What’s the Difference Between a Gas Grill and a Charcoal Grill?

published May 29, 2017
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(Image credit: Anjali Prasertong)

The battle of charcoal versus gas grills is one for the ages — and the grilling enthusiasts in your life are sure to have strong opinions. But if you’re considering buying a grill for the first time or, perhaps thinking about making the switch from #teamgas to #teamcharcoal (or vice versa), what are the key factors you should consider? We’ve laid it all out here.

(Image credit: Kristin Teig)

The Pros and Cons of a Charcoal Grill

There are a few reasons to opt for a charcoal grill, not least of which is cost. You can get a charcoal grill for less than $100 (and in some cases a lot less, although you can also pay well over $100). A charcoal grill also offers that true, cooked-over-a-fire feeling. It might be flavor, but it might also be the thrill of cooking over a charcoal grill! It’s more primal, but also less convenient and not as easy to control as a gas grill.

Pro: It’s affordable and portable.

If you like to grill while you’re camping or while tailgating for the big game, there are affordable, small charcoal options that are perfect for just grilling up a couple of burgers. Even a slightly pricier model is more cost-effective and mobile than most gas grill options.

Pro: It can get really, really hot.

With practice and patience, you can stoke those coals until they are a solid 700°F. This is generally hotter than most gas grills get and ideal if you want the perfect sear on your steak.

Pro: It’s the king of that true grilled flavor.

Often imitated, never quite duplicated, if you really want to have that char-grilled taste, this is the best way to do it — although be warned that if you use lighter fluid, you might end up with a flavor that’s more like, well, lighter fluid.

Con: You probably need a charcoal chimney.

A charcoal chimney is a hollow metal cylinder with a grate inside and handles. You fill it with charcoal, place it on top of your grill, and use newspaper or lighter cubes to get your charcoal hot. When you’re ready, you just transfer the hot coals to your grill and get cooking. It’s not all that complicated and it’s also not expensive (a charcoal chimney will probably cost around $10 to $15), but it’s an extra step and an extra piece of equipment.

Con: It’s more annoying to clean.

Part of the benefit of grilling in the summer is that the whole process is breezier than cooking in your oven or on a stove — there are no pots and pans to deal with or clean up! But charcoal grills can get messy. Chances are, you’ll have to clean up ash and grease after every use, and with a gust of wind you’ll also have to contend with ash all over your deck or patio.

Con: It might be illegal.

Some apartment complexes ban charcoal grills. It usually has to do with the high heat, the fact that you can’t turn them on and off, and the reality of ash and cinder blowing around in the wind (and potentially igniting any wood nearby). Definitely check on any restrictions before you buy one.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

The Pros and Cons of a Gas Grill

There are some cooking tools that can make you feel like you should have a PhD — candy thermometers, mandolines, and pressure cookers, we’re looking at you. The gas grill, though, is not one of those. Its ease of use is the main thing a gas grill has going for it. But you’ll pay for that convenience.

Pro: It’s easy to use.

If you have used a stove, you can use a gas grill. You operate each burner with a dial, turn the heat up or down to customize, and quickly turn it off when you’re done. It’s so easy, you can multi-task: Fire it up, start cooking, and just check in on your meal every few minutes while you chat with friends, prep the rest of the dinner, or even fold laundry!

Pro: It’s relatively quick.

We usually recommend allowing 30 minutes for your gas grill to really heat up, but it’s probably safe to say it’ll be hot in closer to 15 minutes. That means that you can get your food on the table pronto, which gives you more time for, well, everything else in your life.

Con: It’s expensive.

Gas grill options start at around $200 and to get something in durable stainless steel, with great heating, it’s likely to cost closer to $500 (with options ranging into the multiple-thousands mark!).

Con: You’ll need gas.

If you decide to have a gas grill, you’ll need to be able to fuel it — either through a natural gas line that’s connected to your house, or by keeping a propane tank filled. Adding a gas line to your outdoor area is a costly endeavor, so most people opt for propane tanks. It adds about $20 to the cost to buy an actual tank, and then around $20 every time you have to fill it (which all depends on how much you use it!).