C'mon baby, light my fire - just don't skimp on the flavor
June 7th, 2011
11:00 AM ET
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Step away from the lighter fluid and drop the instant-light bag down on the ground.

Nothing stinks things up quite like a backyard cookout fueled by excess chemicals and sub-par charcoal. Not only does it reek like a trash fire in Hades - it's also fouling up the taste of your food.

We're here to save the scent and savoriness of your summer.

At the recent Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, the refrain was the same from nearly all the chefs we interviewed. "I wouldn't be caught dead with a gas grill." "Gas grills are the devil." "Now, I'm not saying that gas grills should be illegal...oh wait - I am." Time Magazine food columnist Josh Ozersky went so far as to characterize gas grills as, "Pabulum, Soylent Green, a medium for medicating hunger and killing time...nihilism in a tank" in a recent column.

Simmer down now, guys. Yes, it'd be dandy if every single summer meal were sizzled atop a heap of hand-foraged fruitwood and hickory. The temperature can be higher, the smoke adds distinctive flavor and the scent can practically be worn as perfume, but the vast majority of Americans are cooking with gas in the great outdoors.

According to the 2011 Weber GrillWatch Survey, of the 71 percent of Americans 21 and older who own a grill or smoker, 67 percent are using propane or natural gas. And why wouldn't they? The method is quick, clean, starts at the push of a button, and provides uniform heat - but the lack of smoke and the comparatively lower temperature may rob the fire-kissed food of a little extra flavor.

It's easy to add a little bit of it back by grabbing your favorite smoking wood, available in bags at your local hardware store. Just soak a few chunks or chips in water or beer for 30 minutes, pop them in a packet out of heavy-duty foil, poke a few holes and place it on one end of the grate when you're ready to cook.

The smoke will infuse the food with flavor, and the scent alone makes the extra step worth it. Just toss out the packet when everything has cooled back down.

If you find you like the extra smoke kiss it adds, invest in a small, perforated smoker box (usually under $20) and experiment with different kinds of woods. Apple, mesquite, cherry, pecan and hickory chunks and chips are readily available; mix and match to find your favorite formula.

We're also big fans of planking. Nope, not the face-down internet meme, but the age-old technique of cooking food atop or wrapped in wood. Not any ol' slab of timber will do; opt for an untreated piece of pecan, cedar, maple or fruitwood (we like Elizabeth Karmel's version) and soak it ahead of time so it doesn't burn. The meat, fish or vegetables will pick up fabulous flavor and you get a killer plate to present.

If you do opt for charcoal (which you really ought to if your outdoor space and local regulations allow), resist the siren call of the quick-start fire. Chemically-treated briquettes and lighter fluid may get the fire blazing faster, but the acrid taste of chemicals and extra carcinogens are added to your food, and generally stink up the neighborhood.

Maximum fire flavor comes from hardwood lump charcoal. It's generally not treated with extra chemicals and it's a cinch to light, once you know the trick.

That'd be a chimney starter. It's a vented, metal, handled cylinder with a shelf inside. Just grab a sheet of newspaper and start folding the long end in on itself, until halfway up. Then bring the shorter edges together in a ring, and crumple the unfolded portion of the paper into the center until it looks like a little hat. If you'd care to double down on your firepower, crumble in some additional paper and swab it with a touch of vegetable oil.

Tuck that into the bottom of the chimney starter and pour the coals into the top portion. Make sure you're in a cleared area – outside, always outside – with no ambient, flammable branches, grass, untucked sleeves, hair, children, dogs, etc., around. Then light the paper through the bottom vents. It will catch fire, igniting the coals from below.

Once the coals are no longer glowing and have a light layer of white ash, pour them – carefully, as they tend to spark – into the bottom of your grill. If you feel like getting a bit fancy, throw in a few sprigs of water-soaked rosemary or a handful of those wood chunks or chips.

It'll all just taste better - and your nose will know the difference.

For those keeping score, many chefs we've interviewed swear by the Weber Smokey Joe, but Eatocracy has long been loyal to the Char-Griller Duo. This is not a paid endorsement - they've never given us a thing other than hours upon hours of contented grilling. It's got gas on one side for hectic weeknights and charcoal (with optional side firebox) on the other for an all-day brisket or smoke-soaked ribs. Kinda like a mullet haircut - but with even more flavor.

Got a favorite grill model or fire starting method? Sing its praises in the comments below.

We've got some seriously smokin' grilling advice right here.

- Burgers – a step-by-step guide

- Up your grilling game

- Red hot grilling tips from Eatocracy readers

- Best. Burgers. EVER and Best. Cheeseburger. EVER

- 5 grilling mistakes – and how to fix them

- Bring your indoor favorite to the great outdoors

- Grate balls of fire? Not on our watch.

- Bring your indoor favorites to the great outdoors

- Make a Mexican-inspired outdoor feast

- Best burger-friendly wines

- What every carnivore should know

And feast on the results of The Picnic Poll to find out what your fellow chefs like for a main dish and drink, burger topping, side dish and dessert.

