Gas or charcoal? It is a question that has bedeviled American consumers and cooks for decades, since the first LazyMan propane grill went on sale in the 1950s and left the Smiths with their briquette-fueled brazier looking jealously over the fence at the Joneses and their new outdoor science stove.
In the abstract, there is no one correct answer. You can have affirmative responses to the use of either fuel. You can stack them as high as summer corn.
For instance: You get great smoky flavor and an unparalleled crust from cooking over or beside coals or wood. That said, on a Wednesday night there is little easier than lighting a gas grill after softball practice and cooking a bunch of brats for the team. There are positives and negatives to each form of fire, depending on what you are cooking, and when and for how long.
“We are way past ‘versus,’” said Adam Perry Lang, a barbecue chef from New York who built his career on food enhanced by the flavors and scent of wood smoke. Lang said that at home, he cooked over propane, and that, in some cases, he actually preferred gas to charcoal or wood. “They’ve gotten very good,” he said of gas grills. “You can make some really, really good food with a gas grill.”
A lot of people do, or try to. Roughly 180 million Americans have some kind of grill in the yard, on the patio or sitting out on the deck, according the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a trade group. Of that number, said Eric Davis, a spokesman for the association, roughly 62 percent have gas grills, and 50 percent own charcoal-fired ones — which suggests that at least 12 percent (or something in the neighborhood of 20 million Americans) might employ both gas and charcoal grills in their pursuit of outdoor cooking joy. Davis is among them. “My gas one is a little more convenient,” he said. “It all depends on how much time I have.”
So which to buy? Or which to use? Chefs and experts, as well as a few days spent testing both gas…