a charcoal grill can hold up to six quarts of bricks; six quarts of sustainably sourced charcoal costs about $1.70 per cookout, while briquettes cost roughly $3.35. For charcoal grills, we'll also factor in lighter fluid. A 64-oz. bottle of Kingsford Lighter Fluid ($6.97 with free in-store pickup, a low by $2) will get things started.

Advantage: Gas Grill

Flavor

Purists insist that you can't get the same flavor on a gas grill that you can with charcoal, particularly when you add flavored wood chips like mesquite, apple, and hickory. As such, this Western Wood Chips Variety Pack ($19.99 with $4.99 s&h, a low by $5) should get your taste buds going. And indeed, nothing will caramelize a fine cut of steak or chicken like a charcoal grill using natural wood lump charcoal.

But there's ample evidence that with hamburgers and hot dogs, a gas grill does its job well enough that most folks can't determine the difference in grilling. What's more, it takes some experience to learn how to tame a charcoal grill just right, whereas finding the right temperature on a gas grill is as simple as dialing up a knob.

Advantage: Charcoal Grill

Portability

Lugging a gas grill to a park or beach cookout is going to be a headache, unless you have a big minivan and some able hands to help. That said, lots of folks like cooking in their backyard or back deck, and it's far less likely that some thief (presumably a hungry one) will walk off with your lovely gas grill if it's a pain to move. But for ball games and rooftop cookouts the Weber 10020 Smokey Joe Charcoal Grill ($29.99 in-store) is an ideal portable choice.

Advantage: Charcoal Grill

Why Not a Charcoal and Gas Grill?

There are those eclectic folks in life who, when asked, "Hamburger or hot dog?" simply nod their heads and say, "Yes." Like any good backyard BBQ menu, there's a grill that can accommodate the tastes of all: The Brinkmann Dual Function 3-Burner Propane Gas/Charcoal Grill and Smoker ($299.00 with free pickup, a low compared to similar models by $15) houses a gas cooking area on the left side and a charcoal compartment on the right, so you can get the best of both worlds.

The Grill Line

Anyone who owns a charcoal grill knows that cleanup can be a huge hassle, and you'll need up to 20 minutes to reach full cooking temperature. That's bad news if you have starving kids waiting, but can be an edge in the hands of a true grillmaster. Then again, when it comes to grilling and outdoor cooking, the debate could rage all summer long.

Note that this feature has been updated since it was originally published last year.


Contributing Writer

Lou Carlozo is a DealNews contributing writer. He covers personal finance for Reuters Wealth. Prior to that he was the Managing Editor of WalletPop.com, and a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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11 comments
GrandPixel
if you really care about gas vs charcoal, read this:

http://amazingribs.com/...rills_vs_gas_grills.html
giovanniATL
Lol. Sustainably sourced charcoal?? Really.
Alligator
Ten years ago I bought a Great Outdoors gas grill. It was the only one I could find that had a rock grate for ceramic briquettes which I promptly replaced with garden type lava rocks. Since I still cannot find a grill with a rock grate, I have replaced all the critical parts over the years and will continue to do so as long as I am able to find the parts. Everything I cook tastes great - usually steak, chicken thighs, salmon and asparagus.
Ckile2010
The charcoal is much easier to clean especially with chicken, just put down a drip pan or foil. There isn't the room to easily do something like that in a gas grill and the grease would often cause separate fires which would cause the chicken to burn.
dealnews-bglaser
@Jake_ Thanks for the heads-up. But even without the lighter fluid or chimney, it seems the charcoal itself is a little more expensive per cookout than propane. We'll revisit it next time.
Jake_
Starter chimney is a one time cost, and if you have one you don't need lighter fluid.

May want to revisit that section.
dealnews-Lindsay
@Valkana True, if you can find it at your local Walmart! That grill isn't available to purchase online, and it's not in my local store :( Booooooo.
Valkana
Instead of $299 for a combo grill at Home Depot, you can get a combo grill for $198 at Walmart http://www.walmart.com/...-Charcoal-Grill/31897842
dealnews-bglaser
@efithian Thanks for the info! Most consumers still decide between just charcoal and gas, but we will definitely keep infrared grills in mind for our next comparison.
efithian
You neglected the infra-red grills that are available. These provide the best overall taste and ease of use, even as portables. They tend to be a lot more expensive than standard gas grills, but they will last forever. TEC grills are the best and most expensive ($4000). Broilmaster makes a nice product at a third the price of the TEC ($1000), and Char-Broil makes a low end infra-red grill sold at the home improvement stores ($300). I have had a TEC for 15 years and it is like new. My son has a Broilmaster and loves it.
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