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Charcoal Is Better.

July 8th, 2013 - 11:01 am

I’m forced to share with you the dumbest thing I have ever read, at least this week. You probably saw it already, since Glenn linked it a couple days ago — but I have to get my say in. Here’s Mark McClusky on why gas is better than charcoal:

Look, I like cooking on charcoal too — it has one indisputable advantage over gas: It gets much hotter. Glowing coals are at a temperature of about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit; while gas burns at around 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, there’s very little radiant heat from the flames.

And radiant heat is what’s really cooking your food on a grill.

The thing that cooks your food? Gas doesn’t do it as well. Which makes it… better?

I want you to perform an experiment — but only in your head, please. Take a beautiful, two-inch thick ribeye. Now stick it in the microwave for five or six minutes or however long it takes to cook to medium rare. Mmmm, do you see that gray hunk of flabby, wet animal flesh? Doesn’t it look delish?

No?

No.

What really makes the steak is the char on the outside, that crispy crunchy salty peppery caramelized meat. And to get a really good char you need really high heat. Ideally, that char should come from a cast iron grate over white-hot coals. The next best method is to cook indoors on a cast iron pan. In both cases, preheat that cast iron until it is hot. With a capital H-O-T. The trick isn’t just to get the cooking surface hot, it’s to keep it that way, even after throwing a heat-absorbing steak on it. Every degree your cooking surface cools down is a degree away from charred perfection.

The broiler setting on your oven will do a fair-to-middlin’ job, provided you remember to pre-heat the broiler pan. But those pans just don’t retain enough heat to do justice to good meat. A gas grill works much the same way as a gas oven — hot, but not hot hot. In fact, I can’t even call gas grilling “grilling.” It’s more like “baking outdoors.”

Perfection

Try as you might, gas just can’t make that happen. Sous vide chefs love their steaks done perfectly through from edge to edge. But what’s the last thing they do before serving? Use super-heated cast iron to get that perfect char. And there just aren’t enough BTUs in a propane tank to do that.

Finally, if you’re forced to cook with something called “flavor bars,” then you’re spending far too much money and effort to replicate what charcoal does cheaply and effortlessly.

So what’s the real reason McClusky prefers gas? He won’t devote the time to charcoal:

I can walk in my door with a bag of groceries at 6:30, and have grilled chicken on the table at 7, a happy family praising a delicious dinner. The most precious commodity in the world, the one resource that none of us has enough of, that’s constantly dwindling until we die, is time.

A gas grill claws back time for you every time you use it. Grill three times a week over the course of a summer, and you’ll have saved yourself a full day. A day!

I bet that chicken breast is skinless, too.

Anyway, if you really want to spend some quality time with your family, here’s a modest suggestion: BRING THEM OUT ON THE EFFING DECK WITH YOU.

Bonding around fire predates written history. I’d be willing to bet that conversation, togetherness, and half our primitive vocabularies were all invented around cooking fires. It’s bred into us, if such a thing is possible, to gather around flame to cook and enjoy one another’s company. You can do all that with a gas grill, but that’s not what McClusky is saying. He’s saying it’s all about the time he saves.

Does charcoal take longer? Sure. It might take 30-40 minutes to really get your grill going — 30-40 minutes spent out in the fresh air with a cocktail and the people you love. You’ll also teach your kids important things like how to safely start and tend a fire. How to take care. How to take time. And how to be together enjoying a timeless activity.

You’ll also teach them a thing or two about how to properly grill their food.

All of which says tons more to them than running late in the door with some flavorless chicken breasts, flicking a switch, and using gas to quickly make them slightly less flavorless.

Grilling over charcoal doesn’t cost me a day each summer. It gives me an evening with each meal.

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All Comments   (17)
All Comments   (17)
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The greatest steak restaurant in the world, Peter Luger, uses a gas (infra-red) broiler to cook steak better than you've ever had it in your life: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/13/Peter_Luger_Steak_for_four.jpg
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I’ve had Peter Luger’s steak. And it is absolutely awesome!

But they get the most perfect beef that exists in the world. And if you want to experience the ultimate beef, for the sake of tasting the beef itself, then yes, gas can deliver. You will taste the beef, and nothing else. That makes sense to me, with meat of such distinction.

But I bet it would taste even better if it had a hint of wood smoke! I doubt I’ll ever have a chance to compare the two side by side. In fact, it would probably be a waste to taint such beef with even a hint of wood.

Having tasted both, I still prefer a smoky choice rib eye, cooked over wood or charcoal, to a well aged super-prime rib eye, which presents the best taste unadulterated beef can offer when cooked to perfection.

Not to mention the fact that it’s a hell of a lot cheaper. And available in my backyard….

Don’t get me wrong. If you like this stuff, you really should try it all. It’s all good! And it’s the only way to learn.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Lugers solved the lack of wood smoke issue by slathering each steak with a good half pound of melted butter. Their solution is.. effective.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Can’t we all just get along???

I grill year ‘round (and do sous vide too!) I own at least 6 charcoal/wood grills and smokers, 4 gas grills, 2 electric smokers, and one electric “grill”.

Gas and charcoal both have their place.