See all our best grilling advice at Grilling 101



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soundoff (399 Responses)
  1. Ron

    This is my favorite topic of any. I have a gas grill and a Big Green Egg I purchased 2 years ago. I much prefer charcoal grilling on my Big Green Egg. I get all my Grilling Supplies from http://www.hearthandgrill.com and they give the best advice I've ever found from any store. I think it's because they have been in business for over 40 years. What Jeff Lunsford at Hearth & Grill educated me on was the difference in lump charcoal. Jeff is also a Chef and shares lots of recipes and cooking ideas. The lump charcoal lasts longer and you don't get the chemicals from store bought manufactured charcoal. There are 2 brands I look for in buying this organic lump charcoal which are Big Green Egg and Cowboy. Hearth & Grill carries both! Now I do use my gas grill when I'm in more of a hurry and I have the American Outdoor Grill I purchased from Hearth and Grill. So if you have not used a Big Green Egg or the lump organic charcoal I highly recommend you try it. The flavor of the things I grill are so much better!

    June 9, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  2. Mario

    How come the best pizzas come from a wood fired brick oven and not a gas flamed one? Momma Mia, the answer is simple.

    June 8, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  3. Allldone

    There is a multitasker you have all ignored. The toaster. Take an electric extension cord, plug your toaster in on your back porch or somewhere outside. Drop a steak in it and set the timer for 6 minutes. You will get a perfectly grilled steak with grill marks that will taste just like it came off your propane grill. Want your food to taste like it came of a charcoal grill? Well, then, just toast some wood chips into the bottom of the toaster and turn it on until they start smoking before you plunge your steak into that vertical inferno.

    June 8, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  4. I live in Tyrone, pa

    I prefer charcoal for the taste. Gas is much more convenient but it doesn't compare in my opinion. O yea you crying liberals...don't you know that the majority of our electricity comes from COAL fired power plants!!!

    June 8, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  5. Hank

    Taste the meat not the heat! Taste the meat not the heat!

    June 8, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  6. pacman357

    Gas has its place in cooking on a grill. That place is Burger King. Real BBQ and real outdoor grilling is done over charcoal and/or wood. Since I have a large barel-style BBQ, with room to cook two full slabs of beef ribs, about 15 chicken breasts, and a couple dozen brats all at the same time, I use both charcoal and wood. It's great if you are using the right wood. Around the Pacific NW, alder grows like weeds. There are also places in the eastern half of the state to buy large piles of applewood.

    June 8, 2011 at 5:40 am |
  7. Mark

    Three Words – Big Green Egg! Add Lump Charcoal, set to grill or smoke and all you propane heads will be immediate converts, like me.

    June 7, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  8. seattlite

    The new Weber chimney and a piece of paper is the only way to get coals going. It takes less time than lighter fluid and doesn't stink or cause cancer.

    June 7, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • seattlite

      Oh, yeah. The Cobb has a built-in rack for charcoals so you don't need a chimney. Just a piece of paper towel soaked in fat.

      June 7, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
  9. seattlite

    I use a Cobb grill. It only takes 7 charcoals to cook most things (4-8 burgers, 3 chicken breasts, etc) I start it wit a piece of paper towel soaked in the grease from the grease catcher on the Cobb grill. It starts in a few minutes. The grill is portable and can is totally cool on the outside. For big stuff, like whole checkens, turkeys, hams, I use a Weber.

    June 7, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
  10. TDC 'Tucky

    For Dogs and Burgers I use gas, but a griddle, not a grill. for Chicken pork or beef I use the Grill (gas) or my firepit. It's all according to the circumstances of the situation.

    June 7, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  11. doughnuts

    Gas for convenience (when you just want to fix a couple of burgers or a steak for dinner). Charcoal for better flavor.

    June 7, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  12. bence00

    When we start burning charcoal in our gas hogs I will start burning gas in my grill.

    June 7, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  13. JohnnyOh2323

    I have always found that microwaving is the best way to prepare a fine steak in the summer. You can even set up your microwave outside to create an illusion of grilling.

    June 7, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • Schmedley

      Best comment of the day... :-)

      June 7, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Conan the Barbarian

      WIN!

      June 7, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  14. Bill

    I do not think charcoal is not any better than gas. What gives the meat the smokey taste is when the oil from the meat drips onto the coals or hot surface and smokes. The smokes rises and infuses itself into the meat giving that bar-b-cued taste. However, wood is different because the type of wood you use gives a certain taste.

    June 7, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Bill

      You are dumb.

      September 22, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  15. E Brick

    I mean Ford also sells more THAN Mercedes. Still means nothing.

    June 7, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  16. @Brett2point0

    For the visual learners of the bunch, you may enjoy this historical analysis of data on gas vs. charcoal grill sales over the years:

    http://spotfireblog.tibco.com/?p=6455

    June 7, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • E Brick

      Ford also sell more Mercedes. This means nothing.

