Grills

Which is better: A gas or charcoal grill?

We'll help you choose the right one for your summer barbecue.

Credit: Getty Images / Kesu01 / tab1962

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Red Sox and Yankees. Hatfields and McCoys. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.

These famed feuds have gone on for generations, but none can compare to the backyard barbecue wars. On porches and patios across America, heated debates ignite every weekend over whether using charcoal or gas is the best way to grill.

So, which one is better? Better yet, which one should you buy? Well, that depends on what you want out of grilling.

If you're looking for the easiest way to cook outdoors with the least amount of preparation and grill cleanup, gas may be your best pick. If you're a foodie or grilling traditionalist—or just have a little more time on your hands—you might want to check out charcoal.

To help you navigate this minefield of cooking contention, we’ve put gas and charcoal to the test. Your personal preferences determine the winner—and what grill you should buy.

Should you buy a charcoal grill?

Charcoal gives that smoky taste

Food
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If you want that quintessential smoky taste, charcoal is your go-to.

What’s a summer cookout without smoky barbecue aromas filling the air? Charcoal grills give off that classic smoky smell and bring a unique flavor to your food. When grilling, fats and oils (all the good stuff) fall into the hot coals, sizzling and creating a vapor that infuses right back into the food.

Propane proponents tell you that you'll "taste the meat, not the heat.” Charcoal cheerleaders say there's nothing better than the smoke flavors of a steak grilled over the open flame. In the end, the decision is up to you and your taste preferences.

Cooking steak, burgers, and more

A charcoal fire can get much hotter, much faster. This helps to create that perfect sear on a steak or grilled veggies. Unless you use a gas grill with infrared burners (which produce a more direct heat to your food than a typical grill), you’re better off going for charcoal.

One of the best charcoal kettle grills we tested comes with a unique grill grate that distributes even heat on your grilled goods.

Charcoal grills can be portable

Portable
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If you're looking for a grill that can travel easily, go for charcoal.

For flexible grilling at home, charcoal is a smarter choice. Gas grills are tied down, quite literally, by either a hefty propane tank or a direct natural gas line.

Our favorite portable charcoal grill is easy to pack away for a weekend trip to the beach or campsite.

How to control the temperature in a charcoal grill

Charcoal grills require attention, and that often means you need to accommodate a longer prep time—sometimes up to a half-hour for the charcoal to reach a steady heat. Some may regard it as tedious work, but many grill masters revel in tending the fire.

If you’re a charcoal grill novice, be prepared to potentially burn your food your first few tries. Since it can be more difficult to gauge the heat on a charcoal grill, perfecting your technique can take time.

There are several tips and tricks to pick up for a better grilling experience. For example, if you play with the vents and prod the burning charcoal just right, you can create "hot spots" for searing and gain more temperature control.

After you’re done, charcoal also requires special care for safe disposal.

When to buy a gas grill

Food cooks fast and evenly over gas

Gas
Credit: Getty Images / Nicholas Free

Gas grills give you more control over cooking time and temperature.

After the initial assembly of a gas grill, there’s no prep time. Open the valve to let the propane flow, open the grill lid and press the starter button, and the flames appear. Close the lid to preheat the grill for a few minutes, and you'll be cooking in no time.

Controlling the heat on a gas grill is much easier than on a charcoal grill. Simply turn a knob—marked low to high like your indoor range—and watch the flame flicker or grow.

Many propane grills don't get as hot as their charcoal counterparts, so there's less of a chance of burning food.

Gas is healthier for the environment

In terms of overall footprint, charcoal produces nearly double the amount of carbon emissions than gas does. While gas is a non-renewable source, it’s still the more eco-conscious choice in comparison.

Additionally, charcoal emits more soot than propane, releasing higher amounts of harmful toxins into the air.

What a gas grill will cost you

Price
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Gas grills are on the pricier side—however, they are more cost-effective in the long haul.

There’s no other way to say it: Gas grills come with an expensive initial investment—much more so than charcoal. Of course, there are simpler and fancier gas grill models for you to choose among, and these considerations will raise or lower your price tag.

While charcoal grills are less expensive to start, you’ll have the ongoing cost of purchasing charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal over time. Depending on how much you like to grill, this can add up.

On the other hand, propane tanks can last a whole season with regular use, making this option cost-efficient in the long run.

Are gas grills safer than charcoal?

While gas grills are more cost-efficient, they may not be as safe. Gas grills account for 82% of U.S. grill fires, so it is essential to take the necessary precautions before, during, and after cooking. These include checking gas lines and cleaning your grill.

Are gas-and-charcoal combo grills worth it?

Combo
Credit: Royal Gourmet

Charcoal and gas, both at your fingertips.

For the indecisive—or, arguably, the discerning—griller, combo gas-and-charcoal grills are a heavyweight contender because they offers the best of both worlds. Several models on the market feature both the gas and charcoal grilling options, sometimes along with another cooking component, like a smoker.

Some also have interchangeable grates so you can switch easily from charcoal to gas on one grill. Others have dual hoods for separate cooking surfaces.

Customers love Royal Gourmet’s three-burner combo grill for its pure versatility and ease of use.

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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