Gas pros: Fast, easy, clean, and convenient. It gets hot enough to do a decent job (especially if you use a cast iron pan or griddle on top of the grill for final searing). And with a metal box for holding wood chunks or chips, it can ALMOST equal charcoal for flavor.

One aspect of gas that’s seldom mentioned is that it releases a huge amount of water vapor as it burns. This can be OK for low and slow cooking, but a deal breaker for searing. That’s why you need a hunk of metal or ceramic somewhere in the equation for decent searing with gas.

The biggest disadvantage for me though, is that gas is practically unusable (for grilling) below about 38 degrees F. So all of my winter grilling is done over charcoal or wood (some of it done inside in the woodstove).

Electric smokers are great, once you get the hang of them. Not for steaks, but they can put out a divine burger.

Charcoal is guaranteed dry heat. Wood can be mixed wet/dry. And there is no substitute for the lignin (and other wood compound) effects on flavor and aroma. My favorite steaks come from charcoal with chunks of red oak added on top.

A good cast iron pan/griddle sear with an oven finish (or vice versa, which I actually prefer) will get you close to a gas grilled steak, and sous vide/sear is even better. Still can’t get the wood smoke effect, though, but I keep trying. I’ve even made my own liquid smoke!

I also have a pressure cooker smoker. It’s great for some dishes (beef chuck and brisket, or pork or chicken in any form), but it’s not good at all for steaks.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Nonsense. You can cook perfectly well over gas.

1) Take two old iron grittles and place them on a sturdy steel rack.
2) Heat the underside of one to cherry red with an acetylene torch (~1400 deg). Heat the other to light orange (~2,400 deg).
3) Sear on orange, finish on red (which will by now be ~1k degrees, perfect for finishing).

Can't cook a steak with gas, my eye.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Heh.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
" Ideally, that char should come from a cast iron grate over white-hot coals."

Nitpick: The coals are white from ash, and are hot. They are not "white-hot", which is around 10,000 degrees Kelvin (and indicates more UV than visible light; think arc welding).

White hot coals would not only destroy your grill, they'd charcoal the meat itself directly.

(I never grill, for space and "leaving a grill outside would end up with someone stealing it for scrap metal when I'm gone for the weekend" reasons, but I do my steaks on an insanely hot piece of cast iron over a gas burner, indoors, for a proper sear.

So I respect charcoal, but don't idolize it.

And frankly, I've been to Very Good Steakhouses. And not a one of them uses charcoal; every last one uses gas heat.)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I switched from gas to charcoal five years ago and will never go back. I used to be a pro griller on gas with "lava" rocks, but never again. I use only organic lump charcoal, not the powdered and reformed "briquets." Only organic, grass-fed beef, too. For me, it's "alone" time, which can be precious. Stand there with a nice beer or a bourbon on ice and tend to the grilling...almost heaven, even if it is 95 degrees outside. Cook them fast and you get the nice caramelized outside which seals in the juice and tenderizes the medium rare meat.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
My wife was good enough to get me a smoker for Christmas, so now I can spend hours out on the deck. But I also discovered the joys of using lump charcoal. (You can't use briquettes in the smoker; not without risking ruining your meat.) So I started using it on the grill, too -- and love it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Some of my fondest childhood memories were created around our charcoal grill where my Dad, who taught me how to grill with skill, would cook cuts of beef that would make Fred Flintstone envious. [Were cows bigger in the sixties? My recollection is that we got single cuts of sirloin large enough to feed our family plus our neighbors] Anyway, your point about making charcoal grilling a family activity hits the nail on the head -- it provided an opportunity for talking and just communing together.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I hear ya, in a perfect world charcoal is better. But a really good gas grille is good enough, and has some advantages in the time and safety department. My grilling area is a covered wooden deck facing the west, charcoal would be a major fire hazard, while propane is only a minor hazard in comparison. On a breezy evening (and most of them have been breezy this year) I can safely grill without fear of lit charcoal ash blowing around.

My fifteen year old Weber gas unit gets hot enough for a proper sear on its cast iron bars for most uses, even steaks, although a truly thick steak would benefit from charcoal, if we had the extra time in a busy schedule, and a concrete surface protected from the wind. The grass-fed beef I get from a farmer buddy is usually not the two-inch thick stuff, plenty tasty on a very hot gasser.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Bravo. Well put sir. Charcoal has heat "volume" that even the most expensive gas grills won't match. I've even experimented with dropping the steak directly onto the charcoal itself (natural oak only of course) for an insane char experience. It's so hot that no soot is transferred. Delish.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Must. Try. This.

We have plenty of lump charcoal for the smoker, but I never dreamed of using it for truly direct heat.

Must. Try. This.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The better gas grills use ceramic radiant bricks that provide even distribution of heat and emit enough heat to get the racks hot.

Also, if you want a fast light on a charcoal grill, the better models use gas burners to light the charcoal.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Again, you're spending far too much money and effort to replicate what charcoal does cheaply and effortlessly.

I use an electric starter for my Weber, but only because we finally ran out of newspaper for the chimney starter.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Real simple and w/ an electric stove which I hate.

Cast iron on burner. Get it NASA hot.
Pre-heat oven to 300ish. Again, crappy electric oven.
Steak on the hot skillet for 1-2min per side.
Then in to the oven for 4min per side depending on thickness.

=perfect steak.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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