Long before we pick up the tongs and crack open the first of seventeen-or-so stubby beers we have to ask the big question; charcoal or gas? The debate over which fuel is best can take on almost tribal dimensions, fraught with foodie orthodoxy. In truth, both camps have their good points and choosing between them is mostly about deciding what barbecuing means to you.
In a rush?
The great British barbecue tends to see us throwing sausages on the grate while we keep a wary eye on the great British weather. With a gas grill you can get your cooking surface up to temperature quickly, grill for hours without worrying about maintaining a steady heat, and have no ashy mess to contend with when you’re done. Generally speaking, that canister of propane frees up time and allows you to be more spontaneous and carefree. If that appeals and your idea of a barbecue involves quick cooking over high heat (which covers burgers, steaks, and sausages) then chances are you’ll be happy on the propane train.
All about the char
There’s no denying, however, that even modern propane grills struggle to deliver the same kind of heat that charcoal does. For all the additional mess and potential for faff, natural fuels inherently provide radiated and infra-red heat that promises a better sear on meats and vegetables. You already know if the level of sear on your chops is going to affect your enjoyment of a barbecue – it’s the kind of thing that either matters to you or it doesn’t.
Slowly does it
But for Alastair Instone of the London Barbecue School, the choice of fuel isn’t just about heat, it’s about options. ‘With charcoal grills you can cook directly but often you can also use them like an oven to slow cook. You can also start adding other things to fire, like wood to create smoke. While that’s all possible on a gas grill it’s far less straightforward.’ He also notes that there is variety to be found in the type of charcoal you choose, ‘you can get radically different flavours by using different charcoals, it almost becomes an ingredient in the finished dish.’
Copy the professionals
For professional chefs, the analogue approach is well worth the effort. No new restaurant in London seems complete without a wood-fired grill and house-smoked charcuterie. It’s a trend championed by restaurateur Ben Chapman who since 2014 has been combining nose-to-tail cooking and natural fuels to make quite an impact on the restaurant scene. His Soho outpost Kiln runs entirely on Charcoal and produces regional Thai food so good that it was named the best restaurant in the country at the National restaurant awards in 2018. Would the aged mutton skewers at Kiln be quite so good if they were cooked over gas? Perhaps not.
The London Barbecue School offers classes that use ceramic, Japanese style barbecues like the now iconic Big Green Egg (You know the one; they use them on Great British Menu). The design promises better heat retention and steadier temperatures than thin walled kettle barbecues.
Starting at around £800 they’re not cheap, but Alastair is quick to say that charcoal cooking doesn’t necessarily require a big investment. ‘Fire is the oldest technology there is. The higher-end barbecues will sometimes make the process easier and more manageable but they’re not essential. With a bit of practice, you can get great results out of an inexpensive barbecue. ‘
It seems that to the enthusiast, charcoal’s appeal is in its flexibility and the rewards that come with learning how to use it: smoked briskets, slow cooked ribs, and a whole range of different flavours.
Best of both
In his 2013 book Cooked, food writer Michael Pollan writes extensively about American barbecue culture. He covers pit masters tending charcoal fires for days at a time, whole-hog cookery, and a tradition that resoundingly says ‘If it’s not cooked with wood it’s not Bar-B-Q’. But when it comes time to replicate the techniques he witnessed, Pollan arrives at a combination of wood smoke and consistent gas grill to achieve the best results.
This kind of two-step setup isn’t feasible or even necessary for most of us, but it does make a good case for each fuel having its merits. If you want the plug and play convenience of gas and you fire your propane barbecue up every other weekend the gas may well be for you. And, although charcoal may be labour-intensive, messy and a tad unpredictable, it will always win on taste.
The London Barbecue School’s online shop is open for business. The owners hope to resume classes soon.