Charcoal vs. Gas Grilling: A Scientific Look at Which Method is Better

published Jul 24, 2013
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Grilling purists may look down their noses at gas grills, but no one can argue with the fact that grilling over gas is quicker and easier than using charcoal. But you’re giving up taste for convenience, the pro-charcoal argument goes. Is that true? Wired took a scientific look at the differences between grilling over charcoal versus gas and found some good news: the method you favor is probably the better choice.

Yes, that’s right. If you prefer cooking over gas, you probably appreciate the convenience of being able to come home from work and have a grilled dinner on the table in less than an hour. Grilling over gas still results in flavorful food, argues the pro-gas-grilling Mark McClusky:

The characteristic flavor of grilled food comes from the drippings, not the fuel. When those drippings hit the heat source below, the oils, sugars, and proteins burst into smoke and flame. That heat creates new complex molecules that rise in the smoke and warm air to coat the food you’re grilling.

Nothing in that process relies on charcoal.

But if charcoal is your preferred fuel, perhaps you do discern the difference in flavor when food is grilled over wood. According to Gavin Sacks, associate professor of food science at Cornell University, there is a compound called guaiacol that is unique to charcoal-cooked food:

Guaiacol is an aroma compound produced when you use heat to break down lignin, the resin responsible for holding strands of cellulose together to form wood. “It has a smoky, spicy, bacony aroma,” says Sacks. “In fact, the flavor that most people associate with bacon is largely degraded lignin.”

Translation: Cooking over charcoal makes your food taste like bacon. Let me repeat that: blah blah charcoal blah blah BACON.

So go ahead and stand behind whichever method you prefer. Quick and convenient meals versus food that tastes more like bacon — the choice is yours.

Which do you prefer: charcoal or gas grilling?

(Image: senk/Shutterstock)