Charcoal Versus Propane

We break down the pros and cons of charcoal and propane.


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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 charcoal or propane is the best way to grill. To help you navigate this minefield of cooking contention, here are the things you need to know about both fuels.

Which one is best for you? That depends on what you're trying to accomplish. If you're looking for the easiest way to cook outdoors with the least amount of preparation and cleanup, propane may be your best pick. If you're a foodie, master chef or grilling traditionalist or have a little more time on your hands, you might want to check out charcoal.

The Pros & Cons of Charcoal

Requires Planning

Charcoal grills require attention. They sometimes need up to a half hour for the charcoal to reach a steady heat, and the charcoal requires special care for safe disposal. Though it may sound like hard work, many charcoal aficionados find that tending the fire is actually a more relaxing way to cook.

Requires Practice & Preparation

It might seem counterintuitive, but some grill experts claim that charcoal fires are easier to control than propane grills. If you play with the vents and poke and prod the burning charcoal just right, you can create "hot spots" for searing and bring the temperature up and down. It does require practice, so be prepared for some burnt food on your first few tries.

Choose Your Weapon

Charcoal grills range from mere receptacles for burning charcoal to elaborate devices with propane-powered ignitors. Though charcoal takes some care to start and control, the right grill can simplify the process.

Fuel The Fire

Regardless of which charcoal grill you choose, if you saturate the charcoal with lighter fluid or buy a cheap brand of briquettes that's mostly sawdust, your food will taste like fuel. Buy a good quality charcoal, or consider lump charcoal which can offer a cleaner burn, though it's more expensive.

The Pros & Cons of Propane

Grill And Go

The main argument in favor of propane is that there's almost no set-up. Open the valve to let the propane flow, press the starter button, and the flames will appear. Close the lid to preheat the grill for a few minutes, and you'll be cooking in no time.

Heat Control

For those of us who don't have a masters degree in advanced grilling, propane grills are easier to control. Simply turn a knob up or down, and watch the flame flicker or grow. Many propane grills don't get as hot as their charcoal cousins, so there's less of a chance of burning food.

More Cost Effective

Though a propane grill and fuel will probably cost more than a charcoal grill upfront, you might save money in the long run since you'll cook far more meals with a full tank of propane than a bag of charcoal.

Environmentally Friendly

Burning propane emits less soot than charcoal, and therefore is slightly more environmentally friendly. There is some debate whether charcoal sourced from waste wood products are better for the environment overall than propane.

If you can't choose based on the objective merits of each fuel, perhaps you need to take a taste test. Propane proponents will tell you that you'll "taste the meat, not the heat," while charcoal cheerleaders say there's nothing better than the flavor of a steak grilled over charcoal. In the end, the decision is up to you.

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