Charcoal or Gas; How the New Grills Match Up

Depending on how thrilling you consider grilling, there is a perfect outdoor cooker for you.

"The first thing is to consider what you're going to be using it for," says Lola Rice, alias "Smoke Mistress," publisher of USA Smoke BBQ News, in Hico, Texas.

What is it you typically cook and for how many people? If you're grilling steaks for 12, you don't want a hibachi. If your apartment building has strict codes, you may have to go electric.

But the majority of grill seekers are stuck on the tines of a dilemma that can reach theological proportions: gas or charcoal? Each type has its die-hard fans. Generally speaking, the pros and cons go something like this:

Gas: More convenient. Ignition and high-to-low settings provide even, controlled heat in 10 or 15 minutes, half the time of charcoal grill. Separately controlled burners allow for more versatility in what you're cooking. No ash cleanup. Most propane gas tanks will last 10 to 18 hours of grilling. Added features, such as a side burner, interior and exterior racks, add to versatility in cooking. Price range: $150 to $5,000.

Charcoal: Hotter (can easily go above 500 degrees F.), less expensive, more flavor. Grilling enthusiasts like Marie Rama and John Mariani, authors of "Grilling for Dummies" (IDG Books, $19.99), state flatly that charcoal produces better flavor than a gas grill. Others, such as Cheryl and Bill Jamison, authors of "Born to Grill" (Harvard Common Press, $27.95), say the difference is not detectable. For charcoal lovers, the process of lighting and tending fire is often fun, even nostalgic. A few models on the market have gas ignition to start the lighting process. Price range: $20 to $500.

Gas grills are outselling charcoal these days - no doubt because of convenience. According to an annual manufacturers' survey, 58 percent of outdoor cooks own a gas grill; 42 percent use charcoal; more than 10 percent own both.

The rising popularity of gas over charcoal points up a nationwide trend: People are grilling more often and year round. Just ask Bill and Nancy Morrison of Hinsdale, Ill. "We'll grill through the winter," says Mr. Morrison, explaining that food tastes better when it's cooked over flame outdoors. In step with the trend, the Morrisons switched from charcoal to gas a few years ago, "As far as we're concerned you get wonderful flavor - but in 10 minutes... No muss, no fuss," says Morrison.

Still, charcoal will always have its devotees; among the nonconvertible is renowned "Thrill of the Grill" chef Chris Schlesinger of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass.

Keep these points in mind when looking for a grill:

Think sturdy. Gas or charcoal, it should have sturdy legs, tight-fitting lid, and an overall solid feeling. Quality construction in charcoal kettles, especially, will ensure multiple seasons; inferior grills will rust out. With charcoal, look for a removable ash catcher. Consider how complicated the assembly process will be.

Investigate the grate. If you're planning on feeding more than two people, you probably want to have at least 350 square inches. Many grates on gas grills are porcelain-coated steel. Cast-iron runs the risk of rusting if you don't coat it regularly with cooking oil. Stainless steel is also good and won't rust.

Seek high heat. Most charcoal grills will heat to more than 500 degrees F., which is optimal. But with gas, it's not always sure-fire. BTU (British thermal unit) output is the heat-intensity measurement and most gas grills these days offer between 24,000 and 44,000 BTUs, sufficient-to-good for searing.

Briquettes or hardwood charcoal? Many gourmet cooks prefer hardwood (natural lump) charcoal as opposed to briquettes that may contain petroleum additives. With gas, heat distribution ranges from ceramic briquettes and lava rocks to metal bars. If you want to reduce flare-ups, choose metal bars.

Fuel check: The last thing you want is to have the tank run dry midway through a cookout. One solution is to have a backup fuel tank. But if you only want to deal with one tank, there are several ways to figure out how much fuel you have left, if the tank doesn't have a gauge. Weigh the tank on a bathroom scale, and subtract the tank weight, which is stamped "TW" next to the handle. The standard tank holds about 20 pounds of propane.

But a little gadget may be better: GLI is a card with a magnet made by Color Change Corp. It retails for about $6. Place it at the base of the tank; the card's color bar starts to change when gas runs low.

Finally, a good science experiment will measure the fuel level: If you pour a cup of boiling water over the outside of the tank (tipping the tank slightly), the empty part warms, while the propane part remains cool.

Authors Cheryl and Bill Jamison warn that with so many gas grills to choose from and so many high-priced extras, people may not be getting what they need most: a high heat at the grill level, not the "oven" temperature that many built-in thermometers measure.

Lowering a grill's cover can be beneficial if you want juicier, less crispy food with a smokier taste. Basically, the cover makes turns your grill into an oven, trapping heat and smoke.

When asked for suggestions of grills that one might not find in the nearest home store, the Jamisons mention Barbecues Galore (800-GRILL-UP), an Australian company and Hasty-Bake, a longtime charcoal grill manufacturer in Oklahoma (800-4AN-OVEN) Price range: $599 to $2200. (You can grill, bake, or smoke in them.)

Grilling's Ten Commandments

1. Be organized. Have everything you need before you start: food, marinade, basting sauce, seasoning, and equipment.

2. Gauge your fuel. When using charcoal, light enough to form a bed of coals 3 inches larger on all sides than the surface area of the food you're grilling. When cooking with gas, make sure the tank is at least one-third full.

3. Preheat the grill to the right temperature. In order to achieve a seared crust, charcoal flavor, and handsome grill marks, you must cook over a high heat of at least 500 degrees F. When using charcoal, let it burn until it is covered with a thin gray ash. Hold your hand about 6 inches above the grate. After 3 seconds, the heat should force you to pull your hand away. When using a gas grill, put the cover down, and preheat to high (at least 500 degrees F); this takes 10-15 minutes.

4. Keep it clean. Clean the grate twice: before and after you've finished cooking. The first cleaning will remove any bits of food you may have missed after the last grilling session. Use a metal spatula to scrape off bits of food, a stiff wire brush to finish scrubbing the grate.

5. Keep it lubricated. Oil the grate just before placing the food on top, if necessary (some foods don't require that the grates be oiled).

6. Turn, don't stab. The proper way to turn meat on a grill is with tongs or a spatula. Never stab meat with a fork - unless you want to drain the flavor-rich juices onto the coals.

7. Know when to baste. Oil-and-vinegar, citrus, and yogurt-based sauces and marinades can be brushed on the meat throughout the cooking time. (If you baste with a marinade that you used for raw meat or seafood, do not apply it during the last 3 minutes of cooking.) Apply sugar-based barbecue sauces toward the end of the cooking time. The sugar burns easily and should not be exposed to prolonged heat.

8. Keep it covered. When cooking larger cuts of meat, such as a whole chicken, leg of lamb, or prime rib, use the indirect method. Keep the grill tightly covered and resist the temptation to peek. Every peek may add as much as 5 to 10 minutes to the cooking time.

9. Give it a rest. Most things you grill will taste better if you let them rest on the cutting board for a few minutes after grilling. This allows the juices, which have been driven to the center of a roast or steak to return to the surface.

10. Never desert your post. Grilling demands constant attention. Once you put something on the grill, stay with it until it's cooked.

- Adapted from 'The Barbecue! Bible,' by Steve Raichlen (Workman, $18.95)

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