      June 7, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  17. Brett

    I dumped my big gas griller after a few years. The problem was a bit of flavor but mostly of control and fun. I like lighting the charcoal and have it burn off the remnents of the last BBQ. The biggest issue I had with gas though was control, anyone that has ever cooked something greasy, like duck, knows what I am talking about. Gas grills inherently need ventilation, for good cause, who wants to blow up their BBQ because they left the lid closed and forgot to start it right away. The problem however is that if you get a grease fire it is all but impossible to put out. With charcoal you can at least put a lid on it to smother it, gas will burn until all the oil is gone, for a Duck that is a long time.

    June 7, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  18. telecat

    I say again, gas grills are for women and very effeminate men. Convenience is overrated.

    Oh dear, I just CAN'T thoil my hands with that icky charcoal! Give me the propane every time. Then take me to see Bette Midler!

    June 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Dixie Sugarbaker, of the Savannah Sugarbakers

      Well bless your little heart.

      June 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      I'm a mechanic you t(r)ool. I can also bet you haven't even touched a women in years with that gay bashing attitude of your's.

      June 7, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
      • limpy

        Ooooo, i bet you know how to work a tool. Wanna see my box wrench?

        June 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • LikesToSeeHisToes

      Real men use the right tool for the right job. Little boys always try to use the same tool for any job.

      June 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  19. HR

    Been cooking for more than 50 years – no comparison – charcoal is better – better taste and better char – no gas for me

    June 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • TDC 'Tucky

      Try wood, you will never use charcoal again!

      June 7, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  20. Dalton

    Traeger grills are the best. You get the convenience of a gas grill with all the flavor of a charcoal/wood grill.

    June 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  21. telecat

    Gas grills are for women and very effeminate men. Real men cook with wood.

    June 7, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      Who wants to bet that these charcoal/wood die hards can't afford a decent gas grill?

      June 7, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • JohnnyOh2323

      Real men bite the throat of the cow if they want a brisket and wash it down with warm milk from the same dead cow.

      June 7, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
      • vtrweasel

        EFF Yeah!!!

        June 7, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
      • Corey

        Go Johnny Bravo!

        June 7, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • deprogrammed

      Hey! I resent that. No self-respecting woman is using a dang gas grill outdoors; I have one of those in the INDOOR kitchen.

      June 7, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  22. WasabiPotPie

    I am still awaiting for someone to tell me What Jesus Would Use.

    June 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Major English

      Let's see ..... He turned water into wine, He walked on water and turned loaves into fishes. I would guess that He could use a spatula to turn a vegan on a Weber if He had a mind to.

      June 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
      • Capt. Spellcheck

        A free ranging grass fed vegan, no less!

        June 7, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  23. E Brick

    For grilling, Weber kettle grills are tops, but for smoking, I prefer my Brinkman vertical charcoal smoker.

    June 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  24. Mike

    There should be no argument here at all. If you are grilling it is over charcoal or wood. There is no difference when using gas or electricity indoors or out of doors, they are like using your cook range. I doubt anyone would go to a barbecue restaurant that used gas or electricity, it is about the wood and charcoal that is used that creates the smoke ring and flavor. Enough said.

    June 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      No, not "enough said". Again, a gas grill with a smoker box will produce that same smoke ring and flavor.

      June 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • GasGriller

      Gas also causes fire, which gives a different and delicious taste to food. Wood tastes even better, but if your electric stove is causing fire in your kitchen then you are doing it wrong. It sounds from your false claims like you've never cooked with a gas grill.

      June 12, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  25. vtrweasel

    My gas grill has a built in smoker box and a side burner for cooking fish outdoors (plus a rotisserie). I joke about having to finance the grill but I use it more than my oven when it's not raining. I have a traditional "barrel smoker" too but after "smoking" a turkey on my gas grill I'll probably put it up for sale. No, my friends can not tell that I'm cooking with gas and I'll take the Pepsi challenge over charcoal any day.

    June 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Bill

      Congratulations.

      September 22, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  26. MMoon

    The Big Green Egg is the way to go. I have used one for 8 years, had 2 Webers prior to the Egg thought I would never depart from the Weber until I had food from an Egg. BGE Company stands behind their product with a lifetime warranty.

    June 7, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Smokey Stover

      Why spend all those bucks on a green egg when you can do the same thing with a big ceramic flower pot?

      June 7, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
      • BGE Fan

        Use one, then see if you still ask that question.

        June 7, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • I'd grill ice cream if I could

      I have a BGE, a gas grill, and a Weber kettle. With three small kids, the gas grill fits the bill when I've got half-an-hour to get burgers ready. If friends come over for steaks, it's time for the Weber. But for sheer smokey, juicy ecstasy, it's time for a weekend session with a leg of lamb/turkey/boston butt/rack of ribs in the Egg.

      This is a silly discussion. The right tool for every job, and the right job for every tool.

      June 7, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
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