It's Grillin' Time. Charcoal or Gas?

Charcoal The age old debate rages on between grill masters the world over:  charcoal or gas?  Feelings on this one are strong, and nobody is likely to change anyone else's mind.  But it's worth looking at the advantages and disadvantages of both.  Read on to see if you agree. Now you're cooking with gas! The biggest advantage of using a gas-fired barbecue grill is convenience.  You can decide on the spur of the moment you want a burger, fire up the grill and you will be cooking in under 5 minutes.  Inside 15 minutes your burgers will be done and you're ready to eat.  In the "microwave-I-want-it-now" society we live in, the ability to think about it and do it -- almost in the same breath -- is huge. The downside of gas grills is that the flavor they impart is not a true "wood-fired" taste.  Yes, gas grills have "flavor blocks" in the firebox that are treated and can be re-treated to help the meat taste like it was cooked over a wood fire.    But to a purist, that's like saying, "This imitation orange juice tastes just like fresh-squeezed."  Of course anyone who's had real orange juice will notice the difference immediately.  The same is true in barbecuing. Your clue that it's not authentic is when the manufacturer has to say, "Tastes just like......" Out of the frying pan and into the fire! There's something magical about a charcoal fire.  The coals burning low and the red and orange flames dancing around are almost magical.  And the flavor!  Did we mention the flavor?  Cooking meat over a bed of coals from pure, hardwood, lump charcoal creates a specialized flavor that is un-duplicatable. I remember the first time I realized how much different cooking over charcoal is.  I was in a little roadside restaurant in Mexico,.  I ordered the arrachera steak.  When it came out, the flavor was so intense and so perfect for beef, I asked the waiter what the meat was spiced with.  He looked puzzled and said, "Salt and pepper."  I figured he didn't understand what I was talking about, so I asked if I could go back and speak with the cook.  He agreed and I went to the kitchen.  In talking with the cook, and watching him cook more steaks, I realized the waiter was right.  Salt and pepper on a skirt steak cooked over hardwood, lump charcoal.  That was the only difference from other steaks I had eaten.  Just good beef cooked over charcoal.  Plain and simple, and the best steak I ever ate. Of course the downside of charcoal is it's anything but fast.  First you have to figure out how to light it.  If you're going for the perfect flavor, you're never going to use lighter fluid.  That would be sacrilege.  You use a chimney with paper soaked in cooking oil. Then you have to wait for all the pieces to catch fire, and "cook down" to where they are pure grey before you can cook.  That process from start to finish is a good 30 minutes.  So there's no rushing here. Your reward for planning ahead and exercising patience, is you'll have the best steak you ever had.  I seldom bother with charcoal for burgers.  It's too time consuming and after you load the burger with all the garbage we put on burgers, you really can't tell the difference anyway.  But for steaks......  No question.  Well worth the wait. Of course there are other pros and cons for both.  But, usually, it's convenience vs. flavor.  Those who will do anything to have their steaks taste the best it possibly can be will use nothing but charcoal.  Those who prefer convenience won't be bothered with the hassle of charcoal, figuring gas is "good enough for who it's for." Like I said in the beginning, nobody changes their mind.  What you believe you will continue to believe -- and the debate will rage on.  At the end of the day, the important thing is that you're grilling.  Getting outside to cook is a primal thing.  It feels good no matter what you're cooking over.  So no matter whether you use gas or charcoal, get out and get grilling!

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