Which is the best BBQ: Gas, Charcoal or Wood?

When you gather around the BBQ the inevitable question is, “Is charcoal better than gas? – No, wood is better!” So many BBQ enthusiasts, so many opinions. Except that for some purists this is really serious business and the judgments are vehemently expressed and defended. Some would never, ever own a gas BBQ because it is just not authentic, while others swear by gas and call charcoal dirty and cumbersome. If you love the thrill of playing with fire, then wood is probably your best option!

No, I am not making fun of the BBQ devotees and do not mean to be inflammatory (aaaargh!) Just enjoying a mild chuckle at my own expense. But seriously, how does one decide which is best for you, gas, charcoal or wood?

This article attempts to give all the facts so you can make an informed decision, but let’s face it, in the end, you will buy the one you enjoy most anyway.

Which BBQ the most convenient?

Okay, I grant you this is a no-brainer.

Gas is by far the most convenient. Mostly with the turn of a knob and the press of a button your fire is right there and ready to use within minutes and your dinner can be enjoyed start to finish in less than half an hour.

At the top of the tree of gas BBQ’s is the exceptional OutdoorChef range with over 20 different models, ranking from the flagship Luguno 570 G Gas Kettle braai, to a compact Minichef 420 G and everything in between to suit your purposes and pocket.

Gas BBQ’s hold their temperatures steadily and can easily be regulated to good grilling temperatures of between 200 and 300 degrees Celsius, without the need to be fed logs or coals. Top-end models such as OutdoorChef have different areas for different types of cooking at variable temperatures and can easily be set up for direct or indirect cooking, open grills with lids for greater diversity, or kettle grills.

Although a gas BBQ produces instant heat, it is still good practice to preheat it for a few minutes before putting the steaks on, to heat up the grill or cooking plate and ensure even and steady heat when you cook.

Gas BBQ’s are easy to clean and economical to use and maintain. Different models are available which can be mobile or built-in, big or small. They come with a multitude of accessories, and if smoke is your thing, then a smoke box can easily be added for aromatic wood chips.

Apart from the gas cylinder, no storage space for wood logs or charcoal is required. In larger models, the gas cylinder is stored in the storage space of the unit itself. Gas BBQ’s are available that can be wheeled away, or neatly folded away like a cupboard to take up very little space in the garden or on the patio.

Alas, gas BBQ’s are not perfect. On a hot day, a setting of 200 degrees might be precisely right, but on a cold, rainy, or windy day, a much higher setting will be required for the same result. It is also well to remember that the thermometers on most gas BBQ’s are not precise. As you get to know your appliance though, you will quickly get the settings right. A good laser thermometer or oven thermometer will also be a great help.

Even though there is no ash or coal remnants, gas BBQ’s do suffer from carbon and grease build-ups that need to be cleaned about once a year. The gas jets and vents also have to be cleaned about once a year with a pressure wash, steam or brush to prevent them from clogging up.

Charcoal grilling does not offer the same level of convenience as gas, but it has other redeeming factors.

On the downside of convenience, charcoal is a lot harder to handle, and unless you have one of the top BBQ models, they usually take a lot of cleaning up. Charcoal itself is dirty, can be hard to light and sometimes have to be stoked several times before you get anywhere near cooking temperature. Charcoal gives off more smoke than gas, and a flue or chimney is required if you want to use a charcoal BBQ indoors. It takes a lot longer than gas, and there can be flare-ups that burn the food or can even cause a risk of fire if proper precautions are not taken.

It is not as easy to control the heat with charcoal, and it quickly loses its heat if not continuously tended. Top-end charcoal BBQ’s also come with an array of accessories, albeit usually not as many as gas BBQ’s. For instance, rotisseries are rare among the mid- and lower range charcoal BBQ’s. Charcoal or briquettes have to be stored and kept dry in a particular place, requiring more storage space in the shed.

Of course, most of these problems are not insurmountable. Buy a pair of gloves, tongs and a shovel, and you don’t have to handle the charcoal. Storing the charcoal under proper conditions and using a good quality starter, they are a lot easier to light and kept going.

