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BBQ 101 : Gas, Charcoal or Electric Grills

Updated on March 26, 2017
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Tracy has been in the gas grill industry for over 18 years. She has a Bachelors of Business Administration and manages The BBQ Depot Online.

Firemagic Aurora Gas Grill on FreeStanding Cart
Firemagic Aurora Gas Grill on FreeStanding Cart

Gas Grill Wishlist

Gas Grill Wishlist
Gas Grill Wishlist

Gas Grills

Gas grills are heralded for their speed and their precision. The speed comes from the fact that gas grills, which are fueled by natural gas or liquid propane, heat up quickly. Unlike charcoal grills, there is no need to spend time setting up and lighting the fuel and then waiting to have it heat up. With gas grills you simply turn on the gas, light the flame, and then wait about 10 minutes (or less) for the grill to be ready to go.

The precision comes from the fact that gas grills work similarly to your indoor stove, with knobs that allow you to control the intensity of your flame. These knobs give you more control over the temperature to which your food is exposed. Many gas grills also have several different burners, which means that you can cook several different types of food at a variety of temperatures. This allows you to place your meat on one burner and your vegetables on another, ensuring that each type of food is cooking to your satisfaction.

Pricing on gas grills can vary dramatically. To a few hundred dollars for a "throw-away grill" to thousands for USA made Stainless Steel Grills. You can also get one on a Freestanding cart or Built into a custom outdoor kitchen. The choices are almost endless. The price differences are attributed to type of metal used to manufacture the grill, quality of parts used in the grill, features, country of origin to name a few. Many grills has the potential of being accessorized with a variety of features. These features can include smoker trays, side burners, lights, infrared searing burners. This allows gas grills to fulfill many different cooking functions.

Gas grills are also beloved for their easy cleanup – especially due to the fact that there are no ashes to dispose of. However, for many BBQ aficionados the biggest drawback to a gas grill is the fact that it is harder to get the char and the smoky flavor that is characteristic of a traditional barbequed meal. For this you need to go to our next type of grill: charcoal.

Gas Grill Safety

Every year thousands of people enjoy the flavor of food that comes off the BBQ. At the same time, about 30 people per year are injured in a gas grill explosion. (Source: http://www.clevelandcounty.com/emfm/grillsaf.htm) In order to enjoy the food without the danger, there are several precautions that you need to take.

The first step in gas grill safety happens before you ever turn it on. Whether you’re using a new grill for the first time or firing up a grill you’ve had forever, preparing your grill properly will greatly reduce any potential gas explosions. Make sure that you are well versed in your manufacturer instructions for your particular grill, and refer to that manual whenever you have any questions.

Before you turn on the grill, you want to check for any gas leaks. Turn on the gas and if you can smell gas or detect a leak, immediately turn off the gas and do not try to light the grill until the leak is found and repaired. Do not attempt to repair the leak yourself, but call a professional repair person to inspect your grill. Once you know that the gas line is secure, check your tubes for any blockage and your hoses for any cracks, leaks or bends. Blockages can be cleared with pipe cleaner or wire and damaged tubing should be replaced.

Once your grill has been inspected, the second thing is to prepare the area around the grill, as well as yourself. Always use your gas grill outside, and keep it at least 10 feet away from any building. Remove your hoses from hot surfaces and dripping grease. Keep all children and pet away from the grill and make sure that you always have a fire extinguisher nearby. As an extra level of protection, never wear loose clothing while you are grilling and use utensils that are designed for grill use, as they keep you farther away from the fire.

If your grill does catch fire, there are several quick measures that you can take. If you are simply at the point that the fire in the grill in out of your control, first turn the burners off to extinguish the flame. If the fire is in one of the hoses, check to see if you have safe access to the propane tank valve and if you are safe, shut the tank valve off. If the fire is in the tank, or if you feel like you cannot extinguish it without causing harm to yourself, evacuate the area around the grill and call the fire department.

Fire Magic Built in Charcoal Grill
Fire Magic Built in Charcoal Grill

Charcoal Grills

Charcoal grills are the most traditional choice for BBQ. However, the first step in understanding a charcoal grill is understanding its fuel.

Charcoal is a piece of wood that has been burned down to the point that all water and resins have been removed. At this point, the wood becomes pure fuel. Charcoal has the ability to reach much higher temperatures than wood, with much less smoke.

