Barbecues are simply part of summer, everyone agrees on that. However, opinions differ as to which grill is the best. These advantages and disadvantages have charcoal, gas, or electric grills.
Since the discovery of fire, people have been grilling their food. Grilling is therefore probably the most original and oldest way of preparing food. To this day, cooking over an open fire appeals to a deeply rooted, archaic instinct – and a highly social one at that, because only very few people light the grill for themselves. Grilling has always been done in groups, ever since the first Neanderthals gathered around the fire and ate the hunted game together.
Barbecuing has a high social component
This has remained true to this day – summer barbecuing is not just “having dinner”, but a more or less extensive event with family, friends, or neighbors that you wouldn’t necessarily invite over for dinner in the winter. It’s similar to the Sunday roast, which is much more than just a piece of meat: waiting together for the food (while it already smells irresistibly good) and then eating together connects people and strengthens this community.
The Germans are enthusiastic grillers and like to call themselves “grill world champions”. Also, they are perhaps the only people who even arrange over the radio to “joint” barbecue parties (which amazes me as an Austrian immigrant again and again).
Barbecuing is simply part of summer, there is a great deal of agreement on that (and I rarely dare to admit that I think it is woefully overrated …), the smell of charcoal and freshly roasted meat is for many the epitome of the summer smell. Only how to properly grill, on it the minds heat almost as much as the steaks on the grill grate.
Classically and somewhat awkwardly with charcoal? Even more original with a campfire, skewers, and grill grate? Fast and flexible with a gas grill? Or, practical and for many an outrage, with the electric grill? What is the best method? There are no universal answers for this – each of the systems has its justification, its advantages, and disadvantages.
Coal grill – fully masculine
Real men want real fire. They need it. It’s deeply masculine. And they guard it, cherish it, and watch over it jealously, because: He who has power over fire is master of the world. Or thereabouts. Anyway, it’s men who swear by open fires. They say.
I for one (and as a woman) can’t stand it when anyone “messes” with my fireplace or campfire and just throws branches or boards into the flames without rhyme or reason. I get even grimmer when such an unprofessional fire, against all physical and meteorological odds, is still burning happily, while my professional pile of wood is just smoking away.
This can provoke relationship crises of coarse proportions, and it’s probably a good thing we don’t barbecue sausages on an open fire with a spit like we used to. Because domesticated charcoal fire in the grill doesn’t interest me one bit. That’s for beginners. I’m happy to leave that to a man. Maybe I just don’t want to admit that the correct “operation” of a charcoal fire is not so simple.
If you grill with charcoal, you need time, patience, and feeling. Until the coal is properly heated, easily passes a good half hour. This is also the time when smoke and odors are at their strongest: if you have sensitive neighbors, you will quickly make yourself unpopular here and have to reckon with complaints. In rented apartments, the use of charcoal grills on the balcony is often completely prohibited.
If the coal is then at grill temperature, the temperature cannot simply be regulated with a flick of the wrist. Embers are just embers and have no temperature regulator. If you want to grill sensitive food such as fish or various types of vegetables evenly, you need feeling: By piling up or moving the glowing coals to one side and by adjusting the height of the grill grate, you can still influence the grilling temperature.
Smoky, inexpensive, and flexible – grilling with charcoal
The smoke, which may disturb the neighbors, is the main argument for many charcoal barbecue fans. Because it is precisely this smoke that gives the grilled food its unique aroma. The smoke aroma is particularly intense when meat is grilled in a closed grill and over indirect heat. By the way, this is no longer officially called “grilling” (which refers to preparation over an open fire), but “barbecuing” (which strictly speaking only refers to grilling under a closed lid).
Another argument for the charcoal grill is the comparatively low purchase price. During the barbecue season, practically every major gas station offers not only disposable grills for one-time use but also small, fully functional charcoal grills starting at fifteen euros. The only cheaper way is with an open fireplace and collecting wood in the city forest.
Even larger stand grills with lid and smoker can be had for less than a hundred euros. The prices for barbecue briquettes or charcoal start at about 1.10 euros per kilo. Smokeless special charcoal can also hit the wallet with 4.50 euros per kilo.
Charcoal barbecues are not only cheap but also flexible. As they require neither a gas cylinder nor a power supply, they can also be used for picnics at the quarry pond. Especially smaller models are well suited for this.
Health risks and danger of accidents when grilling with charcoal
When grilling with charcoal, toxins can be released when meat juices or fat drip onto the embers. Regular consumption of such barbecued food is not particularly healthy. This can be prevented by using special grill trays or aluminum foil or by indirect grilling.
This involves not placing the food directly over the embers – instead, the glowing charcoal is placed at the edge of the grill and a bowl of water is placed in the middle. Dripping fat thus does not come into contact with the coals or the hot metal. The prerequisite for indirect grilling is a grill with a lid (and ventilation slots) and a sufficiently large grill grate.