The best charcoal BBQ’s such as Chesney’s, Morso, OutdoorChef and Rocal boast such luxuries as one-touch adjustable grills, ash trays and trays to catch dripping fat or oil, storage space and much more. A charcoal BBQ like the Rocal Plek 66 stands out above all others and offers a full house of convenience and luxury.

Which BBQ burns hotter?

Typically, charcoal BBQ’s reach much higher grilling temperatures of up to 600 degrees Celsius, while usually cooking at between 300 and 400 degrees Celsius. If you need to crisp crackling, or quickly get your steaks or rack of ribs crisp on the outside and pink on the inside, then a charcoal BBQ is meant for you.

Some charcoal BBQ’s come with variable grills and even some of the mid-range models have an easily adjustable handle or crank on the charcoal grate that raises the hot charcoal to within an inch of the grill, or lower it completely if you want less heat.

At the top-end of gas BBQ’s, you will have the choice of infrared gas burners that will superheat ceramic or metal plates to achieve the same result as charcoal BBQ’s. The downside is that these “super-burners” are usually only large enough for one or two steaks at a time. They also have to be continuously tended as the steak can be incinerated in the blink of an eye.

Some people prefer the atmosphere of a “real” fire and like to gather around on a cold evening. Only charcoal or wood can do that for you. Some people believe you can add charcoal to your gas BBQ to emulate the effect of the fire. Bad idea. Unless they have been specifically designed as multifuel BBQ’s, the gas models are designed to handle the heat created by burners and not the higher heat created by burning charcoal and will be damaged or tarnished by the flames.

Which BBQ gives the best taste? Charcoal or Gas?

It is an urban legend that food tastes different because it has been grilled on gas. The only time the heat source itself will affect the taste of grilled food, is when starting fluids or other smelly substances have permeated the food. Better to use an electric fire lighter or charcoal chimney.

The characteristic flavour of grilled food comes from the juices in the food, not the fuel. However, do not forget that we also “taste” with our noses! The taste buds are rather limited in what they can recognise, but our olfactory senses discern millions of aromas and bouquets, and this could well affect how food tastes to you. It is very true that food can smell very differently, but again it has little to do with the fuel used for the flames or cooking plates. The rising heat from your BBQ (gas or charcoal) releases moisture from the food, dripping down onto the heated surface below. This moisture contains fats, oils, sugars, water, carbohydrates, proteins and flavourings, which all burst into flame and give off smoke and steam. The heated food, rising smoke and steam create new complex flavours that give the food you are grilling its distinctive taste and smell.

Premium quality gas BBQ’s offer the option of lava rocks or ceramic chips that better hold and more evenly distribute the heat and give the same smoky effect as charcoal.

Bottom line: There should not be much, if any, of a difference in taste, unless you need the higher heat for crispiness.

What about the cost?

Gas BBQ’s usually cost more than comparative charcoal grills to purchase, but they are more economical to use and generally there is less wastage. When you are done on a gas BBQ, you turn it off, but on a charcoal BBQ the remaining coals will either burn out or will be doused and discarded.

Other BBQ Fuel Choices: Wood

Nothing beats the atmosphere of an open wood fire. Friends and family can gather around and not only enjoy a delicious meal but can share in companionship and the friendly vibes of the fire. Nature lovers and outdoors people undoubtedly prefer the natural feel of a woodburning fire.

Most foods cannot be adequately cooked above direct flames, and you will have to wait until coals are formed. Having said that, BBQ enthusiasts maintain that no other BBQ creates and retains the tasty flavours of food cooked on real firewood, with real smoke. Aromatic wood-like almond, apple, cherry or hickory will further enhance the odours and tickle your taste buds. It is debatable whether the type of wood affects the taste of the food because no chemicals are released, but there is no denying that the aroma will make the food taste better!

Ask the experts. Firehouse sells, maintains and repairs all the top brands of gas and charcoal BBQ’s, wood and charcoal. Our expert teams will be more than happy to share ideas with you and advise you on what will best suit your needs.