The high temperatures reached by charcoal – up to 700 degrees F – makes charcoal the ideal fuel for creating a good char on the outside of a meat while keeping the inside pink and moist. For that reason, charcoal grills are the number one choice for steaks, burgers, and other meat such as lamb.

Since charcoal is a radiant heat fuel (which means that instead of warming the air, heat comes out of the charcoal and is absorbed into an object), charcoal is also the ideal fuel for long and slow cooking processes. The radiant process also infuses the delicious smoky flavor that is associated with BBQ into the food.

Charcoal grills are the top choice for BBQ pitmasters and enthusiasts. However, the nature of the charcoal grill can make it tricky for a beginner. Unlike gas grills, the level of control over temperature is low, and it can take a bit of practice in order to acquire your desired temperatures.

Another drawback to charcoal grills is the prep and cleaning time. You must first prepare and light the charcoal and then, once lit, it usually takes a minimum of 20 minutes to heat up to grilling temperatures. Charcoal grills must also be scrapped after every cooking and the ashes must be removed on a regular basis.

While it often takes more practice to get it right, most BBQ diehards swear by the cooking process and taste of the charcoal grill.

Charcoal grills can come in traditional kettle style, ceramic kamado or even 304 stainless steel models.

Charcoal Grill Safety

When you are getting ready to enjoy the wonders of a barbequed meal, the last thing that you want is to damper the occasion through a grill accident. Each type of grill has its own unique dangers as well as the precautions that you, as the griller, need to take to make sure that you and everyone around you remain safe.

One of the biggest dangers inherent to a charcoal grill is the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning. When charcoal is burned, it produces the colorless, odorless gas carbon monoxide that can quickly reach toxic levels. In fact, every year, there are about 30 people who are killed and 100 people that are injured from the carbon monoxide fumes that emit from charcoal grills. (Source: http://www.clevelandcounty.com/emfm/grillsaf.htm)

The easiest way to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning is to never use charcoal grills indoors. This includes homes, tents, and campers. Carbon monoxide accumulates quickest in closed environments and can reach toxic levels even when there is ventilation. Since carbon monoxide is emitted from coals until the moment they are completely extinguished, this also means that you should never store a grill inside that has freshly used coals.

Outside of carbon monoxide poisoning, there are other simple fire safety steps that you can take to make sure that you have no problems while you are at the grill. The first step is to properly prepare your grill. Keep it a safe distance from any buildings, tress, or other items that could catch fire. It is also extremely important that you keep any children or pets away from the designated grill area. Always keep a fire extinguisher nearby in the case of any small fire emergencies.

Specifically with charcoal, make sure that once your charcoal is lit that you refrain from adding additional lighter fluid. This is a dangerous practice lighter fluid turns to gas at low temperature. This means that as the fire can return into the fluid container, which will lead to an explosion. Always follow the instructions on the lighter fluid container.

The final steps in grill safety are how you prepare your personal self. Never wear loose clothing while you are grilling. Loose clothing can accidently pass over the flames, catching yourself on fire. The other big precautionary step is to always use appropriate, specifically designed grill utensils. Grill utensils have longer handles, which allow you to keep a safe distance away from the flame.

Electric Grills

While not as popular as the gas and charcoal grills, electric grills have made huge strides over the last few years, making them a viable choice for your BBQ.

Modern day electric grills rival the gas grill in terms of speed and precision. Electric grills have one of the fast heat up times, making them ideal for weeknight cooking.

Most grills heat up within 7-8 minutes, and a quality grill can reach up to 600 degrees F. Electric grills also reduce the hassle of having fuel, as all you need is an electrical outlet.

Another big advantage to electric grills is that they give an even heat across the entire cooking surface. This consistency erases the worry of keeping an even temperature or from developing hot or cold spots. Electrical grills are also easy to clean.

One final advantage to electric grills is the fact that they come in a variety of sizes. Some are small enough to keep inside you kitchen, while others are perfect for your balcony or backyard. Electric grills are often the top choice for apartment dwellers, for those who do not have a backyard conducive to a more traditional BBQ, or for those who want to BBQ a hamburger when it’s chilly outside.

The biggest disadvantage to an electric grill is that it can lack the “pure” BBQ flavor that is associated with a charcoal grill. While an electric grill can cook high quality food, its does not provide the same smoky flavor that many BBQ lovers crave.

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