The open fire remains open fire, no matter whether it flickers in the fire bowl or as charcoal in the grill. If children are present at barbecues, special caution is therefore required. The barbecue must never be left unattended to prevent accidents and burns.
Also, make sure that you only light the barbecue with systems designed for this purpose. Stay away from petroleum, liquid spirit, or petrol! These not only give off an unpleasant aroma but can also prove life-threatening due to sudden jet flames.
Especially in dry summers, you should also think about the fire hazard caused by flying sparks or improperly disposed of barbecue charcoal. Simply dumping the latter into the meadow or bushes after a barbecue at the lake is not a solution, even if it has already cooled down completely. When hot, such “disposal” is taboo anyway.
Quick and clean – grilling with gas
Despite the comparatively high initial costs, the gas barbecue has established itself on the market remarkably quickly. Many of the disadvantages of charcoal barbecues are not an issue with a gas barbecue: gas barbecues are ready for use immediately and are therefore also suitable for a spontaneous barbecue party with little time.
The grill reaches its operating temperature very quickly without smoking or stinking. The heat can be easily regulated at any time via the burner’s gas supply – models with several burners can even achieve different temperature zones on the grill grate (for example, for searing, cooking through and keeping warm).
Because the grill temperature can be kept constant, gas grills are particularly well suited for delicate grilled food such as fish or desserts – and for large pieces of meat that want to be cooked for hours at an even temperature. The gas grill also serves well for large barbecue parties because the temperature is maintained over a long period of time and does not have to be refired in between, as is the case with a charcoal grill.
In good models, the burners work with flame distributors – this prevents meat juices or fat from dripping into the flames. This reduces the health risk from toxins.
High purchase price – some gas grills are more like mini kitchens
Gas grills are usually more expensive to buy – small, plain entry-level models can be had for around a hundred euros. Technical refinements quickly drive the price up. Gas barbecues in the higher price and quality class, with all their additional functions, are more like mobile kitchens than barbecues.
When buying a gas barbecue, look out for the CE marking with the number 0085. If you decide to buy an imported gas barbecue from the USA, the “home of barbecue”, you should remember that domestic gas cylinders usually do not fit the appliance. Additional adapters are necessary here.
In operation, gas grills tend to be somewhat cheaper than their charcoal relatives. The empty gas bottles can usually be refilled and do not end up as waste. In general, such a gas grill makes little waste or dirt: There is hardly any ash, and also the smoke development during grilling itself is negligible. In densely populated areas, the gas barbecue is, therefore, the less conflictual option.
Gas barbecues are flexible and practical when it comes to barbecuing – when it comes to barbecuing on the move, however, they are much less flexible than a simple charcoal barbecue. In addition to the gas barbecue, you always have to take the gas bottle with you – and it easily weighs ten kilos, which needs to be lugged around. Larger gas barbecues, in particular, are therefore usually used purely as “site equipment”.
Smoke-free? How to trick the gas grill
No smoke and therefore no typical smoke aroma – that is the main argument against the gas grill for die-hard charcoal grillers. Especially with longer roasted pieces of meat, the difference can be clearly tested by sensitive palates. The point of criticism is also known to the manufacturers and they have reacted to it.
With the use of special smoking pellets, wood chips in smoking boxes, or “smoking chips”, the particularly smoky note can be achieved perhaps not perfectly, but still quite passably on the gas grill. Another option is to wrap watered wood chips in aluminum foil, poke a few holes in the packet, and place it directly on the grill.
Electric grill: sacrilege or pragmatism?
To make a long story short: We decided to go with an electric grill. Why? Because we only grill at home on the patio anyway, where there is always a power outlet nearby. We also like to barbecue in the winter. But we don’t like to freeze, so we move winter barbecues into the kitchen. And that’s easy, practical, and clean with the electric grill.
Speaking of clean: The electric grill simply goes into the dishwasher after use. That’s it. No tiresome cleaning of the grill, no scrubbing of the grates, no nudes. An electric grill like this is simply incredibly practical. Electric grills are also quite inexpensive to buy and operate. There is also no waste such as ash, coal, or empty gas bottles.
Whether an electric grill is really considered a “real grill” or just a “somehow differently constructed pan”, and whether meat from an electric grill is considered to have any culinary value at all, is something we personally honk at. Yes, slowly and indirectly grilled meat from the kettle grill may taste different – but for sausages and simple pieces of meat, the electric grill is also always sufficient.
In the end, the question of which grill is the optimal one is something everyone has to decide for themselves anyway. No matter which grill you use – we hope you enjoy it. Enjoy it. Not only the meat but also what makes barbecuing special: the shared experience.