If identical high-quality steaks are broiled at the same, very high
temperature (700F or more), one over charcoal and the other over natural
gas or propane, then they will taste the same to most people. In short,
there is little difference in the taste of food which is broiled with
charcoal or gas, and many people (especially gas grill sellers) use this
to argue that gas grills are just as good as charcoal grills for
grilling and even barbecuing.
However, this example does not prove that grilling with charcoal
imparts no flavor. To the contrary: it imparts a unique flavor. But
the simple reason that most people cannot tell the difference in the
flavor of the two steaks is that high-quality steaks are cooked for a
very short period of time -- too short for the flavors of wood charcoal
to be noticeable in the taste of the steak.
Notice all the qualifications, like "very high temperature", "high
quality" steaks, and "high-quality" charcoal. These qualifications
result in broiling the meat (i.e. cooking almost entirely with radiant
heat) in a very short time, so that the wood smoke has little or no
effect on the meat itself.
Therefore, within the narrow range of grilling or broiling
high-quality meat, both gas and charcoal broil steaks which have almost
the same taste.
But this is a very narrow exception. Any conclusion or implication
that there is no difference between gas and charcoal (implicit in the
example) in imparting flavor to meat in most grilling and all barbecuing
is entirely wrong.
When grilling meat for longer periods of time than the above steak
example, the longer the meat stays on the grill, the more smoke flavor
will be imparted to the meat and hence the taste differences between gas
grilling and wood or charcoal grilling will become more distinct. For
example, if one were to grill a whole chicken on a grill, this is a
process that will require an hour or more. the taste of the finished
chicken will be quite different if one uses wood vs. using gas. The gas
grilled chicken will lack that delicious "wood smoke flavor".
Barbecuing is a method of cooking with the dry heat of a wood fire at
a temperature of between 180F and 250F. Barbecuing is a method of slow
cooking, and meat may require 12 hours or more to cook. When food is
cooked in the dry heat of a wood fire for so many hours, complex
chemical reactions occur which impart unique flavors to the food.
Gas cooking alone cannot duplicate these flavors. When gas burns, it
does not produce the complex smoke of burning wood. Without the hot
smoke of wood, the meat tastes very different from barbecued food.
Some barbecue restaurants use gas ovens to barbecue meat. In these
commercial restaurant smokers, the heat is produced by burning natural
gas or propane and chips, chunks or logs of hardwood are added to the
gas fire to provide the wood-smoked flavor. To the purist, this method
of cooking barbecue is a sacrilege, as they feel that to produce true
barbecue, the heat must come from only the burning of wood or charcoal.
To most people, the taste difference is not discernable between the two
cooking methods. Barbecue restaurants cook with gas because the cost of
doing so is much less than fueling the smoker entirely with wood or
charcoal. In the end, it comes down to what the customer likes. There
are many successful barbecue restaurants that use smokers fueled with
gas with hardwood added to provide the wood smoke flavor.
There are some home smokers that use gas to produce the heat and wood
chips to produce the wood smoke flavor. It is the position of the
California Barbecue Association that these smokers should be avoided by
people wishing to make "Authentic American Barbecue". We feel that if
you are going to go the the trouble of smoking a piece of meat, you
should do it with a wood or charcoal fire.
In competition barbecue, the rules make the use of gas illegal.
A gas grill may be an adequate substitute for a charcoal grill for
broiling hamburgers and steaks. A gas grill also serves as an adequate
outdoor oven when used for roasting meat. Thus, cooking with gas is
okay for broiling and roasting.
However, a gas grill cannot be used for barbecuing or hot smoking,
since both require the "low 'n slow" heat of a wood fire. So cooking
with gas is a big no-no for barbecuing and smoking.
Cooking with Gas Continued >>